I have been working for quite some time now trying to create a Judaism that encourages critical thinking and rational beliefs while at the same time retaining traditional practices to keep a continuous sense of itself. Movements like Humanistic Judaism express the former value far over the latter one, while Orthodoxy clearly retains the latter value far over the former. I believe that both systems are ultimately untenable in the face of modern scholarship and modern acculturation rates.
Orthodoxy refuses to acknowledge modern scholarship and puts the ultimate authority in the opinions of rabbinic scholars of past ages who’s views become more and more anachronistic with time. With the contemporary conservative nature of most strains of Orthodoxy, it will necessarily become more and more insular and isolated as it tries to keep its adherents from experiencing the subversive thoughts of the free world. This internally enforced ghetto-ization is, by and large, the future of Orthodoxy in America. I do not doubt that this strategy can work for a long period of time, but it is firstly offensive to the human spirit of freedom and free inquiry, as well as to the basic values of education and the pursuit of truth. It is also secondarily problematic because in this isolation, the Jewish future in America (and in the Diaspora in general) cannot grow. It will subsist on medieval mentality, always looking inward, and never contributing to history or the world in general. It is a philosophical and religious dead end.
Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, freely and openly encourages freedom of thought, an appreciation for the latest scientific or philosophical breakthroughs, and its adherents are fully integrated into general society. However, I believe it suffers from being too independent. Judaism is not a necessary part of these peoples’ lives, it’s just a nice subplot. Their philosophy on life is first and foremost typical Humanism with an appreciation for Jewish culture tacked on. Not that I have anything against Humanism per se, but it just isn’t particularly Jewish. What is keeping these Humanistic Jews involved in Judaism? What’s keeping them Jews? Their Judaism is essentially nostalgic rather than active. It’s part of their past but not of their present and so their future is up for grabs. This form of Judaism is naturally diffusive and the Jewish content and Jewish identity will fade as the generations assimilate into secular society.
A Judaism that is freely investigative while being true to tradition is what is needed for the twenty first century. Yet not just true to tradition in a nostalgic sense, but one that meaningfully engages Jewish practice on a daily basis.
The first thing that I think this new form of Judaism needs to retain is a sense of God and that there is more to human existence than mere chance would offer. As far as we know there is only one universe and we are currently living in it. It has many remarkable properties, most of all being that it presents an ordered reality from which everything in the universe can exist. Its physical laws are likewise tuned to enable the genesis of stuff - complex stuff like planets and people. What brought it all into being? What keeps it going?
The idea of a superuniverse, as some offer as explanation, with the power to create unlimited other universes (multiverse hypothesis) all with variable properties is impossible to prove or disprove - at least at this time. It is believed, generally, not on the evidence, but by those who do not wish to see our existence as unique. This whole superorder of reality, while fun in a science fiction sense, strains serious credulousness.
One can also answer that perhaps the universe has always existed in some form or another. Maybe it cycles through Big Bangs and Big Crunches. Maybe it is always creating new Big Bangs, always adding new material to existence. Maybe our universe is just the recent extension of a few dimensions of some higher dimension of space-time. Maybe since "time" itself only began with the Big Bang, it can be said to have existed for all of "time." But still here we suffer from the question of where did the order come from? How is the universe so accommodating towards complexity?
It also suffers here by contradiction with the evidence before us. The age of the universe is dated and there is no sign of previous existence. The principle of rising entropy appears to making a cycling universe unlikely and ideas like many Big Bangs or extended dimensions are simple speculations with no true foundations. Defining time to produce a self-enclosed universe begs the question.
My idea is that existence itself is predicated on some fundamental principle and that this fundamentally existing principle is God. There must be some principle from which the universe has arisen and some fundamental substructure of the universe which keeps it on its course. God is the Source and the Sustainer of all that is. We cannot remove God’s presence from the universe anymore than we can remove, say, in an imperfect analogy, the electromagnetic force from a bicycle. There could be no bicycle without the fundamental laws of physics keeping it together. This idea is not new. As Maimonides once stated, "To believe in the existence of the Creator, may He be blessed, i.e., that there is an Existence that is perfect (and absolute) in all facets of existence. He is the cause of all that exists, the sustenance of all, and through Him all is maintained. There is no possibility that He does not exist because without Him, all existence would cease to be and nothing would remain."
God is not just the First Cause, He continues within the universe being part of every thing that happens and all that exists. Like the fundamental properties of the universe take part within each interaction, God works in the continued of existence of all things. God is the ultimate reality.
Now, what is the nature of God, of the ultimate reality? Is it intelligent? Does it have a will? Is it morally inclined? I don’t know. I don’t even think it is appropriate to use these very human terms on what is very different from humanity. It may make absolutely no sense to make the comparison. We have a very mysterious, yet still very real being that all of humanity is trying to apprehend in their own ways. The scientist uses the methodology of science to understand reality. The mystic tries to divine it through his own intuition. The philosopher uses reason to the best of his ability.
Yet it may very well be that this Being is beyond human comprehension. Our science falls short, our mysticism often proves impotent, and our reason is limited. One may then, arguably, take the stance of the positivist or rational skeptic. Since we have no direct evidence telling us what God is like - or even exists - then we ought to make no claim at all and remain rooted in rational skepticism. No leaps for us. But this stance is a limited one. Yes, positivism is useful in ensuring that you do not hold wrong opinions, but it also keeps you from accepting correct opinions that may nevertheless be correct even without direct evidence in its favor. It is more rational to take some stance on the matter then to ignore such a central aspect of our lives, even if the evidence to base the decision on is sorely lacking.
Once we have recognized that God does exist, the next step in our philosophy is to recognize that the ultimate purpose in human life is to try and apprehend what God is, what reality is, and how it relates to us as human beings. Anything else we do in life is either superficial or tangential to this primary objective. To ignore this goal is to devolve into simple hedonism or other short-sighted ambitions. Power, wealth, pleasure - all are insignificant in light of the search for understanding of ourselves, our world, and of how and why we are here today. If there is anything of human civilization that is truly of value, it is the pursuit of knowledge and its passing to us.
This then leads us to the purpose of Judaism, in general. Judaism is ultimately about retaining sacred knowledge and of ensuring its passage through the generations. Long ago it was the Jews who first conceived of a great single unified God of universal import who ruled the entire world and was equally God to all men. This was unheard of, yet it was the Jews who first conceived of it and who have successfully brought it down to modern day. And that message has spread around the world with ramifications on a global scale.
Yet more than that, Judaism maintains great truths about human nature and ethics. And Judaism embodies a concept of progress, that the future will be better than the past, which has strengthened men’s hearts and driven them to action. Social justice, tzedaka, genuineness, humility, honesty, reliability, gemilut chasadim, etc. are all hallmarks of Jewish life. A strong sense of the family unit and of the importance of history and of heritage and of education are requirements in a Jewish system of living. All of these things and more are part and parcel of the whole of Jewish civilization.
It is these parts of the Jewish tradition that need to be maintained as a heritage to our children. But in order to understand where these values come from the whole context of Jewish civilization and its progress over time needs to be taught as well. Familiarity with our basic texts: the Tanach, the Talmud, Midrash, etc. are a requirement. Further, I would say that an understanding of the various stages of Jewish philosophy is fundamental to seeing the advancement of Judaism. Knowing Jewish history is likewise important. An appreciation for our past and a love of our heritage should be invested in our children. Our Prophets and Sages and Rabbis of past ages were progressing the knowledge and understanding of humanity, the world, and of God in their own ways. We must now take up that mission and continue on for ourselves and for our children to do likewise.
Jewish work is far from complete. Our collective conceptions of the Ultimate is sorely lacking and the world still has so much injustice and suffering in it. Tikkun Olam, though it is often overused in other movements of Judaism, is still a fundamental principle of what we are all about. Yet while these goals are awfully nice, many of them are not specifically Jewish. To what end are all of the practices and holidays and so on that make up so much of traditional Jewish life?
For one, we must recognize that many of the holidays’ purposes are to engage us in our history, but also to teach us a lesson that stands true for all ages. We fast on Tisha B’av because of the great calamity that afflicted our people, but we also fast because of the divisiveness and baseless hatred that caused it. Divisiveness that is still a problem today. We celebrate on Pesach for our release from bondage in Egypt, but we also signify our value of freedom and our solidarity with every unjustly suffering and enslaved person on Earth and our wish to see them free. Holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana exist as times to work especially on our personal development.
Many Jewish practices have obvious utility. We give tzedaka to keep the less fortunate from going hungry. We have a day of rest on Shabbos to recharge the batteries and reflect on life in a relaxed manner. But why should we keep kosher? What’s with davening?
The purpose of these acts is to take a part of regular life and invest it with deeper meaning. They weren’t necessarily commanded by God, but through the acts which have been sanctified through our history, we can apprehend God in our lives. As Jews we do particularly Jewish acts which orient our minds and our lives always towards the ultimate goals. God, as the ultimate reality, can be infinitely distant from us. We do these ritual acts to make God immanent in our lives and in our consciousnesses. The object is not to please God or to ask for favors but to make God a part of daily experience. I would say that as a Jew, we have a duty to do so.
God is universal, but we Jews have our own ways of approaching the Almighty. Meaningfulness in ritual cannot be alien to us. The object also to understand here is that the purpose of all the ritual is not to see what its utility is to us necessarily, but simply to offer this service to God. Its whole worth is bound up in it being singularly important - not to man - but to that which the service is directed. As a utilitarian effort its worth plummets to zero as a religious act. We may give tzedaka and here some look at it as a religious act, but since it really serves the poor or the community as a whole, the value in it as cognition of God is extremely low. But when we put on tzitzit, say, there is no side which provides value to ourselves or to society or whatever. It truly is a fully religious act.
Many sins in the Torah are said to be punished by karet, that is being cut off from your people. Yet while it may not have literal meaning, the simple truth is that as Jews become less observant of some of those key practices they fall prey to assimilation and lose their identities. They are effectively cut off from the Jewish future. This may not be a punishment, but it is simple cause and effect. If you do not remain involved and within the Jewish community - you will inevitably be lost from it forever. The mitzvot are not commandments, per se, they are choices. But still the consequences are clear.
Judaism is the function of the continuing Jewish civilization as we, Israel, struggle with God to find our place in the universe.