The “New Theology”
To the Editor:
Mr. Judd L. Teller’s “Critique of the New Jewish Theology” in the March issue of COMMENTARY, upon closer examination, turns out instead to be a critique of his own secularist position. What are some of the alleged sins of the “new theologians”?
1. They are influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. . . . This heady wine has gone to their good Jewish heads and perverted their outlook on Judaism. What is the evidence that this has taken place? It turns out that . . . two articles have appeared in the journal Judaism (one of which was very critical of Niebuhr). If one swallow does not make a summer, then one article does not mark a trend. . . . But let us grant the truth of the accusation. Many rabbis, led by Will Herberg, are influenced by the writings of Professor Niebuhr. What’s wrong with that, one asks? Well, first of all, Niebuhr is a Christian; and in current Jewish polemics this is enough to disqualify anyone. Mr. Teller himself seems rather inconsistent in pursuing his argument. He does not mind quoting one Mullaney to prove one of his points. But actually, Mr. Teller does not sustain his argument against Niebuhr on any matter of substance. . . . Rather Niebuhr “offends the strong emotional commitment” which Mr. Teller still “retains to Jewish religious history.” Well, if emotional commitments and offense can be admitted as arguments, then we will have to say that Mr. Teller’s self-confessed secularism is as offensive to normative Judaism as any quotation from Niebuhr. There is certainly as much precedent in Jewish history for quoting from non-Jewish sources as there is for a kind of spectre-type Judaism which calls itself secularist.
In an excursus about his yichus (the point of which is not too clear), Mr. Teller comes to the surprising conclusion that “traditional Judaism has been in steady evolution toward secularism.” How he proves this is a mystery. If he thinks that Dr. Soloveichik or the Tchortkover rebbe would prefer his brand of secularism to “theological Judaism,” he had better study his sources more carefully.
2. Herberg is “sin-obsessed.” Actually, Herberg is not alone in his “obsession.” For according to Teller, Hasidism was “sin-conscious” and the Mussar movement was “sin-obsessed” and there are passages in the Talmud “that convey the impression of a sin-preoccupied culture.” Not bad company to be in! But what are the manifestations of this “sin-obsession” in Herberg? It is shown in the thoroughgoing critique of liberal humanism which in the view of Herberg and Niebuhr (and by the way in the view of most modern writers on the subject) was overly optimistic about the possibilities of man. That this may be true is not even considered to be a possibility by Teller. Rather he tells us that Judaism did not have much interest in “clinging to the Living God.” Judaism was preoccupied with legalism and Halachah. Even a cursory glance at such well-known Jewish books as the Machzor or the Siddur is enough to convince us that the fact of human sinfulness was taken seriously. Isn’t it the traditional Jew who three times a day confesses before God: “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned”?
3. Herberg’s view about the destiny of the community of Israel and Zionism is not satisfactory to the tastes of Mr. Teller. Curiously, he accuses him at the same time of promoting diaspora nationalism and also of accommodating too easily to American civilization. How two such contradictory conclusions can be drawn from the same data is a little baffling. Actually what Herberg is saying is what should have been said long ago—and indeed has been said. The Zionist solution of the Jewish problem may be a solution on the level of politics or culture. But even Zionism cannot solve the basic tension inherent in the attempt to realize an absolute ethic within the realities of a national state. No state—even one which is 100 per cent Jewish—can embody within itself all the values which the Bible envisions for the Messianic period. To neglect to realize this fact can lead only to a destructive pseudo-Messianism which can destroy even the partial measure of justice and truth which historical structures embody. We are indebted to the “new” theologians for warning us so forcefully of this terrible peril. . . .
Actually what kind of religious life would Mr. Teller prefer? He would like to see an American rabbinate preoccupied with “Halachah, not prophecy”—exhausting its function in dealing with Halachah and ritual—neither of which have any meaning for Mr. Teller who is a self-professed secularist. In other words, the crux of Mr. Teller’s problem is that the “new theology” makes him uncomfortable in his secularism. It questions the foundations of his Jewish existence. How much less bothersome would a rabbinate be which was enclosed within the four ells of the Halachah and only occasionally sallied forth to aid in a UJA campaign or to speak at a Zionist mass meeting. . . .
(Rabbi) Seymour Siegel
The Jewish Theological Seminary
New York City
To the Editor:
Though I disagree with it, Judd L. Teller’s “A Critique of the New Jewish Theology” was . . . stimulating. It is strange to find the professed liberal, Teller, impugning the archconservative, Herberg, for wanting “to change American society.” . . . Teller misinterprets Herberg, I believe, when he compares the idea that there are truths a man “cannot prove except with the sacrifice of his life” with dying at the stake, medieval Christianity, and modern totalitarianism. Sacrifice, in the existential sense, hardly means violent death. Rather, it means dedication to the values and actual life in which one believes, and this seems hard for Teller to understand because he is unwilling to commit himself in such a manner. It is this absence of true belief in any meaningful values which, in my opinion at least, makes Teller’s professed humanistic liberalism a sham and his belief in Jewish nationalist secularism absurd. I believe that this is the very reason—the failure of Jewish nationalist secularism to justify itself in terms of honest commitment—why the “new Jewish theology” has attained its present eminence.
The last few issues of COMMENTARY certainly have been the best in many months, among the best in many years. Dwight Mac-donald’s “By Cozzens Possessed” (January) and Richard Chase’s “Max Lerner’s America” (March) are wonderful examples of the deeply perceptive, idol-shattering criticism which is so rare these days. . . .
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
With the main burden of Judd L. Teller’s argument in “A Critique of the New Jewish Theology” I am in substantial agreement. If anything, I would personally be inclined to go even beyond Mr. Teller in denying that there is anything either new or Jewish in the views of Will Herberg. The latter’s efforts to make Judaism appear to be consistent with Christian existentialism (née Calvinism) . . . are painful in the extreme to all who appreciate the uniqueness of Jewish religious thought.
Mr. Teller has been neither accurate nor fair, however, in asking: “Why has Herberg’s new theology gone so largely unchallenged among American rabbis?” No one who follows the views of the American rabbinate can be unaware of the fact that Mr. Herberg’s views have been far from unchallenged among them. Led by the Reconstructionists, but by no means limited to them, many of us in the contemporary American Jewish pulpit have consistently complained that Herberg speaks neither for us nor for Judaism.
I wonder if Mr. Teller may not have been constrained to ignore this because he feels apologetic about his “secularism.” There is, by the way, something rare even in the secularism of the learned Jew—and this Mr. Teller would certainly appear to be. Perhaps one might contend with some plausibility that a Jewish “secularist” of Mr. Teller’s type is one who takes God for granted rather than resorting to argument over Him. My quarrel with Will Herberg is not that he would declare “secularism out of bounds to Jews” but that he has so strangely distorted the emphasis of Judaism on the nature of God and man and on the relationship between them.
(Rabbi) Roland B. Gittelsohn
To the Editor:
. . . [Re] Dr. Teller’s words of guidance to American rabbis: it appears as though the “secularist” is concerned that we have a vocation and suggests that it be that of “teaching and judging.” Except for the “prophetic” type of rabbi who is busy at the present time with press-agentry, traveling, and reporting about distant places, there are many dedicated rabbis serving the Jewish people. There still are numerous “unsuccessful” rabbis who are teaching and are living mitzvot to a Jewish society which prefers to be “confused” with theologies.
(Rabbi) Murray Grauer
White Plains, New York
Mr. Teller writes:
If Rabbi Siegel is in search of additional “swallows,” I refer him to back issues of the magazine Judaism. There is, of course, nothing wrong in quoting Christian theologians, but there is everything wrong in accepting, as Herberg has done, a Christian theologian’s Anschauung. Rabbi Siegel suggests that I challenged Niebuhr’s theology. Alas, I have no such presumptions. . . .
Surely, Rabbi Siegel should know the distinction between “sin consciousness” and “sin obsession,” and that rejection of the doctrine of man’s inherent sinfulness is by no means synonymous with belief in man’s infallibility.
The aims of Zionism have been modest—to provide a framework for saner and safer Jewish living than is possible even in the “best” golah. Zionism has never presumed to resolve all tensions in history, and has no presumptions beyond history.
I am nonplussed by Rabbi Siegel’s cavalier reference to Halachah, since there is no greater challenge to the rabbinate today than the task of accommodating the long Halachic tradition of philosophic and legal thought to the needs of Jewish society in 20th-century Israel.
Had Rabbi Siegel read my piece more carefully, he would have realized that the contradictions he imputes to me are contradictions in Herberg’s thought to which I call attention. Nowhere do I suggest, as Rabbi Siegel contends, that Herberg is a Galut nationalist. It is immodest to argue in public with Rabbi Siegel’s contention that Halachah and ritual “have no meaning” for me, and with Mr. Mornell’s suggestion that I lack the capacity for intense commitment; I hope that my article refutes them. I also commend to Mr. Mornell’s attention the secular pioneers of Israel as an example of the intensity of the secular nationalist commitment in its most authentic form. On another point raised by him, I should like to ask whether it is Mr. Mornell’s contention that a liberal must favor change per se, irrespective of its direction and purpose?
Rabbi Gittelsohn’s firm statement against the new theology is impressive, coming as it does from an authoritative voice in the American pulpit. He is right about the Reconstructionists, and he may be a better judge than I am of the extent of the rabbinic resistance to the new theology.
I can assure Rabbi Grauer that my quarrel is with the “successful” new theology, and my sympathy with the “unsuccessful” rabbi.