Author Archives: Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

About Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi was ordained by the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and earned her Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President's Scholar at HUC-JIR. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and their three children.

Radical Theology: Confronting the Crises of Modernity

In the second half of the twentieth century, some Jewish thinkers took radical approaches to God and religion. Influenced by the realities of modern science and the experience of the Holocaust, thinkers such as Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) and Richard Rubenstein (b. 1924) redefined God and created theologies that differed greatly from classical Jewish thought. 

Rejecting Supernaturalism

A renowned teacher and rabbi at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Mordecai Kaplan became the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Believing that modernity demanded a radical revitalization of Judaism, Kaplan argued that while previous generations had used “transvaluation” (transforming the meanings of traditional content) what was now necessary was “revaluation.” Revaluation, in Kaplan’s system, entails disengaging the most universal, ethical, and humane elements from traditional content and integrating them into a new ideology.

In Judaism as a Civilization and The Meaning of God in Modern Judaism, Kaplan systematically described the kind of reconstruction that Judaism needed. At the center of his thinking is the notion that Judaism is more about culture and peoplehood than it is about religion and faith.

Kaplan rejected many traditional principles of Jewish law and faith and sought to redefine them in ways that would be intellectually, spiritually, and ethically compelling for American Jewry. He embraced modern science and its natural explanations, which–according to Kaplan–necessitated the rejection of belief in supernatural forces, including a supernatural God. Instead of seeing God as supernatural, Kaplan saw God as a force within nature that allows for order and goodness: the power that makes salvation possible.

“God,” he writes, “is the sum of all the animating organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” In another place he speaks of what it means to believe in God: “To believe in God is to reckon with life’s creative forces, tendencies and potentialities as forming an organic unity, and as giving meaning to life by virtue of that unity.”

God in the Age of Reason

Jewish thought after the Enlightenment was, in large part, a product of the Jewish encounter with modern German philosophy (particularly the thought of Immanuel Kant and Georg Friedrich Hegel). Two Jewish thinkers in particular are central to understanding the impact of German philosophy on the emergence of modern Jewish thought: Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). 

Cohen’s view of God is of particular interest as it is quite different from the traditional Jewish conception of God. Relying largelyon traditional rabbinic sources and commentaries, Cohen emphasizes the ways in which God allows for the realization of what he calls the “ethical task,” the attempt to improve existence in accordance with moral rule, and thus to lessen human suffering. This notion of God shifts the focus of religion; its primary purpose is to motivate humans to build an ethical society.

god and ethicsCohen discusses this concept in connection to the covenant God established with Noah after the flood. This covenant is distinct from the covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai, in that it is universal and stresses that all of humankind was created in the image of God.

Cohen is more interested in the symbolic role of God vis-à-vis humankind, rather than the role God plays in the lives of individuals. Cohen’s idea of God is, in principle, humanistic. Alternatively, one might understand that, for Cohen, to be a humanist is to be religious. The human desire for universal ethics is the foundation for the belief in God, for it is God that motivates the realization of morality.

For Cohen, God is an idea, or a concept. Rather than describing God as an existent being or as a force behind creation, as did his predecessors, Cohen emphasized the element of God that is a kind of “spirituality” or disposition toward other human beings. This demands the kind of universal ethical concern, which in turn allows for the possibility of a moral world. Cohen’s philosophy is thus less concerned with the Jewish people in particular and more interested in the role of Judaism in the world and the Jewish duty to teach universal ethics. In his well-known work, The Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen writes, “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way…. The Torah granted equal rights to a non-Jew under the Jewish law and state.” (Religion of Reason, p. 327)

The Experience and Nearness of God

While rationalism and its abstract concepts held the attention of most early modern Jewish thinkers, several twentieth-century thinkers were more concerned with the religious and spiritual experience of the individual. The thinking of two such theologians, Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), serves as the basis for much of the current work in liberal theology. 

Martin Buber is best known for his religious philosophy of dialogue. In I and Thou, Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object.

In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person. The honor of the other–and not just her usefulness–is of paramount importance.

The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. For Buber, God is the “Eternal Thou.” God is the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end.

In addition, our relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship–be it with a person or thing–involves a meeting with God. God, in a sense, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world. “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”

When one encounters the world in this way, revelation occurs. “God speaks to man in the things and beings he sends him in life. Man answers through his dealings with these things and beings.” The Bible itself contains models of this human experience of God. Moses perceives natural events as indications of God’s power and God’s presence in the human realm. Similarly, the power and show of natural forces at Sinai led the Israelites to accept the revelation of God’s Torah.