August 20, 2009
One of the challenging dimensions of contemporary Jewish religious pluralism is the definition of boundaries of belief. The past century and a half has seen the rise of Reform, then Conservative, then Reconstructionist interpretations of Judaism, as well as more recent developments such as the Jewish Renewal movement. One consequence has been a spectrum of religious affirmations (and denials) regarding belief in God. We are witness today to a most dynamic period of development in Jewish religious thought.
Yet it is this very pluralism that often stretches the borders of what can comfortably be called “Jewish.” At all ends of the spectrum, from the narrowest orthodoxy to the most unbridled liberalism, we find assertions about God that some Jews would call “heresy.”
Certain Jews affirm, for example, that the Holocaust was God’s punishment of unfaithful Jews, a view most modern Jews would probably view as heretical, or at the least extremely insensitive.
Other Jews experiment with images and nomenclature for God drawn from religious traditions that surrounded ancient Israel, in the name of “recovering” heretofore “repressed” versions of (often female) spirituality. The imagery of “the goddess” would certainly sound “heretical” — or at least peculiar — to many Jews today.
Yet who is to say and how do we know when “heresy” arises? Given the radical changes in Jewish life and religious thought, how do we know what is essential and what is marginal?
The Torah had no such difficulties, as this week’s portion indicates. According to Deuteronomy, members of the Israelite community who are discovered in idolatrous worship — worshiping other gods and/or the sun, moon, and planets — are to be executed upon the testimony of at least two witnesses (17:2-7).
This regulation is somewhat peculiar, since so much of what constitutes heresy in Judaism has to do with action rather than belief. Non-compliance with Jewish law is often a more sensitive subversion than disagreement with a given Jewish category of belief.
Some argue, for example, that it was the rejection of Jewish law by the early followers of Jesus, rather than their belief in him as the messiah, that created the break with the Jewish community.
The Torah’s definition of idolatry implicates its followers as heretics if they are members of the Israelite community. Deuteronomy itself, however, suggests that “the sun and moon and stars, even the whole host of heaven” are acceptable objects of worship for all other peoples (4:19).
Leaving aside the problematic implications for monotheism of this divine dispensation, the suggestion that idolatry/heresy is a sin for Israel only points to some guidelines for identifying contemporary Jewish beliefs that perhaps step over the line of what Judaism can comfortably accommodate.
The Torah here seems to suggest that there is nothing inherently objectionable about the beliefs of other religious traditions. What is objectionable is the attempt by Jews to incorporate those beliefs into their own religious tradition.
Thus, to take the most obvious example, the so-called “Jews for Jesus” are viewed as outside the Jewish tradition not because Christianity is necessarily false but because for a Jew to believe in Christianity is to affirm a faith that is out of bounds to a Jew.
A more subtle issue arises when a Jew seeks to affirm and/or incorporate teachings or practices of Eastern religious traditions, such as Buddhism, into Judaism. Here again, we face the difficult distinction as to what comprises the boundaries of tradition.
One thing seems certain: In our quest to explore and expand the options of Jewish religious faith, allowing for experimentation will inevitably result in occasional excess. But we should not allow the occasional lapse into marginal beliefs to become an impediment to religious creativity.
The Torah’s suggestion that idolatry, however defined, should be punishable by death is an extreme response, one that is no longer functional — for which we can be grateful. Judaism is witness to the fact that one generation’s heresy is often the next generation’s orthodoxy.
We live on an increasingly small planet, in which awareness of the faiths of other peoples no longer seems to be a threat but an opportunity for dialogue. We also live in a period of transition, when the rediscovery of ancient Jewish traditions (such as Kabala, or Jewish mysticism) allows what were once considered heresies to surface as spiritual options. We live in a world that the ancient writers of Deuteronomy could not have anticipated. How we Jews understand Judaism in the world in which we live remains the challenge of modernity.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.