Arguments for the Sake of Heaven: Emerging Trends in Traditional Judaism

Arguments for the Sake of Heaven: Emerging Trends in Traditional Judaism, By Jonathan Sacks. Jason Aronson, Inc. February 1991. $25.00.Reviewed by Michael Berger

Theories of history, particularly of social history, develop slowly. For the most part, they do not emerge full-blown, offering sweeping accounts of a wide range of data. Rather, their initial framework is much more limited, explaining only certain phenomena. Later, as the approach is subsequently refined and furthered by other scholars (if accepted), it may be seen to have a much wider scope and explanatory force than was previously assumed. And some theories, confident of their analysis of the past, are even prepared to offer suggestions for the future.

Over the last twenty years, and particularly in the 1980s, sociologists have turned their attention to contemporary Jewry. Biography (or hagiography) of individuals or institutions no longer dominate the literature. “Studies” of the different denominations within America, and the religious and secularist populations in Israel have begun to proliferate. Charles Liebman's The Ambivalent American Jew (1973), Stephen Sharot's Judaism: A Sociology (1976), and Samuel Heilman's more focused Synagogue Life (1976) have all offered analyses of Jewish living in the United States which employ not only statistics but hands-on observations. The descriptions are rich and the analyses thoughtful, if at times a bit comical, as looking in the mirror often can be.

The last decade has seen a flurry of such works on narrower subjects, ranging from particular groups within Jewish society, such as charedim Friedman's article in Studies in Contemporary Jewry (Moshe Shokeid's Children of Circumstances), to particular issues of sociological importance, such as intermarriage (Egon Mayer's Love and Tradition} and birthrates (Paul Ritterbrand's Modern Jewish Fertility). Charles Silberman's A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives (1985) was extremely popular, perhaps owing to its rosy conclusions which ran counter to the earlier doomsayers of the future of American Jewry. For the most part, these authors offered a phenomenological study of their subjects, which were, according to the canons of their science, appropriately circumscribed demographically.

This new, if somewhat parochial discipline -- “the sociology of Judaism” -- has reached an early maturity in the hands of Great Britain's new Chief Rabbi. In this highly readable work, Rabbi Sacks has accomplished two major goals. The first is putting the many sociological studies, present and past included, in a broader historical context. How religious Zionists conduct themselves in Israel is not just described, but placed against the backdrop of the dominance of secular Zionism in the first half of this century, and the events of 1948 and particularly 1967, which had messianic overtones for many in this camp. Rabbi Sacks' command of the philosophical material, such as the thought of the elder and younger Rabbis Kook, assist him immensely in weaving a tale that escorts us through the last two centuries, beginning with the offer of emancipation in late 18th century France through the present day.

According to Rabbi Sacks (and most contemporary historians, particularly Jacob Katz), that offer turned out to be critical juncture for modern Jewry, eliciting a variety of responses, from Zionism and Reform Judaism, to Hirschian (German) integration and traditionalist rejection, all of which survive today, albeit in altered forms. The text incorporates, yet moves far beyond, the thick descriptions of earlier sociological studies by presenting them in this historical narrative. Political and historical events are seen to be the catalysts of sociological and ideological response or revision. Such an approach benefits both disciplines: our sense of Jewish history is enriched by knowledge of the lively ideological debates which raged in the wake of historical events, and our understanding and appreciation on of the diverse strategies are deepened by being aware of the initial contexts in which they flourished. However, intentionally or not, this integrated overview also implicitly questions the relevance of some of these approaches given the irrevocable changes in age and setting. Simply put, the challenges and circumstances which gave each strategy its credibility and viability may no longer hold true, and the sooner each approach faces that reality the better it will be able to cope with the contemporary situation.

Rabbi Sacks also repeatedly shows us his keen eye for irony and paradox. For instance, Reform has reversed its original anti-Zionist position and now sees the State of Israel's existence as critical to Jewish life in the Diaspora--yet it does not advocate Aliyah. Across the ocean, Zionist idealogues no longer publicly deny the possibility of a Jewish future outside of Israel, but they risk irrelevance if they make that clear. In the pluralism of Western culture, Orthodoxy seeks legitimacy as the true bearer of Jewish tradition, but cannot accord any other branch that courtesy without denying its essence. These, and many other observations, set in a clear historical narrative of past and present, yield a sweeping and insightful overview of Jewry as it has confronted and continues to confront modernity.

The second, and, by admission, more significant goal this book sets for itself is the direction which Jewry should take in light of this analysis. Relying on the past to guide us in the future, Rabbi Sacks offers a bold, creative and at times compelling suggestion where Jews must go from here. Firstly, the hero who emerges from the historical narrative is, for the Chief Rabbi of England, self-evident. The last two hundred years' history proves traditional Orthodoxy's basic (indeed exclusive) legitimacy in its tenacity and contemporary resurgence, as compared to other groups. However, another unavoidable fact of modern Jewish life is that the other denominations, the other strategies, are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. He decries contemporary calls for Jewish unity and pluralism as unrealistic and fundamentally misguided. To disguise the essential differences which exist between secular and religious Israelis, and among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews is dishonest, while talk of pluralism is simply unavailable within the tradition. While there is convergence in many areas, clearly Reform legitimation of homosexuality and its policy on conversion and patrilincal descent are divides which are impossible to bridge with many Conservative and virtually all Orthodox Jews. Lofty and attractive concepts such as “Klal Yisrael” and Jewish unity cannot mask these fundamental gaps.

Therefore, Rabbi Sacks proposes, as the title suggests, a recovery of another idea,well-rooted in the Jewish tradition: "machloket le-shem shamayim," argument for the sake of heaven. Every person familiar with the classic Jewish texts, both legal and philosophical (not to mention homiletical), is well aware of the ubiquity of disagreement, of diversity of opinion. At least half a dozen views are sprinkled over every page of Talmud, and no major issue of Jewish thought, from description of the Messianic age to Divine corporeality, enjoys unanimous consent. Rather than assume that there is no one right answer to any question of Jewish value, Rabbi Sacks suggests that Judaism is best understood as “a set of axes of tension: between universalism and particularism, action and passivity, freedom and constraint, individual and community, equality and hierarchy, past and future, timelessness and responsiveness to time.”(p. 226) The balance struck between these opposing values depends on the person, place, and time.

This is not to say anything goes. Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Abaye and Rava all disagreed, but they were within a shared universe of discourse. Despite the omnipresence of debate in the Talmud, there is actually more agreement than disagreement. But when opposing forces and values are no longer linked in a single argument, this structure begins to fall apart. The positions taken are polarized, each claiming exclusive validity, even as the tradition is more complex and hardly monochromatic. This, then, is to be the unique role of Modern Orthodoxy: to advocate a tradition which recognizes a variety of positions, to mediate between the extreme and polar views in an environment of shared argument, even as practice is kept somewhat uniform.

The major problem, of course, is how to incorporate all the various opinions of Reform and Orthodox, of secularist and religious into one argument. This goal, the author admits, is elusively distant, but he proposes seeing it as a process rather than as an immediate, all-or-nothing aim. Much as the Messianic dream is prayed for incrementally, from an initial ingathering of exiles and restoration of judges to rebuilding Jerusalem and an ultimate reinstatement of a Davidic monarch, so, too, could traditional Judaism take a long-range approach to the dream of a Judaism which includes many voices, even if the other parties do not yet agree to the limits of this discussion.

This unabashedly honest and hearteningly optimistic prognosis cannot but impress the average Jewish reader, and even allow the traditional Orthodox Jew to kvell a little. However, would a Reform Jew or secular Israeli feel just as proud, just as positive about this outlook? Is the contemporary resurgence of Orthodoxy an authentic sign of its legitimacy, or another temporary phenomenon in Jewish social history (perhaps as a knee-jerk response to the Holocaust) which reflects little on the other forms of Judaism? Rabbi Sacks repeatedly rejects the expression “branches of Judaism” -- he insists, as did Samson Raphael Hirsch, that there is only one Judaism, and that is one committed to Jewish tradition and its sacred texts. But this is exactly the issue over which Reform and Orthodox argue: what is the essence of Judaism? Reform Jews see ethical monotheism as Judaism's core, while secular Israelis consider the religious minority to reflect a diaspora aberration which emasculates the true Jewish spirit. With all this fierce competition for the soul of Judaism, Rabbi Sacks seems rather confident that Modern Orthodoxy can bring these other voices into the conversation without making them feel that their integrity has been compromised.

Several years ago, there was a conference in Jerusalem in honor of Rabbi Abraham Kook. The subject of one session was the popular Rabbi's famed love for all Jews, particularly secular Jews, even as he hoped they would one day become observant. Yinniyahu Yovel, an internationally renowned philosopher and a member of the panel, questioned the authenticity of a love which aims at, or simply hopes for the changing of one of the partners. The tradition has a term for that as well -- ahavah she-teluyah be-davar -- conditional love. To modern sensibilities, that is just plain immoral.

Rabbi Sacks must be commended for his astute and perceptive analysis of the Jewish past and present since emancipation. But his proposal, provocative and inclusive, is argued from a position of strength, within a climate of self-confidence. There is little call for the Orthodox to give up any of their essential claims of self-definition and practice, something the others must do if they are to enter the dialogue, even as disputants. Would he have suggested the same thirty years ago?

Michael Berger is writing a dissertation in Philosophy of Religion at Columbia University.

All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011