Rabbi Michael Shevack

Re-JEW-venating the Jew: Formulas for Authority

Rabbi Michael Shevack

The authoritative limits of “democracy” under Transcendent Reason have been pushed to the breaking point: Whose Reason should I follow?

For those Jews who believe as FACT the rabbinic “formula” – The whole of the Oral and Written Law was given to Moses at Sinai– and who also believe that rabbinic authority is an unbroken chain from Moses, there is little to talk about here. I wish you well; Yasher Koach, be strengthened. May your efforts for our World, through your share of our People, help bring about the Messianic Age for us all.

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However, for those contemporary Jews, like myself, for whom this formula is not, and never was, fact, there is much to say. To achieve our task here of re-JEW-venating the Jew in our still Roman-contaminated world, we need to address this formula head on.

This was the formula upon which the Rabbis of Blessed Memory based their authority. It was so profound, so visionary, that it set in motion the course of Judaism and world history, for the next 2,000 years, and I believe, will continue to do so.

After the Roman invasion and the destruction of the Temple, our Rabbis of Blessed Memory were forced to invent a different kind of non-priestly government for our people.

The Torah, specifically The Five Books of Moses, was already existing, a kind of priestly-endorsed “constitution” for Judea since the Babylonian Exile. It was treated not unlike how we treat our U.S. Constitution, as describing a covenant, something sacred, testifying to a God-founded Authority.

For Israel to be returned to its Land, to pick up where we had left off after the Roman ransacking, required a relentless devotion to this Torah-constitution. Our Rabbis looked forward, faithfully, and fiercely, to that time when the Temple would be rebuilt, sacrifice would begin again, and Judea would be back on its own God-directed track, not existing in a state of military occupation under foreign law, but under our law.

In order to accomplish this enormous task, while scattered about in alien territories, the Rabbis created an astonishing innovation. This was a portable tabernacle, a movable-government, which could be set up anywhere any of the new “Wandering Jews” might land. It protected us in the Diaspora. It formed the foundation of a World synagogue network, linking all our communities and people together. It also served to open Jews up to participation in the World-System that was forming, while safeguarding our separate identity as a sacred-minority, bearing a critical prophetic message needed for humankind.

All this began with an “AHA” moment: The Rabbis realized that they were, ironically, in the same essential position as the scriptural Moses, guiding the Jews through the Wilderness. So, they looked at the Torah not merely as a book of Law to be administered, but also as an inspired book which would teach them inspired lessons in leadership. Moses was seen as “our Teacher”, Moshe Rabbenu.

By studying the text, philosophizing over the text, commenting on the text, interpreting and re-interpreting the text, and, of course, relying on the “outstretched arm” of That God Who brought us out of Egypt, our Rabbis drew upon the spirit of Moses to lead. They made themselves a continuity of his legacy, his “students”, gleaning the halachot, the “ways to go,” for guiding our people through this new Wilderness, back to our Land and our national sovereignty under God.

The Rabbi’s insights eventually became the Oral Law, which, after 200 C.E., began to be codified as a new written “law,” a torah upon Torah, a Talmud, for students, talmidim.

But, here’s the problem today:

In an era of modern biblical criticism, where we know for a fact– an objective, scientific, archeological fact– that the Torah, meaning the Pentateuch, let alone the other subsequent literature, was not factually given to Moses– where the rabbinic mystique around the Torah has been shattered, the entire metaphysical foundation of Rabbinic authority is totally questionable. The spell that the Rabbis wove, the spirit that propelled them, is weak or broken.

It is only in a spiritual sense that “The Whole of the Oral and Written Law” was in-deed given to Moses. It was deeded not to Moses the person, but to the “Moses of Rabbinic-reflection”.

This formula, in a real sense, “justified” rabbinic authority. It linked a scholarly class, which had never before gained power, with the scriptural Moses, creating a legacy-of-authority. It was how the Rabbis saw themselves.

Spiritually, and pragmatically, this same formula is what allowed the rabbis to authoritatively-declare that God “commanded us” to light Sabbath candles and all sorts of their other new innovations. God commanded us? Where are Sabbath candles in the Torah? Nowhere! But since God who justified the authority of the Rabbis, it was God who commanded us (via the Rabbis).

This grand Rabbinic formula had far-reaching effects, way beyond our Jewish community. Slightly varied because of the entrance of Christian “Spirit” into the plain of salvific history, similar thinking was used to justify Church canon law. Jesus’ teachings were also seen, like the rabbis’, as being implicit in scripture, hidden within the “old,” unveiled in the “new.” Jesus’ authority passed, like a s’mcha to Peter, and from there, to other “rabbis,” now cardinals.

For close to fifteen centuries this formula served mightily. But, over time, its weaknesses became visible. For Jews, it lead to a certain legal inbreeding. Stultification, obsessive-compulsion, entrenchment, uninspired legalism and “self-ghettoizing” in Jewish communities. A Light was needed!

And when– in an imperial Roman way– their variant-formula lead to brutal, abuse of power by so-called Absolute Monarchs in Europe, their formula needed some Light too, the European Enlightenment.

The Torah, the Rabbi’s “Blueprint of Creation”– or “Christ” the Word blueprinting Creation– became replaced by Reason, itself a Logos, of sorts. “Reason” was useful for framing authority and law– a Natural Law– by-passing religion. The modern, democratic age– more secular and more scientific–was birthed.

However these days, the authoritative limits of “democracy” under Transcendent Reason have been pushed to the breaking point: Whose Reason should I follow? Who gives you authority over me? I have my rights to do what I want. Today, we see reason after reason to justify authority after authority, all in the name of personal freedom. Our youth ask us questions about the basis of authority, and our answers are flabby, silly.

That’s because without some kind of REAL Authority, based upon a REAL Truth, we have no Authority. We have no Judaism or Jewish law. We have no true nation. We have no true governance, religious or secular. Without some kind of REAL Authority, lawfulness is lie, spirituality is anarchy. Then, authority is merely a nuisance, like a parking ticket, we must put up with, or worse, fear and hide from, a strong-arm imposed from with-out, proto-fascist.

To make matters worse, today’s Jews, living in a materially-affluent, secular-scientific democratic world culture, have become so comfortable with their resident “alien” nations, that are, overall, so ethical and compatible with Jewish values and life, that Judaism and Jewish identity is not actually needed. It is more of a cultural vestige or sentimentality.

Today’s Jews actually love the foreign domination we live in now! The purified Romanism of Western civilization works for them! The situation of the Rabbis, when they created their portable tabernacles, has changed, radically; their formula for authority is reaching the limit of its design.

Today’s Jews need a massive re-JEW-venation, because the ancient rabbinic “mystique” around the Torah, around the figure of Moses, and around the cult of Rabbinic authority, has been broken. Shattered!

Like the first tablets of Moses! The second-tablets have yet to be written.

That’s our task in this series.

The solution is hardly to force-feed traditional religion back into secularly, illumined tender young minds, like a goose condemned to foie gras. A mere “marketing plan” designed to indoctrinate by conditioning will no longer have a lasting effect.

What is the solution?

Ah! Magnificently, ironically, I think the solution remains that very same formula of the Rabbis, at a slightly higher “operating system.”

No, not the assertion of the formula itself, naively accepted as the foundation of rabbinic authority. But, instead, the astonishing, transformative spiritual awareness that was the soul-driver of our Rabbis, and which stands behind the formula, often invisible, because we have inherited only their words, not their gifts.

It is this Spiritual Light which endowed this formula with the formidable prowess and spiritual power that, in a very real sense, “created Judaism,” safeguarding us in a hostile world culture, guiding us back to this precious moment of time, when our feet stand on our own Land.

It is this Spiritual Sense, the, shall-we-say, Spiritual Methodology of the Rishonim that needs to be brought to light again. It is their spiritual approach to Life that needs to be “downloaded” into the every single Jewish child and adult.

My experience is, once this Spiritual Methodology is set in motion, its basic principles laid bare, the re-JEW-venation of the Jew happens, almost automatically, heuristically. Each Jew becomes his/her own self-aware authority, in harmony with other self-aware authorities, in keeping with the gift of our precious democratic era.

The solution for the contemporary Jew, (and all contemporary people who have inherited the Hebrew historical vision through their particular faiths and philosophies), is an education based upon real spiritual experience that can be witnessed and consensually-validated, in keeping with our scientific era.

We are talking about a spiritual education that is not superstitious, nor merely sentimental, but brimming with True Reason: the ability to actually, objectively, discern and observe Life’s “spiritual mechanics” and render them rationally teachable, and liveable.

We are talking about the emergence of a scientific spirituality. A new, Wissenschaft der Judentum, Science of Judaism, evolved but very much a continuity of its luminous Reform heritage.

And, in keeping with our Enlightenment legacy, we are talking about changing the very meaning of being “observant,” to being, truly OBSERVANT: Able to observe, and become aware, of the Spiritual Dimension of everyday existence. Awareness of the True Synagogue, the True Portable Tabernacle: Life Itself, in which we work or make sacrificeavodah in Hebrew– every day.

Truth-based. Tradition-inspired. That’s the new revelation contemporary Jews need. A spiritual-evolved, 21st century, Haskalah.

It’s time to not teach formal Judaism, but Enlightened Judaism.

Now, where, oh where, are our teachers? Upon what is the Authority based?

Enlightened Judaism is copyrighted by Michael Shevack & Joel Weiner, all rights reserved, 2018.


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