Coherent Judaism

Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah

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Shai Cherry
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , November
     2020.
     510 pages.
     $29.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781644693407.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Recent publications on Jewish theology, including prominent reference works and numerous monographs, suggest that Jewish theology is undergoing a resurgence. While scholarly interest in Jewish theology is on the rise, the field remains embryonic, as evidenced by the lack of a dedicated journal or an American Academy of Religion program unit. Because the renaissance of Jewish theology is still in its infancy, fundamental questions about the forms of Jewish theology or its audience are wide open. Shai Cherry’s impressive volume, Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah, brings new questions to this discussion, many of which should be of interest to all scholars of religion. For instance, the book opens with Cherry’s declaration that the book was written under the pressures of being an underemployed adjunct. Cherry also identifies himself in the opening pages of the work as a generalist, a sensible professional choice given the waning job market. Ultimately, Cherry left academia, received rabbinic ordination, and now serves as a congregational rabbi. These biographical details raise important questions about how to assess the work of our colleagues who now write from the margins of academia.

To be clear, Cherry does not ask for, nor does Coherent Judaism require, any special dispensation. It is a demanding work. As he notes in the introduction, “it should not be the first, or second, or even third book one reads about Judaism” (xxiii). As the subtitle indicates, the author identifies the work as a contribution to constructive theology. For Cherry, what the term constructive specifies is that his theology is not systematic or dogmatic, nor is it purely academic. Cherry takes the personal and normative nature of his theological reflections as placing the work outside academic theology in terms of both audience and content.

Presumably, questions regarding the forms and audiences of Jewish theology will gain more clarity as the field develops, but I am not inclined toward Cherry’s approach to these topics. A more hermeneutic account, one that acknowledges that our research questions are guided by our own interests and commitments, would see historical and constructive research as deeply intertwined. From that perspective, there is no reason to think that academic works cannot be normative. In any event, Cherry’s indication that the work is written for a wide audience adds to the question of how to critique the volume. A final challenge is that Cherry has constructed this book as three independent but related books on Jewish theology, theologies of creation, and philosophy of halakah, which makes for a long and disparate volume.

With these considerations in mind, Coherent Judaism is best evaluated in terms of its success in establishing a coherent Judaism and as a work in constructive theology. While the book demonstrates an astounding breadth of scholarship that more than justifies its reading, it does not fully succeed with the criteria embedded in its title. In book 1, titled “A Partisan History of Jewish Theologies,” Cherry begins by distinguishing priestly and Mosaic religion in the Hebrew Bible. He construes priestly religion as possessing a theurgical ontology that maintains God’s presence in the world, and Mosaic religion as textually centered and emphasizing reward and punishment. This and related dichotomies are then mapped on to later stages of the tradition.,

Two problems recur throughout Cherry’s argument. First, dichotomies are blunt instruments that create distortions and inaccuracies as Cherry proceeds through his textual examples from the Bible to the present. Second, I must acknowledge some frustration as a reader in having to decipher which side of his dichotomies he supports. Cherry develops his “coherent Judaism” in conversation with other thinkers, but, as a result, his own positions only emerge piecemeal. He may end with a coherent Judaism that he finds satisfying, but his argument itself is not expressed in an entirely coherent fashion.

A few examples indicate the difficulty of sustaining a coherent and constructive argument across three independent but related books. In books 1 and 2 (the latter of which is titled “Jewish Theologies of Creation”), Cherry uses the idea of fractals to explain the priestly ontology in which human actions affect God. The problem is that the concept of fractals disappears in book 3 (titled “Philosophies of Halakhah”). Similarly, the idea of coherence propels Cherry’s argument in book 1 and book 3, but it plays no substantive role in book 2. While the three books that comprise the volume are related, it is often left to the reader to figure out how that is the case. If the volume is partially intended for an audience outside academia, those readers might benefit from reading the individual books separately.

Cherry often demonstrates considerable bravery as a constructive theologian. He forcefully engages the work of his teachers and other prominent scholars, and he does not hesitate to depart from their positions. At other times, Cherry dismisses theological views that fail his “coherence” test with insults rather than arguments: for instance, theurgy is “nonsense” (82), the idea that the written and oral Torah were given together is “ridiculous” (249), anthropomorphism and anthropopathism, the attribution of human qualities and emotions to God, are “equally immature” (274), and divine perfection is “passé” (344). All these issues deserve more critical reflection than Cherry offers.

Cherry begins the book by declaring that Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism are incoherent, but, considering the force of his accusation, he offers little by way of an alternative. In large part, he establishes his positions by distinguishing himself from others. He locates himself among the theologies of Art Green, Bradley Shavit Artson, Mordecai Kaplan, and Hans Jonas, but he also rejects elements of their theologies. Cherry advocates for a panentheism, a position that allows for God’s presence in reality while preserving God’s transcendence, but he also denies divine personhood and providence. In the final pages, he defends a covenantal account of the divine-human relationship. Hopefully, in subsequent work, Cherry will further develop how his conception of God is compatible with the notion of covenant.

It must be said that Cherry also understands his book in terms other than coherence and constructive theology. Several times he refers to book 1 and book 2 as surveys. On this score, Coherent Judaism has much to offer its reader. I learned a tremendous amount from his presentation of primary and secondary sources, and I suspect many readers would, as well. If Cherry is a generalist, he sets the bar extremely high. In addition, Cherry states the goal of book 3 is to “provide the pedigree” for “Covenantal Halakhah” (349). Despite the theological difficulties, those interested in halakic innovation will find his discussion engaging.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cass Fisher is associate professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shai Cherry  is rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, PA. Formerly on the faculties of Vanderbilt University and the University of San Diego, he is the featured lecturer for The Great Courses’ “Introduction to Judaism” and author of Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times.

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