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Rabbi Yoffie, Secular Jews and the Failure of Liberal Theological Imagination

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Upon reading Rabbi Eric Yoffie's needlessly polarizing "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews," I found myself incredulously checking the byline. This must be, I thought, some sort of mistake. Why would the esteemed and estimable past president of the Union for Reform Judaism upbraid his secular brethren (and in the liberal HuffPost, no less)?

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi must have written that, I concluded in an effort to ease cognitive dissonance. We would, after all, expect someone opposed to the liberal value of personal autonomy to declare: "'Secular' and 'cultural' Jews may think they can wring the holiness out of their Jewish identity and practice but they cannot."

Maybe this was a scene out of Philip Roth's Operation Shylock. A devious double, a pseudo-Eric Yoffie is astir on the Internet. The position he espouses would be as good for Reform Judaism's longevity as Moishe Pipik's "Diasporism" (i.e., a doctrine demanding the immediate return of all Ashkenazi Jews to their ancestral European homelands) would be for Israel's. But this was no mistake. This was, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie. Our Rabbi Yoffie.

Now, secular Jews -- whether you define them as atheists, agnostics, skeptics, or believing moderates who buck Tradition -- are accustomed to being anathematized. They are blamed for everything from Intermarriage Culminating In The End Of The Jewish People, to the Messiah's tarrying. Rabbi Yoffie's strictures against them are not novel. It his prominence within the Reform movement, however, that makes his critique baffling.

Baffling, because surveys, indicate that nearly 4.5 out of 10 American Jews describe themselves as "secular" or "somewhat secular." But even more baffling because similar ratios are observed in most Reform synagogues! With its cadres of thoughtful, open-minded rabbis and its highly educated laity this denomination has long provided secular and cultural Jews with a congenial community.

As for community, the rabbi downplays secular Judaism's emphasis on peoplehood. "Embracing a people," he writes, "is no more rational an act than embracing God or religion." I'm not so sure. Are not our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents part of our peoplehood? Is it completely irrational to adhere to Judaism in honor of one's mother and father?

Even if an emphasis on peoplehood is irrational, it may yield tangible results. Jewish activists in the 1970s and 1980s formed -- objectively irrational -- bonds of kinship to complete strangers in the USSR. Had they not done so, the rescue of Jews from the Soviet Union may never have occurred. Similarly, without a notion of peoplehood why would American Jews care about Israel, and vice versa?

Rabbi Yoffie argues that seculars are irrational for believing that "they can refuse to accept the dictates of the divine or the absolutes of the Jewish religion." Memo to the rabbi: please rethink this approach. Many Jews (and others) live in a world far too morally complex to be swayed by the logic of theological absolutism.

If history had a law of gravity it would be this: religious traditions change radically across time and space. The same holds true for our human interpretations of those "dictates of the divine." Let Orthodox theology worship the idol of godly and cultural immutability. Modernist theology demands a more sophisticated engagement.

It demands, in large part, the resurgence of a liberal theological imagination. In my own research, I have pointed to the inability of liberal Catholics, Muslims, Jews, etc., to intellectually counter their traditionalist co-religionists on the theological plane. The result has been the doctrinal, institutional, and political build-out of highly regressive religious worldviews.

The global revival of religion, be it ultra-Orthodoxy or Islamism or Evangelical Christianity, has been powered by a celebration of the very absolutes which in form, but certainly not in content, are extolled by Rabbi Yoffie: God grants more rights to men. God abhors gay people. God must dominate the political sphere. God is more concerned that we worship Him than we minister to one another. God reveals his will to only his most severe and uncreative interpreters. God loathes dissent, ambiguity even more so.

None of which, I repeat, are Rabbi Yoffie's opinions. But when he invokes absolutes, tells secular Jews their views "make no sense," and proclaims secular Zionism a failure (!), he sounds like his hereticating double mentioned above.

Enough! Can a liberal-minded theologian somewhere -- anywhere -- make the case (once again) that religious moderation, tolerance for dissent, doctrinal evolution, humor, artistic creativity, the acceptance of ambiguity, self-criticism and even principled criticism of God, may be construed as "divine" virtues? And can she or he energize and mobilize masses behind those anti-absolutist precepts?

This, I contend, constitutes a legitimate secular Jewish sensibility; not a senseless "delusion," as Rabbi Yoffie would have it, but a vision poised to flourish within Reform Judaism and beyond.

A version of this article also appears on Haaretz

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