Review of Steven Kepnes, The Future of Jewish Theology

Steven Kepnes, The Future of Jewish Theology, (Oxford: John Wiley and Sons, 2013), vii+282 pp., $36.95

Murray J. Haar
Augustana College

This review of Steven Kepnes’s The Future of Jewish Theology ought to be titled “Respectful Stubbornness.”

For a long time now, I have believed that the varying major religions and their followers would understand each other better if they could stubbornly hold to their various beliefs while respecting the legitimacy of the other religions.  And for the past ten years, every Friday at noon, I have been part of a group of Jews and Christians who have been meeting at a local coffeehouse to read through the Book of Exodus in Hebrew.  While we are honest and straightforward about our religious commitments, we are also committed to working together on the biblical texts, each adding what we can from within our own individual religious traditions in the hope that we might all become wiser and more faithful to these traditions.  We have not only developed friendships, but our meetings have a certain sacred holiness about them.  It is as if in wrestling with the texts, we are in some way also wrestling with God. I am not sure whether this model can  provide the pattern for all believers; it certainly has worked for us.  So, I was encouraged by Steven Kepnes’s book on the future of Jewish Theology and his commitment to scriptural interpretive reasoning “as a form of theology for the future” (200).

The author is clear from the beginning that the book is not about the future of Judaism or the Jews.  Rather, Dr. Kepnes wants to speak about how to do Jewish theology.  There is a belief among many Jews and Christians that Jews do not do theology.  The old cliché says, “Jews do not know who God is but they know what God wants.”  After reading this book, it is clear that Jews do indeed have certain particular theological ideas about God.  Kepnes asserts that that the central theological focus in the Jewish future should be on ritual and ethical holiness.  He correctly notes that many religious and not so religious Jews are divided between those who emphasize strict observance of the ritual parts of the tradition and those who emphasize the ethical to the exclusion of the ritual.

For Kepnes, holiness is key.  He begins the book with the text of Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be Holy.  For I, the Lord, your God, Am Holy” (1). The burden of Part One is to demonstrate how the Jewish scriptures talk about and emphasize ritual and ethical holiness together.  Through an examination of a variety of texts, Kepnes asserts that it will not do to emphasize ritual over concern for the world, nor concern for the world at the expense of ritual.  Both aspects are part of what it means to be Jewish, and Jews cannot give up either side and continue to be Jews with integrity.  Why so?  Kepnes asserts, “The answer is God. Jews cannot abandon the holy life for the world alone because God requires them to be holy!  Being holy, Jews must neither abandon God nor the world” (12).  Kepnes then discusses various Jewish aspects of holiness to which attention must be paid.  For example, he examines and explains the importance in Jewish tradition of holy blessings, holy Shabbat, holy food and holy sacrifices, the ethics of holiness and prophetic holiness.  I came away from this first section convinced that holiness is vital to Jewish tradition, but I was not sure how many Jews would be able to hear what the author has to say about God.  For many Jews after the Holocaust, talk of God has become difficult if not impossible.  And while the author does refer once to the Holocaust, he does not pursue what happens to holiness after Auschwitz.  It does not seem to be a problem for him, and his lack of discussion of the effect on Jewish thinking about God after the Nazi catastrophe weakens his overall argument.

In Part Two of his book, Kepnes works to reformulate, re-conceptualize, and integrate ethical monotheism through three ways of working with scripture: “textual reasoning which offers a model for Jewish theology as a form of group Torah study” (148), liturgical reasoning where Jewish liturgy can be seen as a form of theological discourse, and “Scriptural Reasoning which interprets the ethical directive of ethical monotheism to the non-Jewish other as an imperative to engage in interfaith dialogue with Christian and Muslims” (148).  The author then proceeds to show how “all three models attempt to integrate aspects of biblical and rabbinic systems, rituals, and ethics of holiness” (142).

For Kepnes, ethical monotheism was designed to allow Jews to be Jewish and modern at the same time.  He explains how Jews in their tradition constantly engaged their scriptures and were engaged by their scriptures through text study, through worship and liturgy, and through engaging the religious traditions of others. They learned not only to interpret the text but to argue with it.  In Jewish tradition the question becomes more important than the answer to the question.  This Jewish scriptural methodology can now be employed with both Christians and Muslims.  They can all meet together, come to trust each other, engage each other’s texts and interpretations, and respectfully disagree while recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s textual and interpretive traditions.  Through such a mutual engagement, Jewish ritual and ethical concerns can be worked out in concert with other monotheistic traditions.  And this working together will be part of the future of Jewish theology.  For that reason, it is worth reading and wrestling with Kepnes’s suggestions.

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