Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marc Shapiro on Theology

There's a new collection of essays on Jewish theology from all sorts of people out which I've been eagerly awaiting. It's entitled Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations & Future of Jewish Belief. Brandeis's library just processed it through and I checked it out. I might be putting up posts as I read the different essays, but I just had to read Marc Shapiro's "Can Traditional Jewish Theology Still Speak to (Some of) Us?" Marc Shapiro is clearly somebody who both clearly has a vast command of the important traditionalist source literature and somebody who is interested in modern thinking, so I was mamesh excited to read some direct thoughts of his on how the latter should affect our view of the former. I'm going to jot down some notes on (what I feel are) the most interesting parts here, but this isn't a summary of the should read it yourself.

So how does Marc Shapiro prove the existence of God?

...Jewish philosophers have speculated about God...Many...even felt they could prove God's existence. Yet proving the existence of a deity, even a creator, is...removed from a Jewish belief in God...For Judaism is not about belief in 'a' god, but in the God who revealed the divine presence to our ancestors and prophets, and this is certainly not something that can be proven.
So he doesn't believe Judaism's God can be proven to exist. Instead:

...that doesn't mean that there aren't hints...of God's presence. Most...are of the private sort, when a believer senses the presence of the Divine in his or her midst. Yet the greatest the history of the Jewish people. The miraculous story of the survival of Judaism and the Jews is the greatest example of providence known to humankind. While a person can argue about how much...happens in a person's life is due to God's providence, it is hard not to see God's hand in the ups and downs of our people throughout the generations.

Alright, so according to Marc Shapiro, little Divine bits in our life and the survival of the Jewish people/Judaism aren't proofs per se, but they are reasons to believe to God. Interesting, those are the reasons I was frum (but the more you learn about science, history, the Bible, and the Talmud, the less plausible frumkeit seems...but I digress.). So what kind of God is he? Is he a Deist god, the god of the philosophers, who never intervenes?

...I don't think it is possible to begin to speak about Jewish theology without an acceptance of God's presence in the world and God's inspiration (however defined) of certain people who were able to achieve a closeness with the Divine.

Alright, so God is in the world, He interacts with the world, He drops hints to people of his presence, the miraculous survival of the Jewish people/Judaism can be attributed to Him, He inspires certain individuals to have a close relationship with Him...wait...

I say this even though I personally am comfortable removing God from almost everything that takes place in the world...While my view is certainly a break from what is often expressed among the Orthodox, Maimonides...and other thinkers of his time believed that the world generally functions according to the laws of nature and humans act in an autonomous fashion. They did not assume that religiosity meant seeing God's hand in everyday events or that God was continually pulling the strings of this world...With such an approach, theodicy, among other things, is no longer the burning problem it usually is for believers. probably not the sort of approach that would work well in a communal setting. When a family is grieving...they want to be told...that their loss is part of some higher purpose and that it fits into some larger plan. Being told that bad things happen to good people because, well, sometimes bad things happen to good people, will probably not be of much comfort.

God's presence is "in the world," but Dr. Shapiro's "comfortable removing God from almost everything that takes place in the world." God can be seen in not only "the ups" but also "the downs" of Jewish history, yet theodicy isn't a "burning problem" and in fact God's not directly involved with bad things happening.

I have only utmost respect for Dr. Shapiro. But the Jewish approach he is following seems (for lack of a better phrase) to want God to be able to have His cake and eat it too. God is in the world in the story of Jewish history, in aspects of our personal lives...but not in the daily minutiae of our lives, anti-Semitic massacres (aren't those parts of Jewish history!?), not in family tragedies, not in the rough parts. He intervenes, but not when it comes to the unexplainable stuff.

First off, it seems to me that being God, He's kinda answerable for the unexplainable stuff. He created everything, didn't He? Moreover, modern methodologies (archaeology, Bible criticism, and science) continue to make the Bible and the Talmud look like ancient documents written by ancient myth-makers. We can explain all this away too. God's involvement with the Bible was more minimal than we think (a la Louis Jacobs), God made the Bible talk in a way that our ancestors would understand (stone people to death, don't suffer a witch to live, and other pleasantries which were pretty normative), etc... But why do we need to come to all this philosophizing? The more I read, the more it seems plausible that the Jewish texts were just promoting superstitions, particularisms, and barbarisms. How come this God who loves so much but is so suspiciously subtle felt the need to have a text which encourages stoning people for homosexuality and contributed to a centuries-perpetuated homophobia? I can understand how the haredim believe this (see for example here), but I'd think a modern person ought to give up this halachic vision...

But I also don't understand why Marc Shapiro's god is worth talking to. You beseech, you shmooze, you cry, you complain, you praise, you love, you struggle...and for what? Silence. Let's let him alone then, he wants to be alone. Marc Shapiro's god of faith is quite alone.

[UPDATE: I should note also the following for people who might think Dr. Shapiro adopts a super-liberal stance on Biblical authorship: He has said, "I think Orthodoxy requres that the bulk of the Torah, and in particular the mitzvot, is of Mosaic authorship."]


  1. When I look at the history of the Jewish people, I conclude that God is a huge anti-Semite.

  2. Intellectually speaking, his theology is all over the place, which is to say nowhere in particular.
    This kind of non-committal pussyfooting on the part of an otherwise respected scholar only serves to underscore the validity of a maxim once introduced by the blogger, XGH: "Emotions eat rationality for breakfast."