Modernity raised serious challenges for traditional conceptions of God. Philosophy, science, a new concern with the self, feminism, and many other modern developments and values have led modern Jewish thinkers to reassess their views of the Jewish deity.
Post-Enlightenment Jewish thinkers presented modified conceptions of God that attempted to reconcile modern philosophical trends with Jewish tradition. These figures tended to stress human liberty and the ethical aspects of God. Solomon Formstecher (1808-1889) conceived of God as the spirit of the world, a concept derived from Hegel. God is completely free, and as freedom is a precondition for moral activity, God is the perfect ethical being. Leo Baeck (1873-1956) presented Judaism as, essentially, ethical monotheism, suggesting that the belief in one God–Judaism’s fundamental innovation–is equivalent to the belief in a single source of moral law.
Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) was also, originally, concerned with the ethical implications of God. In his early rationalistic thought, he presented God as the “idea” that guarantees morality. Cohen’s later work, however, was more traditional from a Jewish point of view, and he became more concerned with the reality of God and less concerned with the “idea” of God. Cohen’s students, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1919) and Martin Buber (1878-1965), eschewed Cohen’s reliance on reason and rooted their philosophies in the experiential.
According to Rosenzweig, God cannot be known through rational inquiry. Rather, God is encountered existentially. These encounters amount to personal revelations. Whereas Rosenzweig believed that these direct revelations are the source of one’s knowledge of God, Buber believed that one comes to know God through one’s relationships with other people. Buber’s classic work I and Thou describes the two types of relationships one could have. The I-It relationship is characterized by, among other things, utility. When one uses something or someone for practical purposes, one is engaged in an I-It relationship; this is also true when one describes, categorizes, or refers to a thing or person through third-person language. The I-Thou relationship, however, is relating for its own sake. It is characterized by equality, openness, and genuine encounter. God is the ultimate “Thou,” and we relate to God whenever we engage in an I-Thou relationship.
Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) embraced the scientific advances of modernity that touted natural explanations, and he rejected the belief in supernatural forces, including a supernatural God. However, he did not reject Judaism or, “the faith that the world affords men an opportunity for salvation.” Thus he redefined God as the power within nature that makes such salvation possible.
The Holocaust also impelled many theologians to reconsider the Jewish conception of God. According to biblical theology, evil and suffering afflict the Jewish people as a result of their sins. However, the extensive horrors of the Holocaust made this theological explanation unacceptable to many thinkers. Richard Rubenstein has articulated the most radical theological response to the Nazi atrocities. According to Rubenstein, God is dead. One cannot viably assert traditional Judaism or a belief in the Jewish God in light of the Holocaust. Interestingly, Elie Wiesel expressed a similar idea in his book Night. As a young boy, sentenced to death but too light to hang struggles in his noose, a man asks “Where is God now?” to which the answer is given: “Where is He? Here He is, He is hanging here on this gallows…”
Jewish feminism has also posed challenges to the traditional Jewish God. Contemporary feminist thinkers like Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler have noted that the images of God in traditional Jewish literature and liturgy are almost exclusively male. However, this is only the surface of the problem. The real issue is that a religious community’s descriptions of God represent the attributes and values that it holds dearest. Thus, by depicting God as only male, Judaism implicitly values men over women. In addition, for most of history men have been the guiding communal leaders of Judaism, and so Judaism reflects the experiences and concerns of men.
The feminist critique of Jewish theology cannot be resolved by simply adding female God pronouns to Jewish liturgy. Conceptions of God need to be molded out of female as well as male experiences of Judaism. Some Jewish feminists, including liturgist Marcia Falk and many within the Jewish renewal movement, revisit and make expansive use of the few traditional female images of God (like the Shekhinah of kabbalah), and experiment with new ways of envisioning and naming God in light of Jewish women’s experiences and contemporary feminist insights.