(Where) Have All the Theologians Gone? Some Reflection on the Contemporary State of Orthodox Theology

Miriam Shaviv, in a review of Marc Shapiro’s “Limits of Orthodox Theology,” provocatively states that his book proves that, for the Jewish intellectual landscape, “the need is not only for theological discussions, but for theology. Both are sadly lacking.”[i] Whether or not this is an accurate representation of Shapiro’s book (which quotes some fifty or so works of theology), Shaviv can certainly be excused for thinking that even if there may have been a Jewish theology at some point in time, it doesn’t seem to exist anymore. She asks, “Have Orthodox Jews today abandoned theology as a mainstream pursuit?”

A few years later, in July 2007, Elliot Cosgrove published an article in “The Forward” entitled “Where Have All the Theologians Gone?” noting that, after a generation of numerous Jewish theologians and journals of Jewish thought, they seem to have gone quiet over the past two decades[ii]. He was not referring only to Orthodox Jewry, but to Jews across all denominations. More recently, his article became the topic of a public discussion between Rabbis Meir Soloveitchik and Shai Held. While the event was initially advertised as a debate, both speakers agreed at the outset on the article’s central claim: Jewish theology has all but disappeared.[iii] Though his remarks are meant to be reflective of all of contemporary Jewry, I shall limit myself here to the question of Orthodox theology. I believe that this endeavor would be best served by defining ‘theology’ here as broadly as possible as any study which explores religion’s intellectual features or challenges.

Held and Soloveitchik, in the aforementioned talk, gave several explanations for why, in their opinion, there has been a major decline in theological discourse. The current intellectual climate within which we find ourselves is not conducive to theology, they say, either because of (1) a rising trend of materialism and thus lack of religiousinterest, (2) a sense of exasperation from too many inadequate ‘answers’ in post-Holocaust theology, (3) a liberalism which refuses to acknowledge the superiority (and therefore, defensibility) of one set of metaphysical claims over any other, and among the Orthodox, (4) a commitment to Halakha so austere as to prevent any questioning or even discussion of its underpinnings, or because (5) in the traditional world, a fear of being marginalized for theological creativity.

Before offering my thoughts on whether or not I believe this to be an accurate representation of the current state of affairs, I would like to add three more speculations to this rather disheartening list.

One, which should be less disheartening, is the suggestion that would-be Orthodox theologians of the past few decades are living in the shadow of a theologian so great that they don’t dare attempt to fill his shoes: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. His posthumously published works now exceed those that he published in his lifetime, and thus continue to make new demands on the collective Orthodox intelligentsia. More than the quantity of his writings, though,  the sheer force of his magisterial personality is perhaps enough to scare anyone away from doing more than commenting and clarifying the words of this great master. In Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s inimitable words, “even Israelis who do not perceive that his spiritual stature towers majestically over that of their Rashei Yeshiva, even Americans who are blind to the fact that he bestrides their current Mo’ezet Gedolei ha-Torah like a colossus…”[iv] acknowledge him as an independent authority.

Another possible reason for avoiding open theological discussions is precisely that the few theologians who are, so to speak, on the contemporary Modern Orthodox ‘scene’, are themselves opposed to dogmatic interpretations of Judaism. While this may not necessarily be the scholarly consensus, it is certainly the position of many contemporary thinkers as well as scholars of Jewish philosophy, including R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo[v] and Tamar Ross[vi], who insist that Judaism is primarily a religion of practice and not of dogma. Hence, those very theologians and their many ideological predecessors[vii] may be interpreted, incorrectly, as encouraging the current dearth of theological discourse, and the theologically minded are thus being told to turn elsewhere.

My final additional proposal to answer the question, “where the Orthodox theologians have gone” is: to the Beit Midrash. The past half-century has seen an explosion of Torah study in its traditional and most legalistic forms, and the more modern sectors of Orthodoxy are not at all immune to this phenomenon.[viii] The “best and brightest” students, therefore, were already trained from day school that being intellectually engaged in Judaism means something entirely different from theology.

After delineating eight possible explanations for the Jewish theological “brain drain”, and consequently, eight reasons for it to be in a state of neglect, I would humbly suggest that not only are these problems very much surmountable, but that Jewish theology is actually very much alive, even if it is in somewhat of a modified state.

Firstly, if we are to include works produced by the “profoundly insular fundamentalists” whose literary achievements Cosgrove so condescendingly dismisses as consisting entirely of “ArtScroll translations or popular books on Jewish literacy”[ix], we’d find that contemporary theological landscape is not as barren as he makes it out to be. Indeed, if we could only draw a bit more deeply upon our modern value of open-mindedness to be open to listening to those who are “on the right”, we might very well find a rewarding richness in the works of contemporaries. It is, at least in my opinion, to Modern Orthodoxy’s detriment if it ignores figures such as Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, Rabbi Shlomo Fisher, Rabbi Dovid Cohen, and so many others. While their assumptions may be very different than those of someone coming from a more modern perspective and intellectual training, have our core values diverged so sharply that we can no longer even consider them to be part of the theological conversation?

In this same vain, I would submit that despite so many pessimistic diagnoses to the contrary[x], among the modern crowd as well, the theologians are not all gone. This institution alone houses Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi J. David Bleich, and Dr. David Shatz, three authors whose literary contributions include those that could validly be considered to fall within the confines of theology. While it’s true that their writing may be of significantly different character from each other as well as from their predecessors, there is no need to assume that theological discourse should always take the same shape in every generation. Each of these author’s works   discusses the intellectual backing of a modern, thinking religious person,[xi] and explores the emotional relevance of traditional Judaism in the present century.[xii]

Despite this hopeful glimmer, the challenges listed above do deserve addressing, though I would rather understand them as factors that might shape the background for future theological discussion than factors that would prevent it completely. For example, the strong sense of materialism in contemporary culture, and its corresponding philosophy of reductionism (or ‘physicalism’), is something that warrants a Jewish response, not a Jewish silence, and I would say the same regarding issues of theodicy as they pertain to the Holocaust and recent history.

Furthermore, liberalism, or at least non-dogmatism, is not a reason for abandoning theology, but on the contrary: those same liberal thinkers have instead used this backdrop to free themselves of previous theological models and have indeed broken new ground in this sense. Tamar Ross and Rabbi Cardozo themselves have not shied away from expressing their views merely because they don’t believe in Judaism as a dogmatic religion, but instead see this as an invitation for more creative theological discussion. Especially in today’s climate of intellectual sophistication, I do not believe that a commitment to Halakha can exist for long without some sort of philosophical justification or corresponding theology. As Rabbeinu Bahya emphasized so many years ago[xiii], the Torah includes “duties of the mind” just as much as it prescribes “duties of the body”, and the Jewish community cannot survive ignoring the former for too long. A halakha that is devoid of intellectual and emotional content can hardly be considered “what God asks of you” (Devarim 10:12).[xiv]

Thus, theology is being shaped by the general issues of how it pertains to practice (more so than beliefs)[xv], but it seems to me to be shifting in another manner as well. As mentioned, the Modern Orthodox community still stands in the somewhat intimidating shadow of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s great legacy, but in truth, all of Jewry has at their disposal an extraordinarily rich heritage of religious thinkers, going back for at least a millennium. Whereas so many of the past centuries have seen the publication of new works of Jewish thought, I believe that the current focus is being placed more on looking backwards, dusting off the works of Medieval and Renaissance thinkers and reading them with fresh eyes[xvi]. Perhaps because this shift is due to a feeling of inadequacy on our own part, or simply due to having collectively accumulated enough works that looking back proves more fruitful than innovating from scratch.

I would surmise that a significant contributor to this trend is the growth and popularization of academic scholarship in the field of Jewish studies. The growing readership – and intended readership – of works that, half a century ago, would have been topics confined to academia, while not strictly theological, is still providing new ways for people to look at old works and old problems. Such a movement may have begun some time ago, by such writers as Louis Jacobs and Isadore Twersky, but has, I believe, been accelerating of late. The growing popularity in Israel of books by Micah Goodman and Avraham Grossman, as well as English titles published by Littman Library and the like, seems to indicate a Jewish readership that is very interested in theology, but in a theology that is grounded in understanding its predecessors. Works such as these spark discussion from all sides, engaging with modern scholarship and forcing many to reconsider or at least better formulate how they’ve understood certain ideas in light of academic interpretations.[xvii]

The fact that so many of the able-minded Jews have turned to more halakhic areas of Torah study does not mean that they take no interest in matters of theology, but could instead mean that its discourse is shifting language. In many ways, a sophisticated understating of a legalistic Talmudic idea can itself have theological implications. What does Masekhet Ketuvot tell us about the religious value and understanding of a marriage relationship? Can Masekhet Berakhot teach us how and when to turn to God? I believe that not only is the answer is yes, but that a full understanding of the sugyot actually provides a more sophisticated conception of our religion than any detached theological discussion could provide. Rabbi Michael Rosensweig for example, is one Rosh Yeshiva who, while giving daily shiur, has a knack for formulating the underlying mechanisms of a halakhic principle in a manner which could very well be considered to be theology. Almost all of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s essays delving into profound contemporary issues discuss them according to halakhic parameters, and he brilliantly constructs elaborate ideological positions from these largely legalistic sources.[xviii]

There is one final obstacle worth discussing: the fear of differing from mainstream Orthodoxy. Cosgrove notes that the Orthodox figures of late twentieth century philosophy (he notes Rabbis Soloveitchik, Eliezer Berkowitz and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, but we might want to add Walter Wurzberger, Michael Wyschograd, Leo Jung, Yitz Greenberg, and David Hartman) were all marginalized at best, and repudiated as non-Orthodox at the worst. For many of these people, though, accusations of heresy were nothing to be afraid of, and today, Orthodox[xix] Judaism has diversified to the point that it would not be difficult for anyone, no matter how theologically creative, to find an accepting Jewish community.

To me, however, this is actually the most formidable of challenges, because it expresses a larger issue: are those who identify as Orthodox drifting so far apart from each other that theological stands of some would be unacceptable, even heretical, to others? My impression is that theology has much less to do with this issue than outward, social differences. On the other hand, should we really be in the business of introducing more excuses for further fragmenting of our people?

Again I feel the need to resort to what may very well be naïve optimism, but, just maybe, deepening the theological basis for our commitment can actually bring Jews closer together. Perhaps, assuming that our theology is indeed Orthodox, we will discover that there is much more here that we share. If we can make that our focus, instead of focusing on external differences or expressions of those values, perhaps a greater concentration on theology can strengthen us not only intellectually, but as a unified people.


Matt Lubin is majoring in Biology and Chemistry at Yeshiva College.

[i] Published in The Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2004.

[ii] Here is not the place, I believe, to quibble about the meaning and definition of a “theologian”, and throughout the essay I prefer to apply it broadly to those who articulate innovative ideas within Jewish thought, delineate some if its undercurrents, apply its ideas to modern issues, or even merely give expression to traditional theology.

[iii] Elliot Cosgrove himself might no longer agree so wholeheartedly now that he’s edited the volume “Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief” (Jewish Lights, 2012)

[iv] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Leaves of Faith: Volume 2” (Ktav Publishing House, 2004)  pg. 290

[v] See, most recently, “God is Relocating: A Critique on Contemporary Orthodoxy”, Conversations 19 (Spring 2014) available at http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/god-relocating-critique-contemporary-orthodoxy-four

[vi] “Religious Belief in a Postmodern Age,” in Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz (eds.), Faith: Jewish Perspectives (Boston, 2013), specifically pp. 217-218

[vii] There are a great many precedents to this view in Jewish theology. For a small sample, consider Leon Roth, Louis Jacobs, Milton Steinberg, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, all of whom in turn trace this idea back to Mendelssohn in his landmark essay, “Jerusalem” (though the legitimacy of their relying upon this ‘great tree’ is debatable).

[viii] Consider: the current amount of “gap year” programs in Israel, which cater specifically to the Modern Orthodox student, is staggering, and yet almost every one of them has a curriculum which centers on study of Talmudic or halakhic areas of Torah. See Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, and Chaim I. Waxman, “Flipping Out: Myth or Fact? The Impact of the ‘Year in Israel’”, (New York: Yashar Books, 2007) and Wuilliam Helmreich, “The World of the Yeshiva” (Ktav Publishing House, 2000), Introduction, and pp. 45-51, 305-311.

[ix] Elliot Cosgrove, ““Where Have All the Theologians Gone?The Forward, August 2007

[x] Nostalgic complaining about the intellectual decline across the generations is not at all new, either to Judaism or to other cultures and contexts. See http://xkcd.com/1227/. However, taking this attitude too far has been warned against by Kohelet 10:7, and can sometimes even be proven false, such as in Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Viking Books, 2011).

[xi] In a recent (though some might say disappointing) sample of such writing, see David Shatz, “The Over-examined Life is Not Worth Living”, in “Judaism and Jewish Life: Jewish Thought in Dialogue: Essays on Thinkers, Theologies and Moral Theories,” (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009), pg. 387-412

[xii] For what I believe is a prescient example of the latter, see Shalom Carmy, “Yet My Soul Drew Back: Fear of God as Experience and Commandment in an Age of Anxiety,” Tradition, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Fall 2008), pp. 1-30

[xiii] See his Introduction to “Duties of the Heart”

[xiv] See, specifically, Netziv to Devarim 4:9-10

[xv] Such a trend is already evident in the works of R. Soloveitchik, to say nothing of so many of the other great theologians of the past century, who focuses much more on the emotional depth of religious life, than its philosophical justification or framework, at least in my opinion.

[xvi] This is perhaps more a feature of (the intellectual) Modern Orthodox culture than of contemporary Orthodoxy as a whole. The irony of a so-called “modern” community being more inclined to look to the past is not lost on me, nor was it lost on R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who made this observation in his classic essay, “Legitimization of Modernity: Classical and Contemporary,” published fist in the 1997 Orthodox Forum, and later in “Leaves of Faith: Volume 2” (Ktav Publishing House, 2004) pg. 281

[xvii] One example that I have found particularly interesting is the ongoing debate over the extent to which the Tosafist R. Moses Taku was a corporealist. One of the first to discuss this issue was the staunchly Orthodox R. Menachem Mendel Kasher, who insisted upon this Tosafist’s unwavering commitment to incorporealism, but several later scholars, among them Efraim Urbach and Marc Shapiro, have thought otherwise. After his opinion began to be more well known, several Rabbis have wrestled R. Moshe Taku back to the side of traditional Jewish incorporealism. See David Sedley’s, “Rav Moshe Taku: non-Rationalist Judaism”, Reshimu 3 (July 2009) and the even more traditional article by R. Ahron Lopiansky, “The Corporeality Which Never Was”, Dialogue 5 (Fall 2014).

[xviii] While R. Lichtenstein provides excellently skilled applications of this methodology, the method itself is not unique to him or his writings, and is referenced in some measure by R. Soloveitchik. See Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence J. Kaplan (Philadelphia, 1983), pg. 108, and the conclusion of Halakhic Mind

[xix] This is not meant to be a judgment or a conferral on my part that all of these communities are indeed ‘Orthodox’, but I’m merely referring to individuals, communities, or institutions that self-identify as such.