I received an email yesterday that I thought I would share with you. Rather than print the entire letter, I am highlighting the key points accompanied by my response.
1. Judaism should not be influenced by outside values and beliefs, and should stem only from God and Torah. The assumption you are making, namely that Judaism is somehow separate from the values and beliefs of the people who shaped it, is, in my opinion, false. Of course traditional Judaism claims that it comes from a transcendent source outside humanity, but history makes it clear that Judaism has changed over time, and that the changes came as the beliefs and values of Jews changed.
To site just a few examples: The use of capital punishment is rampant in the Hebrew Bible, yet anathema to the rabbis. So they changed Judaism to make the implementation of capital punishment impossible. Kosher is another example. While the Torah does lay the groundwork for a uniquely Jewish diet, the rabbis expanded this far beyond the Torah’s proscriptions. The same can be said for Shabbat and other holy day traditions as well.
Regarding more metaphysical matters, it is well established in academic circles that biblical Jews had no sense of a heaven and hell, and that it this was introduced into Judaism by those Jews who learned of it during their exile in Babylonia. The Pharisees made belief in the world to come central to their teachings, something their priestly opponents rejected as foreign.
Looking at Judaism in our own day, the role of women in Jewish life has greatly expanded not because Torah demanded it, but because the Women’s Movement became part of the mindset of most Jews and they demanded it.
To say that Judaism avoids change is false. To ignore the role the Jewish people play in changing their religion is to ignore how civilizations grow and survive. If priestly Judaism did not evolve into rabbinic Judaism there would be no Judaism at all. The fact that the rabbis insisted that they were simply applying the Oral Torah given to Moses alongside the Written Torah was a slick marketing move, but has no legitimacy outside the rabbis themselves—hence the rejection of the rabbinic innovations by their priestly competitors prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
2. How can we ensure that in a hundred years or more there will still be Judaism or Jews if by that time we allow our morals and beliefs to eradicate all vestiges of what makes Judaism what it truly is and not some cheap, unsatisfying, self-help program?
Your phrasing begs the question “what Judaism truly is,” but I understand and even share your concern. What will keep Judaism recognizably Jewish? Some would say that the only thing that keeps Judaism Jewish is that a people who call themselves Jews insist that it is. From a sociological viewpoint this may be true. I would like to add another element: Torah.
I think that any Judaism not linked to a creative reading of Torah is doomed. But as our rabbis have shown over the past 2000 years Torah can be read in many different ways to yield many different meanings and insights. Torah is a living document and must be read with deep creativity and imagination to uncover the layers of meaning needed in each generation. So what will make Judaism of the future authentic, the same thing that made the Judaisms of the past authentic: Torah and the Jews.
3. Liberal Judaism is fake Judaism that threatens to destroy authentic Judaism. The real challenge to Orthodoxy and tradition isn’t liberal Judaisms, but the rise of the sovereign self. With the coming of the modern period and now with postmodernism the individual (especially in the United States) is seen as supreme. It is becoming more and more difficult to subsume the individual into the group. We are encouraged to think for ourselves, to make moral and ethical decisions based on our individual consciences, etc. Community is more and more difficult to maintain. Can a Judaism that hopes to reach out to such highly individualized people impose law, or does it have to take another path?
It is too soon to answer this question, but the trend seems to be against halacha/Jewish law among nonOrthodox Jews. Even Conservative Jews pick and choose among the halachot, and often do so based on values that come from the secular world.
While I have no doubt that Orthodoxy will survive, it seems to do so only through greater and greater isolation from modernity. Orthodox Judaism will not (thankfully) go away, but it may (sadly) go the way of the Amish. We may admire their faith, but they are largely irrelevant to the lives of the most people.
This is my fear: that Judaism becomes irrelevant to Jews. Given that most Jews (90% if I am not mistaken) have rejected Orthodoxy, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Orthodoxy is irrelevant to most Jews. But, if you are correct (and you may be) that the Judaism that is immerging in a weak, self-indulgent, self-help program more geared to Jerry Springer than the Prophets we Jews are in trouble.
4. Liberal rabbis are fake rabbis who bastardize Judaism. I can only assume that “real rabbis” are Orthodox rabbis. Yet there are some Orthodox rabbis that other Orthodox rabbis consider equally fake. So how are we to decide who is the real rabbi?
If I am reading you correctly, the only real rabbi is one who rejects all change. If that is true, there are no real rabbis. Rabbinic Judaism was a radical departure from Priestly Judaism. Hillel and Akiva, to mention just two rabbis, were agents of change. And the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) even more so! The difference between these sages and some of today’s rabbis is that they insisted they were not doing what they were doing: making changes, and, in the case of Maimonides, applying the wisdom of non-Jewish cultures (Aristotelian to be specific) to Judaism. Today’s rabbinic creatives are more honest in their borrowings.
But, I too, have to cop to the notion of “fake rabbis.” There are rabbis, or people who call themselves rabbis, whom I would call “fake.” I make this distinction based on snobbishness: did they attend a yeshiva or seminary? Do they know and use Torah, Talmud, Zohar, Tanya in shaping their teachings? Are they rooted in Jewish history, tradition, and literature? No matter how innovative a rabbi may be, if they are linked strongly to these things I consider them authentic, even if I disagree with them. But if they are not so linked, I, too, fall into the trap of name-calling.
To opt for name calling as a first line of defense, however, suggests a weakness in your own argument. What could have been a fine discussion among thoughtful Jews becomes a silly spat between eight-year-olds. The only way we will know what impact rabbis (fake and otherwise) will have on Judaism is to wait and see. I imagine that if you shift your passion from attacking Jews to enriching Judaism, your Judaism will thrive. At least I hope so. In the end, as it has been throughout Jewish history, it is the Jews who will decide. They will determine what is Jewish, who is Jewish, who is a rabbi, etc.