Do Jews Believe In God?

March 19, 2008

So I am told on good authority is what Martin Luther King asked his colleague Bayard Rustin after the latter had arranged a meeting with a large group of Reform Rabbis.  I have long felt the question is more aptly put to Conservative and other more “nationally” minded Jews.

Grant Havers does just that in this review of Jacob Heilbrunn’s excellent if somewhat idiosyncratic history of neoconservatism, They Knew They Were Right.   Havers complains that Heilbrunn does not go into a deeper meditation on the nature of ideology as a means of explaining neoconservatism, and while I shared this peeve myself, I felt that for Heilbrunn’s purpose, to make this history available to the layman, less is more.

But Havers goes further to tie this inextricably to another shortcoming of the book which provides great grist to its detractors, which is that Heilbrunn never satisfactorily elaborates his thesis that neoconservatism is a distinctly Jewish phenomenon reacting to the immigrant experience and the Holocaust.  Havers elaborates it himself by simply breaking it down to a simple secularization of the biblical narrative, and here the discussion gets very interesting.

Havers implies that this is a distinctly Jewish phenomenon, perhaps without even knowing it going against all past proponents of the secularization theory, from Max Weber to Murray Rothbard, all arguing that it was distinctly Christian.  I, however, am with Havers.

The vexing question, one which I continue to wrestle with, is whether this utopianism is normative to Judaism or an aberration.  David Gordon, an Orthodox Jew, argues vehemently for the latter in taking the neocon heresy head on.  On the other side is Paul Gottfried, who comes out of the Classical Reform tradition, argues with typical bombast for the former.

The entire history of the Jews in modernity can be read as a reaction, or series of reactions, to the spectacular rise and fall of the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi in the 17th century.  There were, on the one hand, those who rejected all those doctrines of Orthodoxy to which the false messiah was responding and embraced the Enlightenment, evolving into the Reform Movement.  On the other were the movements of a kind with the contemporaneous proliferation of mystical and enthusiastic Christian sects, of which the Hasidic movement in its various sects is the most lasting to this day.

There was also, however, competing with the early Hasidim, Jacob Frank, who by virtue of geography if nothing else was likely a more direct influence on Marx than any of the strikingly similar Christian sects elaborated in the Rothbard essay linked above.  And not only on Marx but on his friend-turned-foe Moses Hess, whose evolution from revolutionary French utopianism to champion of the rise of nationalism (including and especially Zionism), makes him not only more directly responsible for the evils most commonly attributed to Marx but also, quite simply, the first neocon.

Zionism, of course, was ultimately triumphant, with relative ease having its way with both the Reform movement, with their fundamental republicanism, and the increasingly Hasidicized Orthodox, with their stubborn belief in earthly redemption.

So is all this the norm or an aberration of the last few centuries?  I would have to say neither ultimately, for true Maimonidean Orthodoxy – itself only five centuries old in the time of Shabtai Tzvi – would have been doomed some other way if not as it was.   Though I often feel like, as with so much else in life, I have been stuck with the least bad option, this is what I see in the Renewal movement, stemming ultimately as it does from Martin Buber, who looked to inspiration from the Hasidim when the failures of Reform were self-evident to him.

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One Response to “Do Jews Believe In God?”


  1. […] what all this conveniently ignores is the possibility of a very real fount of ideology in Judaism, and thus the possibility that the crux of the question is not praxeological but […]


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