Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Judaism – The Thing that Binds Us Together


   The Latin writer, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) tells us in De Natura Deorum or On the Nature of the Gods, that the word religion is derived from both re ligere or to read again and from Res ligare or the thing that binds. This is most reasonable since all religions include ritual readings which are repeated again and again. Further, those who are of the same faith feel that they are bound to others of  similar views.

   We Jews are indeed bound together by our religious heritage which teaches that Jews believe in one God who created heaven and earth; that we, the Children of Israel received the Ten Commandments from Him and that he assigned us the Land of Israel in perpetuity.

   Only about 10% of all Jews are now willing to subscribe to these beliefs, as recent opinion polls reveal that 90% of American Jews view us an  ethnic group and only 10% see themselves as members of a religious community. Those who hold that view are mostly “Torah true” or orthodox (straight belief) followers of Judaism. Approximately 800,000 American Jews are members of orthodox synagogues (assemblies) although about half of those who are members do not practice orthodox Judaism. Orthodox life is structured around the concept of Halacha which refers to the 613 laws of the Torah and the Talmudic and Responsa interpretations based on these laws. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has written a revealing book called Halachik Man which explains how those committed to that life style “orient (themselves) to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles.” The principal view of halachik men is that ideals will eventually triumph over profane reality.

   Reform Jews and their Reconstructionist cousins hold a different view. They hold with the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) that the Torah was written by men and that Jewish ceremonies were instituted by men as well. Reform Judaism emphasizes the prophetic tradition in Judaism and seeks to feature the moral laws in the Torah while disregarding ceremonies or dietary laws. This is not to say that Reform Judaism does not practice ceremony and ritual. In fact, in recent years the use of the Tallit or prayer shawl has returned to Reform as has the use of the Kippa or skull cap. Hebrew is once more in vogue in Reform Temples and tradition is very much alive among our  Reform congregations.  Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof is the principal expounder of the Reform tradition in America. Freehof in his Responsa argues that Halacha is indeed the foundation of Judaism, but that each generation must decide for itself which aspect of Halacha applies to it now. His emphasis is on the individual and the right of each to decide for himself how to live a Jewish life within the moral teachings of the tradition.

   Conservative Judaism, also called Historical Judaism is American in its origin. Rabbi Abraham Joshuah Heschel was no doubt the major conservative theologian of this century. His great work was Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism. Therein Heschel taught that there is a holy dimension to life which cannot be reached by cool analysis and scientific measurements. Heschel also wrote that “God participates in human history.”

   Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism. His great work was and is Judaism as a Civilization. Kaplan presents God as “ a struggling ordering form of nature.” This reveals his indebtedness to Spinoza whose Tractate of Theology and Politics was the opening gun in the modern development of our diverse religion. Read these authors and you will be glad you did.  You’ll truly be happy with  such great minds whose work is all to be had free of charge at the nearest library. Enjoy. 


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