– Rabbi Michael Shevack –
Beyond ordinary thanks to Dr. Arkush’s for his presentation on Mendelssohn’s difficult negotiation: between the Christian culture in which he resided and the culture of his birth; between both of these and each particular claim to Universal Reason and Natural Law.Dr. Arkush’s presentation had me thinking all the way home. What can we learn from Mendelssohn which might actually be the salvation of Progressive Jews? No, not just Progressive Jews, but Jews in general? No, not just Jews in general– since we are to be a Light unto the Nations– but the salvation of our world?
Now, certainly some might fault Mendelssohn, since his seed did not father an enduring legacy of Jews; indeed, one might point to his “excessive” openness as the very cause of increased assimilation, personal and collective: Alas, the Jungian shadow for Progressive Jews!
But, what inspired me about Dr. Arkush’s presentation was Mendelssohn’s thought-solution to the assimilation problem, as well as his place for Judaism in the economy of world salvation. It was far bolder, far wider, and far more reaching than I think we give him credit for. We Progressive Jews can learn a lot from his reasoning: There is an astonishing structure to Mendelssohn’s thought, which I commented on briefly at the APJ meeting. Mendelsohn’s thought-structure very, very CAREFULLY, de-legitimizes Christianity and Christian-society, as the foundation for Reason-based World culture. Instead, he, as Dr. Arkush pointed out, favors the Torah, and Jewish thinking based upon it, as a far better foundation for a truly Reason-based culture.
This is a very powerful insight. First, it goes to the core of the differences between Jewish universalism and Roman universalism. Second– though we did not have a chance to discuss this– it points to a Jewish “Natural Law” which is not just “Reason-based”, as the Christian derivative tends to be, but is a much more natural – Natural Law. This to me is the critical difference between a Reason-based culture derived from a “metaphysical” Christ-ascended, rather than a “physical” flesh and blood Jew/human.
One need only look at the supposedly Natural Law culture of America to realize that so many of the defects in our legal legacy– in regard to the earth, living creatures and other naturalist and ecological elements– bear witness to this difference. Christian “Reason” tended to degrade the natural as totally subservient to “Reason”– contaminated, I think, by a replacement (or equivalency) of human reason AS Divine/Creator. However, the Torah carefully circumscribes human reason as a tool upon an earth which is the Lord’s. The separation between God’s Reason (Creator’s Logos) and ours, is critically maintained, at the same time as their deep connection, i.e. covenant, affirmed. Was Mendelssohn off base? I think not. The Torah not the Ascended Christ, is a superior foundation for deriving a Universal Reason-based Natural Law World culture: Creation first. Human invention second. And this, of course, is the classic distinction between a barah and an asah.
So, after listening to Dr. Arkush, I’m convinced that a careful re-connection of Reason-based, Natural Law Enlightenment theology to a Jewish creational foundation is not only the solution for Judaism, but also for Christians, who base their revelation and their testament upon us. Indeed, I believe it is the solution for Islam and all Western civilization, secular too, which remains prophetically-inspired by the intellectual categories implicit in the theological-notion of history.
Moreover, for those so-called “naturalist” religions, Hindu, Buddhist, indigenous, that were exposed to history from British and other Christian imperialists, the Jewish corrective for the West is an imperative for conquered and conqueror alike.
Can our minds be bold? Can The Association for Progressive Judaism re-frame The Light of Reason based upon the Torah, rather than Christian-derived modernism? If we do, there is no doubt in my mind, that not only will we be able to stem the recent retrogression of Reform, but we will also be able to bring all the more progressive elements of our klal together, regardless of formal affiliation, in a way that’s not just inspiring, but also makes rational sense! The Torah may not be a revelation to Moses, but it is the critical scripture without which there can be no salvation for Progressive Jews, let alone everyone! Mendelssohn rabbenu.
Thank you Dr. Arkush, and thank you Lance, for inviting him.