The Inadequacy of Jewish Dogma
Arbitrary Judaism is spreading in Israel. Halacha as the overall expression of Jewish commitment to a very specific lifestyle has nearly ceased to exist in the worldwide Jewish community. Judaism is often seen as an option, a tradition to choose from and to reject what is not to ones liking. One of the main reasons for this is that Halacha is no longer seen as response to the search for meaning in people’s lives. The image of Halacha as a rigid tradition has taken the upper hand. It is seen as a desiccated remnant of a once living reality, which was reduced to definitions, codes and catechisms.
In one of the earliest dialogues of Plato, the Charmides, the philosopher discusses the question: what is temperance. After offering several definitions, which all prove inadequate, Socrates exclaims: I have been utterly defeated and have failed to discover what that is to which the imposer of names gave this name of temperance. Man seems to know in a sort of way that which he does not know at all. The deepest ideas do not admit of verbal expression. They can only be understood as a result of a continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith. Such insight is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark and thereafter it nourishes itself. Indeed, to define words such as good, love, holy, while far from being irrational or meaningless, is impossible. Any attempt to do so is not only limiting them, but making them meaningless since by doing so one removes their most essential component. The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express.
Teachers of Judaism as in other religions have often attempted to raise the foundations of religion to the level of clear utterances, dogmas and creeds. Yet, such endeavors cannot be more than indications, as an attempt to convey what cannot be adequately expressed. To argue that they are the definite fundamentals of faith is to undermine authentic religious faith in the same way that people would try to argue that musical notes are the fundamentals of music. They are not, they are only directions for the musician to follow, showing the way, but they are never das ding an sich.
Judaism is in perpetual danger of giving primacy to concepts and dogmas and forfeiting the primacy of the inexpressible dimensions of religious insights. Dogmas and creeds should never become screens – they can only function as windows into a world, which is beyond definitions. Dogmas in the hands of man often turn into expressions of clerical authority setting down a fixed set of principles without an existential search for genuine faith.
Despite the fact that such an approach has been tried by some of the greatest Jewish thinkers, it never succeeded since Judaism is not the result of a doctrine but is the consequence of concrete events, acts and insights of a people who experienced an encounter with God, which cannot be transmitted in absolute verbal expression. Dogmas and fundamentals of faith one can inherit but faith itself one can only discover in the light of ones soul. It is a moment in which all definitions come to an end and every attempt to come to conclusive articles of faith can only work as stifling trivialities, which become suspended in the heart of the man of real faith. Genuine Judaism can only be understood in its natural habit of deep faith and piety in which the divine reaches all thoughts.
If dogmas have any purpose at all, they can never function as a substitute for faith, but only as an epitome of faith as much as music is much more than what a musical note can ever convey.
For Halacha to be a response to mans search for meaning, it must make space for a non dogmatic philosophy of Judaism. It must encourage dialogue concerning all basic Jewish beliefs and show how the Halacha is the practical upshot of these un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of halachic life while staying in theological suspense.
Only in that way does Judaism not turn into a religion, which freezes in the awe of a rigid tradition or evaporates in a utopian reverie. Judaism is the art encountering God in all dimensions of life. As such it includes all that which man does, feels, says and thinks.
Unlike the shafts of Jewish belief, which dart hither and thither wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bow string, Halacha is straight and unswerving. It is a place to stand on, solid bedrock. While Jewish belief exists out of a fluid liquid, the Halacha’s function is to transform that liquid into a solid substance. It needs to chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds. And in that way it has to reveal the infinite dimension of the finite deed.
But this can only work once the Halacha is experienced by the Jew as the result of a weltanschauung of tremendous depth. He needs to know that behind any halachic act there is profound spiritual quality, which provides him with spiritual change. It allows the unseen to enter into his world and the metaphor to become tangible. Halacha is unable to provide insight into the quality of a halachic act. To make this known, halachic man needs to learn how to struggle with the great thought processes, debates and spiritual upheavals within the Jewish Tradition.
Those who want to start Jewish education with absolute certainties will end up with doubts but those who start in doubt will become more and more convinced of its truth. The sages blessed us with a Shulchan Aruch for human behavior – they never introduced a catechism or code for Jewish thought.
To all those who want to convince us that Judaism exists of definite and all including articles of faith we say: We give you a definite maybe.
 See Thoughts to Ponder 173 and 174 on www.cardozoschool.org/