This article appears as part of the Portal on Jewish Prayer and in Keeping God at the Center.


Talking About Talking About God


            To be a theologian is to be on the boundary.

            To be a theologian is to be a voice for the tradition . It is to  speak its words, to teach its message, and to embody its authority. However, there is no single entity one can call “the” tradition. There is no one message, no sole authoritative voice. Rather, the tradition is multivocal, multifaceted; and some of it has been repressed. Hence, no one can speak for the tradition in its entirety.

            The voices of the tradition are also conditioned by their contexts. They are male, learned, heterosexual, and they are older voices. They are also rational, mystical, legal, exegetical, and poetical. No one can speak in all these voices, least of all those who are not within the circle of voices which the tradition has, traditional-ly, accepted.

            To be a theologian, then, is to accept a prior commitment to speak from out of the tradition and on behalf of some segment of it, with whatever authority one’s voice can muster. It is to acknowledge one’s limitations, but it is also to listen to the inner resonances of the tradition and to measure one’s own music against its inner tones -- as best one can.

            To be a theologian is also to speak for God . It is to have a personal rapport with God, to have a sense of responsibility for God and for how God is understood and related to by our fellow human beings. It is to mediate between God, as one understands God, and those who listen. It is to create an echo of God in the other.

            To be a theologian is to defend God, to put back together the pieces of broken awareness and shattered relationship. Great is the suffering of our fellow human beings, and deep is the estrangement between them and God. The theologian must be a healer of that relationship, a binder of wounds, one who comforts.

            To be a theologian is also to speak for one's fellow human beings , for we are infinite in our complexity, suffering, and ecstasy. It is to have listened to joy, confusion, and despair. It is to have heard praise, rage, and helplessness.

            To be a theologian is to be in solidarity with one’s fellow human beings before God. It is to take the heart of the other to God. To bless and to share blessing, to be angry and to share rage, to talk the despair of the other to God. It is to talk to God for the people, to address God on their behalf. It is to be angry with God, for them. It is to praise God, with them.

            To be a theologian is also to speak the “ought.”  It is not enough to explain, to explicate, and to exegete. It is to make a prior commitment to formulating a vision, and to preaching that vision as an ideal towards which humanity should, indeed must, strive. Theology is not a value-free discipline; it is, rather, a value-laden discipline and it should be so consciously, unashamedly.

            To be a theologian, then, is to have prior commitments  -- to the tradition, in whatever form one can appropriate it, while acknowledging its multivocity; to the experience of God, in whatever form one experiences that most fully, while acknowledging the difference of the experience of the other; to one’s fellow human beings, in their concreteness and in as much of their variety as one can grasp; and to the form of the ought, to the human search for meaning formulated as the ought, taught with passion, involvement, and as much coherence as possible.

            To “do theology” is to reflect and to share one’s thoughts about, and one’s experiences of, God, tradition, community, and meaning. All such theology is confessional, though not in a sectarian sense. It is teaching about God -- as embedded in the particular theologian who is, in turn, embedded in his or her tradition and community. To do theology is to create a dialogue between forebearer, teacher, and listener. It is to talk from the intertextuality of the traditions, the collective readings of the traditions, the selves of the theologian, the persons of the hearers, and the presence(s) of the divine. Theology flows from the confluence of these “texts.” Theology is the intertextual forming of these elements into an interpersonal medium; it is creation. To be a theologian is to create -- in the midst, and on the boundaries.

            Confessional theology begins in acknowledgement of one’s own voices. I am male, middle class, middle aged, Jewish, heterosexual, educated in rabbinic tradition, and an academic raised in a bicultural world. And I am committed to the calling of the theologian as a voice for God, for the tradition, for the Jewish people, and for humanity, with a mission to speak the ought. These voices will figure my work; they will set its parameters and generate its metaphors. My theology will be a dialogue between the texts of life, as I experience them, and the texts of the tradition, as I know them. Life will inform my understanding of the tradition, and the tradition will act as an inner resonance against which to measure life. I will speak from within the tradition, as I understand it, but I will speak from within the life of the communities in which I participate, as I understand that. Mine will be an intertextual, confessional theology.




            I did not design my life. I worked hard at each stage but the inner pattern has emerged by itself, sometimes becoming clear only in retrospect.

            After early schooling in an intensive religious setting, I attended the University of Pennsylvania (B.A.) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (M.H.L., Ordination) where I was dazzled by, and at the same time trained in, the finest traditions of Jewish scientific historical study. My teachers -- Professors Speiser, Greenberg, Kutscher, Goitein, Lieberman, Weiss-Halivni, Spiegel, and others -- were among the giants of Jewish scholarship of this century. The world of scholarship was followed by the world of the practical rabbinate, and I served for four years as rabbi, teacher, leader, and pastor to a small congregation. Then, I returned to Wissenschaft des Judentums  for my doctorate in medieval Jewish philosophy and mysticism (Columbia University and Ecole pratique des hautes études) with Professor Georges Vajda. I spent the first twelve years of my career working in this field, publishing seven books and numerous articles and reviews. As I look back, I realize that my past work proceeded from Bible to Talmud to medieval thought -- a natural, historical, progression. Throughout, I had studied the modern period but I had not done scholarly work in that area.

            Years of teaching undergraduates, coupled with the death of my father and most of my teachers, moved me to take up the modern period. It was not, however, historical scholarship about the modern period that attracted me but a deep desire to make an intellectual, theological contribution. I discovered that this impulse, while not common among Jewish scholars, is recognized and indeed carefully cultivated by Christian, particularly Protestant, thinkers under the rubric of constructive or systematic theology. The shift of fields was not simple. When Christians “do” theology, they do it differently; they have different issues and styles. I have had to create a set of issues, as well as a style, which is “Jewish.” The task is difficult and far from complete.

            My method in this new area of work has been three-pronged. First, I attempt a return to the vocabulary of the holy, the spiritual, as a realm of human experience not reducible to any other realm. In the traditional texts, the vocabulary for the holy is highly nuanced and I have sought to expose this. Second, I attempt a return to the personalist, psychological language of the tradition. Thus, when speaking of God, I have tried to use the mixture of commonsense and personalist language which characterizes Scripture and many rabbinic sources. Finally, I attempt to set my work in the form of commentary on, and a response to, classical texts. As I see it, a book or article must be an act of intertextuality, an interplay between a text of life and a classical, traditional text. These three elements help to make what I do “Jewish,” in content and style, though Christians could use this method as well.

            This book follows my most recent work, God at the Center  which, in turn, follows my earlier work, The Place of Faith and Grace in Judaism, “Mercy,” “Creation: What Difference Does It Make,” “Speaking About God in the Modern World,” and Understanding Jewish Mysticism. It takes up the three-pronged approach and advances a step further by including a critical element lacking in the earlier work. At the same time, I continue to write articles, lead conferences, present papers and, together with my colleagues, develop a program at Emory University which trains young people, Christian and Jewish, in an integrated approach to theological thinking. I also remain an active member of the Jewish community and serve on various holocaust and Jewish-Christian task forces.


God’s Two Essential Attributes and the Theology of Image


            In the middle ages, thinkers debated the question of whether God has any qualities that are crucial to our understanding of God, that are part of God’s very essence. Maimonides taught: God is so unlike anything we can think that God cannot have any attributes at all. We cannot say anything at all about God for, if we do, we compromise God’s incomparability. At our most coherent we can only say that God is not a member of the class of beings that possess any given trait or its contrary. This is “negative theology."[2] Saadia Gaon taught: God must have some attributes. The evidence of the tradition and of logic pointS to this, for otherwise we could not talk of God at all. Hence, there are some qualities which are of God’s essence, and others which are just words we use to relate to God. The former are called “essential attributes"; the latter are called “accidental attributes.”[3]

            In many of the classical sacred texts of the tradition, God walks and talks. God feels anger, despair, and joy. God exercises moral judgement. God even laughs. “Personality" is the quality that best conveys the person-ness of the subject who engages us. It is that congery of emotion, intellect, moral judgment, and personal presence that identifies each of us to ourselves and to others. God, too, has personality, according to the texts of the tradition; or, to phrase it more systematically, personality is integral for our understanding of God, according to several major streams of the tradition.[4] Through personality, God is what God is. Through personality, God acts, God relates, God becomes.

            Put differently, an important part of the tradition teaches, and our own personal experience confirms, that there is an experience of one's self and of the self-ness of others which enables one to interpret life and the world around one, and to direct oneself towards certain goals. This sense of self has great range and power; it encompasses a complexity which is unimaginable. The depth and fullness of being are clarified in the richness of personality. God too, according to several major streams of the tradition, possesses this depth of personality with all its complexity and grandeur. A trans-personal God, as in some eastern traditions or in certain philosophical understandings of Judaism is, in my opinion, an incorrect reading of the texts of God's Presence.[5] It contradicts the tradition, as well as common Jewish experience.

            In the classical sacred texts of the tradition, God is also holy. God is the spiritual, the numinous. God is the ineffable, the source of awe, the fountain of trembling silence. “Holiness,” sometimes called “wholly otherness," is a quality we sense in moments, in people, in texts, and in places. It is our cue to the presence of God in that context. Through holiness, God is utterly remote and also intimately near. Holiness is the quality that best conveys our sense of the sacred. It is an awareness sui generis;   it is not an extension of the aesthetic, the moral, or a psychological projection.

            Put differently, the tradition teaches, and our own personal experience confirms, that there are experiences of the holy; that they are accessible to all persons, some being more sensitive to it than others; and that, for people molded by the Jewish tradition, these experiences are located in the sensed presence of God. All the power, eerieness, and sublimity that are entailed in the various experiences of the holy are experienced in God.

            Using the language of the medieval thinkers, we can say that God has two essential attributes: holiness and personality. God is incarnate in personality and holiness; so is humanity. God becomes through personality and holiness; so does humanity. God is known and manifest through personality and holiness; so is humanity. Holiness and personality are attributes (Hebrew, yehasim ); they are relation and relatedness (Hebrew, yahas ).

            “And God created humanity in God's image; in the image of God, God created it; male and female, God created them” (Gen. 1:27 ). This verse generates “the theology of image” and, for all the streams of Jewish tradition, it is at the core. From it, knowledge flows about God and about humanity. From it, revelation and piety, obedience and redemption follow. The theology of image, as I understand it, also states the principle of dialogue, of reciprocal addressability. The theology of image implies mutuality of demand and claim. Humanity, in its individual and collective existence, is created in God’s image and hence struggles, together with God, to live the depth of that image.

            Holiness and personality are the imago Dei , the selem 'Elohim , the image of God in which humanity is created. God put that image into us (Gen. 1:26-7). God stamped (Hebrew, hitbi`a ) it into us. It is our coin / mold (Hebrew, matbe`a ), our nature (Hebrew, teva`).  It is what God and we have in common. It is that which enables us to talk about, and with, God. Holiness and personality are the core of the theology of image. To do theology faith‑fully is to ponder and understand that image, to work with that stamp and that mold, to grasp that nature, and to speak those attributes.

            The essential attributes of personality and holiness, then, em-body the theology of image. They reflect the depth, the complexity, the richness, and the otherness of the image.  Through them, the image is formed and expressed -- for God and for humanity. The theology of image, of God and humanity struggling to articulate personality and holiness, is what an important part of the tradition teaches.

            It is this “personalist” theological stream that I shall follow. Perhaps there is more; I do not know.




            In a series of articles,[6] Susan Shapiro has argued that, in the aftermath of the holocaust, one cannot simply speak; that discourse has been shattered by the irruption of the holocaust into modern consciousness; that language has been ruptured by the in-breaking of the holocaust into common speech. Lawrence Langer, too, has made this point: that the holocaust stands unresolved and unintegrated into the lives of survivors and those who study the holocaust; “a lexicon of disruption, absence and irreversible loss.”[7]  Others have made the point too.[8] How can   one speak of beauty or meaning with 6,000,000 ghosts hovering in the background? How can   one write poetry or paint in the shadow of the holocaust? How can   one do theology in the presence of 1,000,000 burning children?

            Caesura, brokenness, fragmentation are all we have to express the disjuncture of normal discourse with the reality of the holocaust. Dissociation, rupture, a sudden veering away are all we have to preserve the holocaust in the midst of normal speech. Thought itself must be broken, shattered, fragmented -- like a nightmare, for writing theology after the holocaust is living in a nightmare with its sudden turns, its flashbacks. To do theology is to remember, in pieces, in horrible pieces.

            I have tried to capture the nightmare-flashback quality of reasoned reflection in the post-holocaust era by appending a holocaust meditation to  each of the chapters in this unit; hence, “Meditative Postscript,” “Second Thoughts,” “Cognitive Dissonance,” and “Counter-image.” Each consciously seeks to break the flow of thoughtful deliberation. Each intentionally tries to disrupt and fragment the smoothness of the theological discourse. Each is an irruption of that suppressed reality into the careful considerations of reasoned theology. To do otherwise is to repress, to make believe that we can talk now as if there were no ghosts.

            Caesura. Fragmentedness. Irruption.

[1] This first appeared as Chapter 1 in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster / John Knox, Louisville, KY: 1993).

[2] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed,   transl. S. Pines (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1963) I: 50-58.

[3] Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions,  transl. S. Rosenblatt (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1948) II:1-4, 13. For a more complete exposition of these two schools of thought, cf. D. Blumenthal, “Croyance et attributs essentiels dans la théologie médiévale et moderne,” forthcoming.

[4] E.g., Scripture, midrash, liturgy, Talmud, and the Zohar; in contrast to the medieval and modern philosophical- rationalist theological stream. See also below, yyyy, “Universes of Discourse.”

[5] Cf. the works of A.J. Heschel and M. Kadushin cited below, yyyy, “Personality,” at n. 2.

[6] Cf. Susan Shapiro, “Hearing the Testimony of Radical Negation,” Concilium,  1985; idem.,  “Failing Speech: Post-Holocaust Writing and the Discourse of Postmodernism,” Semeia,  40:1987; and idem.,  review of Fackenheim, Religious Studies Review,  13:3 (July 1987) 204-13.

[7] Cf. L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory   (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1991) xi.

[8] One thinks of the works of E. Wiesel and Y. Greenberg.