The scientific revolution and secularism have fundamentally changed modern society. The lives of modern people are drastically different from those of their ancestors. Technology, knowledge, human rights, the secular state, and democracy have not only made living easier but also typically longer. While many great things have come from these developments, they have also forced us to confront our own evil impulses and examine the basis of our morality. The death of God is a term used by Nietzsche, and subsequent philosophers, to refer to the idea that God is no longer a credible source for morals. This concept could be expanded even further to state that the God of our ancestors no longer functions in our lives as he did in theirs. In short, the God-idea is irrelevant to modern life. Our knowledge of the universe comes from scientific inquiry, healing is the result of medical knowledge and technology, democratic egalitarianism has made the idea of a supernatural King anachronistic at best, and the divine command theory of morality has been thoroughly discredited as intellectually untenable. The destruction of the idolatrous God-idea of the immediate past is comparable to the destruction of the tribal God-idea during the Babylonian exile. Just as the exiled Jews asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” modern Jews ask, “How can we pray to a God we don’t really believe in?” What does it mean to practice Judaism in a world where God is not our King, Helper, Savior, or Shield? Just as the Jews of the past created forms of Judaism which expressed their religious beliefs while maintaining continuity with the traditions and institutions of the past, so must modern Jews create new expressions of Judaism while building on the past.
Martin Buber argued that Judaism was a spiritual process of “striving for an ever more perfect realization of three interconnected ideas: the idea of unity, the idea of the deed, and the idea of the future” (On Judaism, p. 40). The idea of unity is the tendency to notice the context of phenomena and acknowledge their underlying unity and interdependence. The idea of the deed is the idea that human action should come from the freedom and responsibility to do what is right unconditionally without expectation of reward. And the idea of the future refers to the messianic utopianism which expresses itself in Jewish striving to create a more perfect world even if it remains an unattainable ideal (Ariel, What Do Jews Believe, p. 123). Buber’s spiritual process mirrors the traditional “trinity” of Judaism: God, Torah, and Israel. While Buber’s theory focuses on the messianic ideal of Israel, it also implicitly reveals something about the nature of the people of Israel, i.e. that they are a people with a self-imposed mission to be a light to the nations.
But what gives the Jewish people the chutzpah to claim to be a light to the nations? Jews do not have a monopoly on morality or justice. There are upright and just people of all nationalities and religions, and conversely there are corrupt and immoral Jews. The “additional covenant” of Elie Wiesel reveals why Jews must take this role upon themselves. The Jews are the perpetual Other, and have been more persecuted and oppressed than any other people throughout history. It is the responsibility of the Jews to bear witness not only to their own suffering, but to the suffering of all humanity, and to speak out and fight against it like the prophets of the past. The responsibility to bear witness arises from the necessity to stand in solidarity with the Jews of the past and the need to sanctify life in the face of cosmic absurdity.
The spiritual process of Buber and the “additional covenant” of Wiesel provide the basis through which a meaningful practice of modern Judaism can arise in a world in which God is dead. To be a Jew is to stand in solidarity with the Jews of the past and present and the suffering of humanity; to affirm life’s meaning despite cosmic absurdity; to perceive the unity of the world; to choose goodness freely without expectation of reward; and to strive to create a more perfect world even if the goal is never attained.
In responding to the death of God, modern theologians have taken one of two approaches. The first is to double down on the traditional understanding and proclaim, like the popular Christian movie, that “God’s not dead.” While this may be true for a minority of people, particularly fundamentalists, for most people God is not a large part of their life and not even a very large intellectual concern. The other approach is to “reevaluate” or reinterpret what the word ‘God’ refers to. Mordecai Kaplan is the most famous modern Jewish theologian to take this approach, alternatively defining God as the “life of the universe” and the “power that makes for human salvation.” Paul Tillich’s theology is another popular alternative, which defines God as “the Ground of all Being,” or “Being-itself.” These redefinitions can be useful for people who wish to remain part of explicitly theistic religious communities or who wish to make their beliefs to appear more intellectually respectable, but this approach is disingenuous. Redefinitions are frequently vague, bland, or functionally useless. Why refer to the natural forces which make human life worthwhile as God? What does it actually mean when someone says that God is the Ground of Being, and how is that any different from a supernatural God or pantheism? And finally, how can anyone emotionally connect to or depend on an impersonal force in their spiritual or personal life? The person praying to be healed of cancer isn’t talking to the “Ground of Being,” but rather to a personal, supernatural, anthropomorphized God who created and sustains everything through infinite power.
We thus arrive at the crux of the matter. If God is dead, then God no longer has meaning in our lives. Liberal theology that redefines God as an impersonal force will not save the God-idea for modernity because those theological formulations cannot function in the life of the believer like the traditional God can. While these liberal theologies are beautiful in their own way, we should say what we mean and not try to couch our beliefs in theological terminology that does not fit. Poetic language has its place, but we shouldn’t equivocate. If what we mean by God is, “the Universe,” or “Life,” or “Unity,” then that is what we should be discussing, not God. Whether or not there is a God is irrelevant if the idea has no function in our understanding of reality or daily lives.
A prime example of this is the function of halakha in modern Jewish life. Law by its nature regulates behavior through social or governmental force. Jewish law no longer has the capacity to regulate behavior through (threat of) force in the same way American or Israeli law can. In fact, there is a principle in the Talmud, I believe, which states that the law of the land is the law, meaning that Jewish law is subordinate to national law except for a few cases (such as idolatry, adultery, murder, etc). Jewish law is no longer a national law with governmental institutions to enforce it. Not even Israel, the only Jewish country in the world, follows traditional religious Jewish law. The only instances in which Jewish law is strictly followed are Orthodox communities (and even here there are limitations due to outside restrictions, e.g. temple sacrifice). But even if you admit this example, it’s imperfect because Orthodox communities have no power to enforce Jewish law. If someone wishes to leave an Orthodox community or publicly break Jewish law, they can and do and there are no repercussions (except perhaps for ostracism). I think this demonstrates that even in Orthodox communities, adherence to Jewish law is fundamentally voluntary, not compulsory in the same way as national laws. (Of course Orthodox Jews would argue that God enforces the law, if not now, then in the afterlife, but such a claim cannot be substantiated without first accepting Orthodox doctrine, making it a circular argument.)
The undermining of Jewish law occurred with the diaspora. Without a state to enforce Jewish law, it ceased to be a functional law and was subordinated, in all but a few instances, to the laws of the land where Jews lived. There were areas where Jews would be more or less left to themselves, if not forcibly separated, and could create communities where Jewish law was enforced. This was the case with the ghettos wherein rabbis held legal authority granted by the state. However the moment the ghettos were opened and restrictions were eased on Jews, rabbis lost their authority, and assimilation and secularization began. Recognizing this change in legal authority, the reformers focused on Judaism as a religion, rather than as a legal system, and (mostly) adopted the philosophy of Deism which was popular at the time in Western Europe. Jewish law to them was clearly antiquated and useless when the nation’s laws were the only ones that really mattered. They made the mistake of de-emphasizing or denying the ethnic/national character of the Jewish people, however.
With the liberation of the Jews from the ghettos, secularization became a popular alternative to religious life, and with it came secular movements based on Jewish nationality, culture, and peoplehood. Zionism was the major success story of these secular movements, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel. The creation of a Jewish state offered the possibility of Jewish law to become a reality again. But rather than adopt halakha, the founders of the state created a secular state with secular laws. Jewish law was once again relegated to the sidelines. So now we’ve come full circle. From a nation which was forcibly exiled to a nation restored. Only now, instead of restoring the laws of the nation which was defeated millennia ago, we have a nation founded on secular principles of democracy and equality.
Going through this brief overview, I think it has become obvious that Jewish law is a relic of the Jewish past. Very few Jews take it seriously enough to actually follow it, and I suspect most would resent having it imposed on them in the way the laws of the state are (not least because Jewish law is authoritarian, not democratic). So then what function should Jewish law play in the religion of Judaism since it is not law in the full sense of the word (i.e. it cannot regulate behavior)? There are essentially two options, and they are the two options that have been playing out for the last two centuries. Full rejection of the law and assimilation into the gentile population, or selectively using the law to supplement Jewish identity. All of the liberal movements of Judaism choose which aspects of Jewish law they wish to maintain in order to create Jewish communities, while recognizing that it has no real authority (with the possible exception of the more traditionalist Conservatives). To use a cliche from Kaplan, it has a vote, not a veto. This means that Jewish law is not truly law, but rather tradition or custom, and traditions and customs can be altered, ignored, or utilized to fulfill the needs of the people who practice them. And Judaism, as the repository and religious system which contains these traditions, is an evolving religious civilization.
If God is dead and halakha is a relic that can be easily ignored, what then becomes of Judaism and the Jewish people? We must find new ways to be Jewish, to affirm our connection to one another and the tradition in ways that are meaningful and truthful to our beliefs. Each liberal movement of Judaism answers this question in a different way; some emphasizing monotheism or spirituality, some emphasizing culture, others focusing on ritual practice coupled with liberal theology and modernity. All emphasize morality, social justice, and connection (or solidarity) with the Jewish people and Jewish culture. In short, humanism and an attachment to Jewish culture and history is the common ground between all the liberal movements.