Judaism’s Promise, Meeting the Challenge of Modernity

by Seymour W. Itzkoff (Author)
©2014 Monographs XVIII, 218 Pages


Judaism’s Promise, Meeting The Challenge Of Modernity follows Seymour W. Itzkoff’s well-received three-book series, Who Are the Jews? Judaism’s Promise, confronts the many revolutions that have reshaped Judaism over the centuries allowing it and its people a path of leadership into the modern world. It takes the writings of the Torah, Holy Scriptures, and Talmud seriously as exemplars of the human search for civilizational and moral intellectuality. The book’s basic concern is with the withering of Judaism as a force in contemporary Western civilization.
Sadly millions of Jews have left the faith. Others venture forth only hesitantly into a synagogue, now a bastion of fossilized ritual and conspicuous consumption. These millions needed more from the orthodoxy, and this book attempts to show them the way back by giving renewed life to the heritages of Judaism, and, consequently, to its meaning for the modern world. Judaism’s Promise argues for a return to the synagogue’s originating Hellenistic commitment «to come together» in intellectual and moral study. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan argued, Judaism must once more become in the 20–21st century the civilization that it once represented to the wider world, and not a fossilized ceremonialism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Future of the Jews?
  • Chapter 2: Sources for the Religious
  • Chapter 3: Torah/Law
  • Chapter 4: Scriptures
  • Chapter 5: Talmudic Republic
  • Chapter 6: Haskalah: Crisis
  • Chapter 7: Our Judaic Heritage
  • Chapter 8: Holocaust: A Message for the Jews
  • Chapter 9: Israel, Judaism: Our Contemporary World Malaise
  • Chapter 10: Understanding Historical Judaism
  • Chapter 11: Judaism Reconstituted
  • Chapter 12: Values and the Future
  • Notes
  • Index


Our Concern

Judaism and the Jews are gradually disappearing. Take a look at the comparative numbers of Jews and other religionists and you will understand my meaning. Few Jews even whisper about this looming demographic and civilizational disaster. Why? Simply, fatalism.

What you will read in the pages and chapters that follow is an argument by a dissident Jew who does not accept this fatalism. In front of everyone’s eyes, the message is that Judaism is an ancient fossilized tradition, irrelevant to the world except for a nation, Israel. This is wrong. Israel does profess to be a Jewish state, modern and progressive. But Israel itself at the least faces the same demographic tidal wave that may efface Diaspora Judaism. Demography is not necessarily destiny. I here want to argue against this dismal determinism.

Much of this book delves into the historic achievements of the Jews. In order to explore the possibilities for the renewal of Judaism you must understand its past, and why it has for so long survived so much malignant opposition. This is important because the truly heroic adaptability to change amidst the threats inherent in these events is hidden to students of Jewish history. Why, because of the control of Jewish education by those who want to preserve their powers of domination, the doorkeepers of contemporary Judaism. These consecrated ones are destroying Judaism today. ← IX | X →

If you can truly absorb the meaning of the radical alterations made by Jews to adapt our faith to the ever-new of history, you will understand that it is still possible for a new Jewish leadership to go forth and educate the world to rise up to a higher level of intellectual and moral values. As part of this enlightened understanding of Judaism’s path through many thousands of years of destiny, you will also begin to understand the contemporary power structures within our faith and heritage.

The current waning of Judaism as a religion and culture is due to the fact that its surface institutional representations are petrified. They might have been appropriate in the 16th century given the anti-Semitic hatred and persecutions that Jews suffered under the thumb both of Islam as well as Christianity, but since then the challenges have been different. The seductions of assimilation and toleration have seen millions of Jews flee the synagogue to evaporate into the woodwork of secularism or Christianity. As a result the synagogue has convulsed into successive splinterings in its attempt to hold on to its congregants and bring them back.

Isn’t it ironic that the one Judaic group that is flourishing in numbers and media recognition today is the Haredim, the ultra-orthodox pious, garbed in their 15th-century uniforms. But, of course, few dare to engage in public discussion of their views on personal immortality, the Messiah, the role of women in their congregations and family life, their responsibilities in defending their homeland, either the United States or Israel, their commitment to do a day’s work for self-support. Sadly they are the window dressing of today’s Judaism.

This concern for the existence and future of a modern and relevant Judaism is the message of “Judaism’s Promise.” The challenge to Judaism in its ability to survive the 21st century should constitute one of the most important lessons for the entire world, both for Jews and non-Jews. This importance of Judaism lies in the deeper core, one might say the metaphysical assumptions rooted in a pure monotheism as it relates to the moral behavior of humans, here originally set forth in the Ten Commandments. The documents that thence issued from the Israelites and the Jews over the millennia symbolize this striving to preserve these truths. These were and are an education for Western civilization. The contemporary crisis is thus not merely a Judaic one, but in reality echoes a deeper and universal malaise. A modernized Judaism, still true to its fundamental intellectual and moral commitments, could do much to reverse this downward trend. A moment of opportunity? We ought not waste it.

The present book is thus written to establish the intellectual ground for a new generation of Jews to make this heritage again relevant both to the Jewish people and to those non-Jews who might want to become one with Judaism. The ancient rituals and traditions do have a deeper and universal meaning, and we need to explore their significance. Most important, the primal monotheistic vision of the ← X | XI → founding Levites, priests, prophets presented humankind with a new vision for our species, humbling in the face of those ever-unknown powers in the universe.

This understanding was and is critically important to the founding of the faith, the social disciplines and the belief in the existence of the deep roots of the moral law. From this irresistible set of convictions came the Torah, the Holy Scriptures, and the Talmud. We need to tend to these historic visions, but always, go beyond.

It is to the young that these concerns are devoted more as an invitation to enrich and supplement the good of the past than as any dictat from “on high.” This book sets forth a personal search for meaning, but the issues are universally relevant. The conclusions are simply that our Judaic vision can be saved and reinvigorated. Much of the argument in the following chapters constitutes a contextual underlining of the true historical meaning of Judaism’s contributions to our civilization. Most important, the inherent rational secularity, the moral intellectuality of these thousands of years of persistent struggle to obey the law can be reinvigorated, but not by any rigid set of edicts from the mythological past. To the young Jew: do it your way, invigorate the heritage.

Most rabbinical texts treat Judaism as a tradition of whole cloth, a unified vision of which the rabbinate is today the singular purveyor. But, there is in fact no unified Judaic heritage. Rather this heritage is more a series of revolutions in which many well-ensconced leadership traditions have been abandoned. New sets of leaders and ideas have successively come to fruition to allow Jews and Judaism to survive history’s always new challenges. That is our argument for the future. From a secular, scholarly standpoint in this book, we identify four revolutionary traditions, thus to argue for our fifth.

Cutting the Chains of Rabbinism

Here is a fifteen-hundred-year-old heritage, certainly evolved over time. Much in the ritual traditions of Judaism today will never be effaced. But should they encompass more than a few percentage points of the substance of Jewishness? As the reader will find from the historical chapters in this book, the rabbinic tradition itself constituted a revolutionary turn from an ancient historic vision, the written Torah, the law.

The Talmud, the core of rabbinical Judaism, grew out of the pharisaic revolution’s Oral Torah. Here the words of Jehovah were supposedly given to Moses who transmitted them at a distance of over a millennium to the Pharisees to modify, override, re-interpret the written Torah, in the context of modernity, then, Hellenistic civilization. What started as early as the sixth century BCE as an interpretation of the Pentateuch to the ignorant survivors of the Babylonian captivity ← XI | XII → (by Ezra and Nehemiah), grew over the centuries into the Oral Torah, a way of fending off the modernistic rationalism and culture of Hellenism.

Here in the spirit of Plato was a ‘lie of words,’ meant to guide the am ha arez, the people of the land, into moral and public behavior more congruent with modernity. The priestly Sadducees of the Temple would at that time accept nothing as Holy Writ beyond the Torah. They scoffed at the Pharisees as “Greek” intellectuals, and then they themselves immersed themselves in the wealth-producing rituals of the Second Temple and the cultural institutions of the Greeks. The Samaritans, in old Israel, wanted only the Five Books as holy guidance. ‘But they essentially were Assyrian immigrants, not true Judeans.’

What is critical, as I demonstrate in this book, is that after the Sadducees disappeared, with the obliteration of the Second Temple, the victorious Pharisees themselves did not recreate the Oral Torah teachings into a permanent written document. Instead, at the end of the first century, they created the Holy Bible of the Jews, the Pentateuch, the Prophetic and the Wisdom writings, TaNaK. This in a sense was testimony to the intellectual power of Hellenism. The Holy Scriptures were part of the Jewish response.

The Mishnah and then the Talmudic setting down of the traditions of the Oral Law came, at the earliest, one hundred and fifty years later, an interpreted way of life in the then-established modernity of Roman and oncoming Christian challenges, the Jews ever more, a people apart.

The Holy Scriptures, the various Talmuds are all rich in wisdom and guidance. They remain a deep and precious heritage of the Jews. But they served a world that no longer exists. We need another Talmud, a new guide to the future, a future now devoid of the supernaturalism that, at least among modern Jews, gains no adherence over their real beliefs and behaviors.

“Judaism’s Promise,” then, should be seen as a prolegomenon to a new, progressive Judaism. It will value Torah, Scriptures, and Talmud, together with the accumulated writings of ancient and modern intellectual and moral minds, Jews and Gentiles. It will put this wisdom into a form that will discipline a widening community of Jews with the defensive fiber to allow Judaism to flourish humanely for another three thousand years.

Writer’s Perspective

This book is written by a Jew, a secular Jew educated in the Yiddish schools of the Workmen’s Circle (Arbiter Ring), but also in the New York City Public Schools. An American citizen first, a Jew second. The human mind can love pluralistically. My parents were immigrants from Czarist Russia. They had a deep love for ← XII | XIII → America, their adopted nation. Putting me in semi-socialist Yiddish schools was a nod to our heritage. At the same time they were totally committed to the full Americanization of their children, their commitment diminished not at all by their Jewish heritage. Their allegiance to this nation and mine lay in the fact that our nation still cherishes the privacy of community histories and beliefs. All humans need the amalgam of a national plus an ethnic heritage. The great test comes in the balancing of the two.

When asked why they did not attend a synagogue, this after my first initiation to a Bar Mitzvah party of a friend’s elder brother, both my parents spoke out strongly—“hypocrites.” Their Judaism demanded more of themselves. And that was the end of the discussion. Neither of my parents had a high school education. But culture, music, literature, was their passion. Even after twelve to eighteen hours of slaving away, my mother, a dressmaker in the garment district, my father chained to his candy store, all I heard in our cramped apartment was the Metropolitan Opera. It nearly drove me crazy. I wanted to hear the “Yankees.”

I write about this to contrast the orthodox way of Judaism with my family’s views on the synagogue. My parents viewed synagogue Judaism as a philistine institution under the thumb of very materialistic and amoral people, who called themselves Jews. Whenever my sister and I would talk about the books that we obtained from the public library, they would ask whether the authors were Jews. To them the highest mark of a Jew was whether he was a Sholem Aleichem, a Fritz Kreisler, or a Richard Tucker.

Such opinions about synagogue Judaism were not mine alone. The masses who have left Judaism testify to the aridity of the institution and the present crisis it represents for this richest of religious traditions. Note that Moses Mendelssohn, the great 18th-century Enlightenment Jew who wanted all his brethren to breathe the free air of Emancipation, saw all of his children convert to Christianity, Felix, his composer grandson included. Yet, it should be known, Felix still considered himself a Jew.

Both of my parents lost many dear ones in the Holocaust. I remember looking into my father’s drawn face when I pointed with childish energy to the New York Times map showing the Nazi divisions closing in on his small railroad town, then inhabited by his mother, sisters, brother, their children. The Panzer divisions were surging toward Moscow, this in late 1941. I will never forget the silence of his eyes. The Germans came too fast. Much of his family and my mother’s in the Ukraine were consequently destroyed.

One of the wonderful aspects of historic Judaism is that people like myself as well as the most reactionary Haredim are inclusively part of the Jewish community. So we can all talk together about what it means to be a Jew, and what the future might bring. I remember asking my father why as a semi-socialist he voted for ← XIII | XIV → FDR, the ‘savior’ of capitalism, rather than Norman Thomas. He winked. I guess he meant that his socialism was a big tent.


XVIII, 218
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Revolution Enlightement Holy Scriptures Torah
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 218 pp.

Biographical notes

Seymour W. Itzkoff (Author)

Seymour W. Itzkoff was a professional cellist before completing his masters and doctoral degrees in philosophy at Columbia University. He is the author of twenty-three books in a variety of intellectual disciplines. He became an emeritus professor after thirty four years of teaching at Smith College.


Title: Judaism’s Promise, Meeting the Challenge of Modernity
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
238 pages