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Torah & Norman Solomon


As we approach Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

4 thoughts on “Torah & Norman Solomon

  1. Yes I support Rav Steinberg. I have met him and am highly impressed not only by his obvious Charedi commitment to Torah but also by his integrity, his courage and intellectual honesty. That his site would be rejected by Orthodox rabbis does not surprise me at all. They couldn't handle Rav Slikin ( another Mancunian like me. Whats in the Manchester air?) they certainly wont be able to take this. Sadly we live in a world of religious yahoos but in the end intellectual honesty will out. Much of the writing and ideas expressed on I disagree with but still its such a breath of fresh air and needs to be encouraged.

  2. Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology…?
    Come on R Rosen this is a straw man argument.
    Unless you really are suggesting that there is no link whatsoever between theology and practice in Judaism, which would be ludicrous to assert.
    The real issue is that if Solomon is right and the historical account on which Judaism is based is false or radically different from what we conceived of ( you might consider Tamar Ross take on orthodoxy when considering the academy) then the big question is why engage in the practice? Neither Solomon or yourself address this. Thus in some ways you are also close to the heads in the sand mainstream and charged I orthodoxy that you criticise.
    Tell us what you really think, many would want to hear it.

  3. No I am NOT saying there is no link between Theology and Practice.

    I AM saying there is no specific command to believe in the Torah whereas there are hundreds of commands to do or not to do. Even the first of the Ten Commandments is not phrased as "You Must Believe."

    The preoccupation with belief is a Greek philosophical innovation and Biblical Judaism is pre Greek.
    Christianity and then Islam became preoccupied with beliefs, theologies and Judaism so as not to be left out joined in.

    But I think its effect on Judaism has been detrimental because it places emphasis on artificial thought systems and philosophical methodologies that are simply beyond most peoples capacity and interests.

    This does not mean that ideas are unimportant or that there are no fundamental ideas in Judaism. The Idea of God is the most obvious one. As an idea it is open to each overseen to interpret or experience it existentially rather than to assent to some abstract formulation. Indeed that was what Kabbalah was interested in…an alternative to arid abstract ideas like teleology or ontology. But Judaism is not a religion, a system of beliefs. It is a way of life that has to be lived and experienced. It is very existential.

    In the Charedi world very very few people are interested in theology. In my yeshivas such ideas were never discussed. Things were assumed, that you accepted certain nostra but there was no analysis or questioning. So what kind of Theology is that? It is simply Emunah Peshutah, blind simple acceptance which in fact satisfies the majority.

    Rambam realized there were different approaches. That was why he restricted his philosophy to a small elite and wrote only in Arabic whereas for the Jewish masses his emphasis was on halacha and simplistic slogans as in his 13 Principles.

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