Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Historical Context: Forging Faith

By Prof. Eugene Borowitz

…Modernity challenges us to mediate between the Jewish truth we have inherited and cherish, and that which our surrounding culture deems worth embracing.  It seems to me, however, that Jewish spirituality has been decisively molded by six momentous folk experiences:  Covenant, Settlement, Rabbinism, Diaspora, Emancipation, and post-Holocaust Disillusionment.

The first, most formative experience was entering the Covenant…as the One God of the universe made a pact with Abraham, renewed it with his descendants, confirmed it in the Exodus, and made it specific in giving Torah to the people Israel at Mount Sinai…Judaism revolves around the Covenant experience of choice, promise, demand, redemption and mission…Believing Jews live in the reality of Covenant.

The second phase occurred in the Land of Israel between 1250-500 B.C.E. as a family becomes a nation through settlement, kingdom, establishment of the Temple, social division and decline, prophecy, destruction and exile…These events and the writings [of this period] greatly amplified the Covenant, reaching a climax in the visions of a messianic Day when all humankind, led by the people Israel, would finally serve God fully and freely.

The third decisive stage in Jewish religiosity began when…our people created the religious life described and advanced by the writings of “the rabbis,” or Rabbinism…who framed our people’s religion as we know it today.  We read the Bible through their eyes, we celebrate, mourn, pray and study in the patterns they created…In classic rabbinic text, law intertwines and spiritual teaching, together creating a religious way that seeks sanctity through educated participation.

Our Diaspora existence of the next thirteen centuries engendered the fourth step in our growth, most of whose distinctive spiritual tone arose in response to the debased social situation that Islam and Christianity imposed upon us….We came to see ourselves as God’s suffering servant in history and knew that our defamers, by their very persecution of us, could not be God’s chosen.  In the face of external hostility we created rich patterns of family and community to sanctify our inner existence.

With modernity—that is, with the radical social and intellectual changes we call the Emancipation—the fifth phase began…Freedom from segregated existence brought on a transition from a life oriented by revelation, tradition and a sense of the holy to one in which religion became privatized if not irrelevant or obsolete…It also meant that as the realm of religiously neutral activity expanded, the twin questions of Jewish identity and continuity became increasingly troublesome…For American Jews the confrontation with Emancipation has been relatively recent…Though our modernization has been swift, its accompanying secularization has been thorough…We stopped relying on our traditional God to save us and instead put our faith in humanity’s power to create justice…as ethics became our surrogate for mitzvoth….

The sixth period in Jewish spirituality resulted, as many suggest, from Hitler’s murder of six million Jews and the existence of the State of Israel.  Once Jews could confront the Holocaust in its own satanic fullness…they identified Western culture as an ethical fraud.With modernist messianism discredited, we modern Jews…have had to rethink our most fundamental beliefs…As we have recognized that our intense commitment to Jewish survival has a parallel grounding, spirituality has become the twin of our postmodern ethnicity…

We are searching for a new understanding of the transcendent ground of our ethical and ethnic commitment; we have made a postmodern turn to our people’s Covenant…We can now seek to strengthen these fresh Jewish intuitions and make them the basis of our existence…Our work is devoted to that task: striving to clarify the nature of our contemporary Jewish religious experience, to grope for the God with whom we still stand in partnership, to articulate what we mean by reasserting that we are a people of the Covenant, and to delineate the nature of Jewish responsibility that arises from this new/old affirmation.

From Renewing The Covenant—A Theology For The Post-Modern Jew,
Prof. Eugene BOROWITZ
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