Coherent Judaism: Constructive theology, Creation & Halakhah: A book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

April 21, 2021 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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I am sure that a number of my colleagues (and friends) would question whether Judaism could ever be coherent, especially with the words Halakhah as well as theology in its title.

Those on my right believe that Judaism can only evolve within a relatively narrow set of rules outlined within their concept of halakha. Those on the left tend to view that Halakhah limits how Judaism can adapt to the 21st century.

In this sense, this book’s title owes it origin not in the world of modern thought but dates back 1,000 years to the Persian thinker, Al-Ghazali’s response to Aristotle in his text The Incoherence of the Philosophers. In response to many of the modern attempts of thinkers who have written books including The God Delusion, Religion without God, or Outgrowing God. Cherry articulates the objective of this book as “to educate my contemporaries on the history, diversity, and sophistication of Jewish theologies.”

This book is the work of an unemployed scholar (when he crafted the book) with much time on his hands for not only writing but thinking about the issues.

Cherry identifies with the Conservative/Masorti movement and that is clearly reflected in his emphasis on many of its great thinkers including Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Bradley Shavit Artson and Arthur Green [the last two will be almost unknown to our readers].

The book is divided into three sections. The first occupies almost half of the book and focuses on a (Partisan) history of Jewish thought/theology. The second part of the book deals with the question of Creation. Many of us know of the dichotomy presented between Creationism and Evolution. Cherry offers four chapters as he discusses the material from Jewish thought. He begins by discussing the two approaches to the Creation narrative- the Biblical is also presented in the context of how Rabbinic Judaism developed the question.

I have to admit that when I received this book, I picked it up with some trepidation. Anything with a theological bent takes me back initially to A.A.Cohen’s Everyman’s Talmud which was a great cure for insomnia. Then there were the writings of J.B.Soloveitchik which are always challenging or the writings of Rav Kook. A little easier was Louis Jacob’s A Jewish Theology which while dense was quite easy to read. Well, Cherry’s book highlights how a good writer can make even a difficult topic quite readable.

The chapter which caught my eye and which whetted my appetite is one entitled The Shrinking Middle. Having grown up in the Australian Jewish community with its emphasis on a middle ground Judaism- often called Minhag Anglia [the English tradition]. Many would have concurred with the adage that the difference between members of mainstream Judaism was where they parked their cars on Shabbat morning [Liberal was outside while Orthodox was around the corner] or if two Jews were discussing Judaism it was usually about what their rabbis observed.

There are many who decry, and in the same breath admire, those Jews who are more observant. The synagogues and their rabbis are, in the orthodox community establishing standards which were not asked of from congregants in orthodox synagogues in the past. Many speak of the shift to “the right” meaning stricter observance.

In my role as a Pastoral Carer in one of Sydney’s private hospitals, I do encounter Jewish patients on my ward rounds. Somewhat in jest I ask them “what synagogue don’t you go to?” Yes, it does bring a chuckle, but more telling is that more than half say “None!” [Some will say that the demographic studies are not as bad as this and I admit my sample is biased, but it also generally draws from those over 50] Some of my colleagues in parts of the United States say affiliation in their cities can be as low as ten per cent.

Whether it is the move to the right or the increase in non-affiliation rates, the reality is that the middle is shrinking. Does Cherry have anything to offer as a solution or is he more the historian or anthropologist observing and telling us what happened in retrospect.

Cherry summarises his problem with both Reform and Orthodoxy with the following statement (which felt familiar from other thinkers) with “Reform has turned individual autonomy into an idol, an ultimate value; Orthodoxy has turned Halakhah into an idol, a graven image.” Does this imply that the (shrinking) middle has yet to find a grounding in life and Judaism’s perspectives?

One person who helps Cherry understand the past is Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz- perhaps not known to most readers but who was rabbi at Sydney’s Central Synagogue over 70 years ago. Many in Orthodoxy would consider him too liberal but in his time he did address issues of the day including the Holocaust as well as a more inclusive position for women. And his granddaughter, Rachel, is one of the few Orthodox women in Israel to become a rabbi [adopting the title Rabba].

What challenges Cherry is how to make Judaism functional in the 21st century. Can this be done without rewriting Torah [both Written and Oral] or even throwing it all out? Instead, he draws upon an interesting explanation offered by how the Chatam Sofer [the 19th century major Orthodox thinker] when he comments on the story of Zelophechad’s daughters (Numbers 27) where Moshe Sofer where “more incredibly, with changing in the wording in God’s own heavenly Torah!” where the “letters in God’s Torah are reconfigured…”

Cherry reminds the reader that the great medieval philosopher, Maimonides or Rambam “failed most spectacularly in his attempt to transform Judaism into a single theology”. Reality is that for most, if not almost all Jews do not care about theology. Rather they seek to find relevance to their daily life and reality is that those in the middle really do not occur for most of what Judaism demands of us. To put it into one phrase “What is its relevance to me today?”

I do encourage each person to read this book. It is well written and challenging. It may raise one’s blood pressure; it may make the reader question Judaism’s relevance in our time. It will definitely expand your knowledge of what Jewish thinkers have to say as you, like Cherry, attempt to make your Judaism coherent (and relevant).

Coherent Judaism: Constructive theology, Creation & Halakhah

Author: Shai Cherry

Published by Academic Studies Press 2021

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s’ Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He was CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services.



One Response to “Coherent Judaism: Constructive theology, Creation & Halakhah: A book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen”
  1. Warren Green says:

    Excellent and sensitive review of the key issue in Judaism

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