Jewish Theology Unbound

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James A. Diamond
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2018.
     304 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198805694.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is a remarkable publication on a number of counts, but two stand out prominently, at least to this reviewer. First, while much of the work in the field of Jewish philosophy leans towards the intellectual-historical, it is an enlivening event to encounter a work that offers a constructive and positive theological account of Judaism. The field of theology—itself rooted in the seminarian origins of the religious studies academe—has long been dominated by Christian, or Christocentric, discourses whose terms and concepts are seen as identical with the structure of the very field.

Which brings us to the second point: Jewish Theology Unbound is a rigorous and passionate defense of that very project—that is, Jewish theology. As James A. Diamond eloquently states on the book’s first page, Judaism has often been characterized as “a religion of law and obedience, devoid of faith and theology.” In this all-too-common framing, philosophy is perceived as properly related to the salvation of faith from the snare of the law; while Christianity demands the heart, Judaism is content with the body’s limbs. Diamond’s book serves as a sally, not merely a study of those who have theologized from the sources of Judaism, but rather, that those very sources are, themselves, elementally philosophical in nature—driven by determinative concepts which seek to not only organize a religio-political body in the nation of Israel, but to achieve the mobilization of certain ideas in the world.

The specter of obedience and its more pungent cousin enslavement, are what Diamond seeks to dispel from an accounting of Judaism’s theology. Diamond’s major claim is that, rather than demoting humans to mere receptacles of Divine will, the Torah centrally and insistently promotes human actualization, agency, and freedom. As with many other liberal Jewish theologies, amongst which this reviewer places this salvo, Diamond emphasizes the dialogical nature of Judaism. However, while other theologies would ground that principle in the act of the covenant, Diamond takes a more existential stance. God as a radically, even infinitely, capacious entity manifests relationally to encourage and facilitate its being overcome. God, who is radically free, opens a relationship to be modeled, not obeyed. Commenting on the famous auto-description of “I will be as I will be” (Ex. 3:13), Diamond insists on a God of becoming, who chooses on dwelling in the thicket with the people, an imitatio humani of Moses, who also dared to dislodge himself from a stable sense of belonging in pursuit of justice and freedom (73-4). However, Moses’s proximity to the deity can also be a drawback.

In a later discussion of the scandal of martyrdom, Diamond daringly insists that the radical devotion to God that would motivate one’s self-sacrifice for the deity, in truth, serves to undermine the very theological project instilled in human hands, as it draws away from human relationality and concern with the wellbeing of others. In the author’s words, “(c)are and compassion for others, rather than by an otherworldly devotion, must shape the future of Jewish worship and theology” (150). Tragically for Moses, his theo-intoxication led him to sacrifice others for God’s sake, rather than devote himself to their betterment. For Diamond, martyrdom is not the ultimate gift of one’s life to the deity, but rather modeling oneself after God’s own giving-of-self, and dying for the sake of others. Analogously, loving God does not assimilate, but rather pushes one into sociality and fundamental concern with others (120).

Diamond achieves something remarkable that distinguishes his approach from other liberal Jewish theologies prominent in the 20th century. A main feature of previous projects was an insistence that Judaism was a religion of life, an insistence with especial poignancy following the mass death of the Shoah. While Diamond assents with that principle, he does not frame Judaism as a countervailing reaction to death, against which life is posed as its antipode. Rather, awareness and even intimacy with death and suffering, which the antiseptic nature of liberalism cannot integrate, are central to Diamond’s theological program. The Shoah pulses under the skin of this book—and its author acknowledges a fundamental debt to Emil Fackenheim, its elegiac philosopher-poet. For Diamond, God is not the radically sanctioned transcendent deity; God is not kept safe from suffering, but is “exiled and suffers along with his people” (82). In a rigorous reading of the sermons of the Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, Diamond argues that the very humanness of temporal, mortal creatures is necessary to jar God from immediate eternity, to sacrifice transcendence, and to be moved to bear witness to the suffering of/in history. More than a theodical solution, Jewish theology is a radical protest, lodged even against its source, one that insists on the reality of “pain, despair, [and] anxiety” (58) and on our compulsion to respond to it.

In his theologizing, Diamond evinces a commitment to its universal reach. The problem of the particular versus the universal is classic in the field of Jewish thought, and the author holds a consistent line in his language: that the radical ethical demands of this theology of freedom extends to all. Thus, it strikes this reviewer as odd that the author simultaneously insists on the Jewish nation as a necessary component in his theological project. That is, it is not an incoherent principle; rather, one is struck by Diamond’s lack of addressing its conceptual dissonance. On one hand, Diamond insists that Jewish theology is unreservedly devoted to universal human flourishing, while on the other he makes a stirring demand to address specifically Jewish suffering, and that the nation is the natural means to achieve the theological project he describes. While this is not an impossible dyad to resolve, the author must respond to the trans-philosophical problem of what occurs to this universalist theological project when a Jewish nation must inflict suffering on others to ensure the wellbeing of its own people. One gets the sense while reading Jewish Theology Unbound that this project is not merely an academic exercise for Diamond, and this “in-midst-ness” may explain why such conceptual problems are not systematically addressed. Yet ,this immediacy is also what lends the book its thrilling and compelling nature, in which Diamond is clearly caught in the passion of his engagement with God and Torah, compelled by what he has realized, and compelling us to take notice and respond.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Simon Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
May 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James A. Diamond is Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on medieval Jewish thought and philosophy. His book Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (2014) won the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards 2015.

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