Belief in an Age of Uncertainty
My review of Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s book Being Jewish Today appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on October 25th, 2019
Jews, on the whole, do not do theology. We have no catechism, not official beliefs that we theorise about and try to make sense of. The nearest thing we have is Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he wrote to define Judaism against Islam and Christianity, and which the few theologians among us have argued about ever since.
Historically, Jewish theology, such as it is, has tended to concentrate on questions raised by, or apparently absent from, Maimonides’s Principles.
Jewish modes of thought began to change in the wake of the Western Enlightenment. The Jewish world, which has always benefitted from internal divisions and disputes, began to re-align in new ways.
On one side were those who held fast to traditional values, who saw halachah as the bedrock of Judaism and theology as its intellectual cloak, easily discarded if the going got too hot. Their debates today continue to be rooted in Maimonides and his successors, regularly generating insightful, intellectually incisive new books of value. It is the theology of Orthodoxy, even if several of its contributors are not themselves Orthodox.
Across the divide are those who are not too interested in what they consider to be medieval theology, notwithstanding its contemporary incarnation. For them, modern Judaism is part of the Western enlightenment tradition, responsive to and grappling with the challenges of contemporary life. Its theology is consistent with a postmodern, pluralist world, challenging us to construct a coherent understanding of what it means today to be Jewish.
Being Jewish Today, the new book from Rabbi Tony Bayfield, falls firmly into the latter camp. The former head of the British Movement for Reform Judaism and now its president, he could have comfortably positioned himself on partisan lines, espousing a Judaism rooted in post-Enlightenment values, dismissive of the scholasticism of the past.
That he does not do so is due to the commonality of the Jewish experience, particularly four paradigmatic historic upheavals that bind us irrespective of our religious commitment.
Of the four paradigms, it is that of liminality which define the book. Liminality is the threshold between two states; for Jews it is between separation and assimilation, between the plurality of personal world views and the cohesive textual traditions that make Jewish theology Jewish. His epigraphs, the quotes at the beginning of each section, illustrate this liminality. Typically one epigraph will be drawn from a rabbinic source, another from the Western tradition. The chapter that follows navigates between the two.
Being Jewish Today is a highly personal theology, written to address many of its readers’ questions. Rabbi Bayfield describes it as an account of his particular journey, and that of millions of men and women, through today’s perplexing and challenging world.
Arranging his work along the familiar headings of Israel, Torah and God, Bayfield draws both on contemporary and classical sources to express his thinking. We meet, among many others, Rav Kook and Leo Baeck, A.J. Heschel and Levinas, Maimonides and Derrida, Elie Wiesel, Louis Jacobs, Nachmanides, Hugo Gryn, Buber, Einstein and Isaiah Berlin. A list at the end of the book cites over 120 thinkers who have contributed (usually unknowingly, one assumes) to the book.
And many classical texts. Jewish theology is rooted in Midrash; the insights, folklore, stories, ethical discussions and sermons collated over the best part of a thousand years. Bayfield’s selection of midrashim includes several that are frequently overlooked elsewhere; offering insights not necessarily expressed in traditional discourse.
Frequently appearing self-contradictory, Midrash allows the author to select passages that best support the argument they wish to make. This can be problematic.
For example, in discussing the paradox of covenant we are presented with the midrash that God forced the Israelites to accept the Torah by suspending Mount Sinai over their head. But what if we cite the conflicting midrash that says the Israelites were the only nation to voluntarily accept the Torah, after all the others had rejected it. Wouldn’t this change the argument?
One of the delights of this book is its ongoing imagined dialogue between the author and the Almighty. Whenever he discloses a doubt, rejects an implied article of faith or is just a bit chutzpadik, lines of heavy bold type leap out of the page, obliging the author to attempt a response, as best as a human can, to a rebuke, challenge or complaint from above.
British Jews rarely produce theology that demands to be read. Tony Bayfield has. He may not persuade the halachically observant nor the avowed secularist. I doubt this was his aim, though both will be enriched by reading it. In attempting to answer the perplexities and uncertainties of contemporary life, Being Jewish Today is part of the Jewish quest for meaning, for Torah. Rabbi Bayfield has done a great service by bringing it to light.