Off the Shelf: Changes in religious thought and practice

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is the flow of history inevitable? At various points in time, the development of Judaism could have taken several radically different paths. It can be difficult to grasp these changes because what were once extremely different approaches to religious practice and thought are now part of normative Judaism. This also means that contemporary ideas may alter Judaism in unknowable ways in the future. The essays in “Re-forming Judaism: Moments of Disruption in Jewish Thought” edited by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Leah Hochman, Ph.D., (CCAR Press) focuses on the ideas and individuals who caused these disruptions and offers ways to think about the future of Judaism.

Readers might not consider the laws given to Moses at Mount Sinai as a time of disruption, but in “The Disruptive Prophets: Linking Acting and Intension,” Kristine Henriksen Garroway, Ph.D., sees “Moses and the Covenant at Sinai” as the first of two major disruptions. She believes the laws given at Sinai were revolutionary because they “brought together a ragtag group of people and bound them together politically and theologically.” The religion of Moses and the Israelites was not the same religion that Abraham practiced: Abraham and his family were never required to practice the long list of religious laws given to the Israelites after they left Egypt. Garroway also sees the time of the prophets as one of disruption because the prophets declared that God was not interested in animal sacrifices. Rather, God demanded righteous behavior. According to Garroway, “It was not enough to follow the letter of the law; they need to also be ethical people. They must not knowingly one day cheat the poor or give bribes to a judge and the next day offer a guilt sacrifice. For the prophets – speaking in the name of the Divine – such actions were duplicitous and not acceptable.” 

Rabbi Joshua D. Garroway, Ph,D, ponders a little considered aspect of Judaism in his essay “Christianity: A Pauline Revolution,” discussing how Paul “transform[ed] an apocalyptic Jewish movement into the religion of Christianity.” The author shows how Paul and his followers came to believe that the ritual laws of the Torah were no longer needed. Their religion was based on the idea that all one needed to do was believe in the saving power of God. However, the most interesting part of the essay is the discussion of the various paths Christianity could have taken: the author sees Paul’s path as “a middle path in terms of the relationship to the Jewish tradition from which it emerged.” A different path would have made Christianity a variation of Judaism, for example, “just another Torah-observant community with a peculiar admiration for one great Jew [Jesus] of the past.” The third path – based on leaders who subscribed to very different ideas – would have been “so removed from Judaism – with a different God and different scripture – that it never would have come to be understood as possessing any relationship to Judaism as all.” 

While the Zohar and other mystical traditions are now considered part of mainstream Judaism, Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander, D.H.L., shows how these writings and practices were considered controversial when first introduced in the 13th century. When explaining the historical events that took place in what is now Spain, he notes how the increasing persecution by the Catholic Church, the Christian king and the emerging Christian middle class created a crisis for the Jewish population. The Zohar allowed these Jews a way to find new meaning in the Torah at a time when many were feeling that God had deserted them: Englander writes that “the God described in the Zohar yearns for a closer relationship with humans. In turn, the mystics’ quest for God allows for greater human initiative in addressing the concerns of their society.” This led to an emphasis on taking care of the poor and the needy as being part of what God demands. Englander notes that “in a world in which the only constant is change, the Zohar teaches that Torah conveys a meaning that is timeless.” 

While all the essays were interesting, several others stood out:

  • Jacob L. Wright, Ph.D., explains how, after the destruction of the first Temple, Judeans became Jews – members of a religion, rather than citizens of the kingdom of Judah – in “586 B.C.E.: Defeat and the Emergence of Jewish Peoplehood.”
  • In “Persecution, Martyrdom, and Divine Justice: How the Afterlife Came to Be,” Rabbi Candice Levy, Ph.D., discusses how religious persecution during Roman times led the ancient rabbis to develop the idea of an afterlife in order to prove there was Divine justice in this world.
  • In “Breaking the Chain: The Radical Thought of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim,” Michael A. Meyers, Ph.D., shows how Rabbi Samuel Holdheim broke with the past by offering innovative ideas about marriage and divorce, some of which are still relevant today.
  • Jewish summer camps and Debbie Friedman’s impact on Jewish music is the subject of “Reform Jewry Sings a New Song: Disruptions and Innovations” by Cantor Evan Kent, D.M.A.
  • Rabbi Elyse Goldstein focuses on “The Gender Revolution: Disruptions of Jewish Feminism” when discussing religious practices across the different Jewish movements.
  • “Re-forming Judaism” does an excellent job challenging its readers to see how ideas and individuals changed the practice and development of Judaism over the centuries. The work would be perfect for discussion groups and for those interested in the evolution of Jewish practice and theology.