What is Theology Supposed to Look Like?
new short fiction
(Note: this is a post about a new short story. You can read it now, or when I introduce it below—your choice!)
A month ago I heard a talk by Rabbi Ethan Tucker on the significance of halakhah, of Jewish law. Rabbi Tucker is arguably America’s most important theorist of halakhah today, and a core part of his philosophy is that Jewish legal language isn’t arbitrary. Despite the fact that it is not always designed for accessibility, it is important to write Jewish law in a specific register so that it is fully in conversation with its legal predecessors, who stretch all the way back to the Hebrew Bible.
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Tucker’s emphasis on the form of halakhah is part of a movement that has become quite popular in liberal halakhic circles; I have been a subscriber ever since I learned about it from Rabbi Elisha Ancselovits, a pioneer in this area who has influenced an entire generation of Jewish thought (this line of thought is sometimes called “ravelishianism,” and a full written articulation is a crucial and long overdue project). Thinking about halakhah this way preserves its sacredness while allowing it to be flexible, and as a bonus it rhymes with the idea of Hebrew as a “holy language.” The way you frame ideas really matters.
I can quibble with Tucker’s thesis—but I’m not interested in law today. Instead, I want to ask: is the same thing true for Jewish theology? Does Jewish theology need to be written in a specific language, register, or style?
The answer, quite clearly, is no. Jewish law has a recognizable format, but Jewish theology is far more varied: it can appear in the form of philosophical treatises, prayers, imagined dialogues, mystical visions, polemics, or interpretations of the Bible. Sometimes it relies on logic; sometimes it does not. Sometimes it cares about precedent; sometimes it does not. Sometimes it uses accepted theological language, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it invents new language. It can be brief—a sentence or two—or fill multiple books. There is no one accepted way to talk about God in Judaism. Nobody is gatekeeping style. Anything goes.
I’m telling you this for two reasons. First, you don’t need to be a theologian to talk about God—you can just do it! Second, there is one particular format for Jewish theology that, ironically, has fallen out of use and deserves to be rehabilitated: the story.
The story is almost certainly Jewish theology’s most important format. The Bible uses this format all the time, though we don’t often describe it this way. The Talmud, too, tells all kinds of stories about what God said and did, and these stories are some of the most cherished in all of Jewish literature. I don’t know if the rabbis imagined that they were “doing theology” when they wrote these stories, but that is certainly how these stories are understood today.
Despite the power of these stories, people rarely write Jewish theology as stories today—and if they do tell stories with God in them, they’re more likely to call it a parody than a theology (though the line between Biblical parody and sincerity is not clear). Instead, we’ve developed an expectation that “real” Jewish theology takes the form of a densely-worded philosophical treatise or a jargon-heavy mystical treatise. These are indeed Jewish theology—but stories can still be theology, too.
Maybe none of this is novel to you, but took me a while to get here. I like writing stories, and the stories I write tend to feature God, but it is only in the last few months that I’ve come to understand these stories as a kind of theological project. This is particularly true for the piece that was published in Lehrhaus today, which is an explanation for why the Torah sometimes seems so quaint next to the vibrancy of the world. Previous stories—on oral traditions, on the difficulty of Talmud, on monotheism (paywalled)—are part of this project, too, retroactively. (If I were a different person I’d keep these reflections to myself, but I can’t help describing my process.)
I wrote stories slowly. There’s no money in stories, especially not stories about God. One day I hope to have enough for an anthology. Could that be accepted as a theological treatise?
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"I see that you folks have become quite enamored with stories," sayeth the Lord. "You insist that 'stories are how we create meaning' and 'everyone has a story to tell' and 'people are wired for story' and as they used to sign off at The Moth: 'Have a story-worthy week!'" You revere stories, so I shall give you stories -- more than you can count. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Kindle, Instagram, books, magazines, theater, narrative psychology & counseling, storytelling for brands and for candidates and for laundry detergent... I shall swamp you with stories the way I overwhelmed the Egyptians with the natural world they worshipped -- lice & flies & hail & locusts.... Romcoms & murder mysteries & superheroes & science fiction thrillers. You asked & you shall receive. Stories, everywhere, all the time. Have fun storming the castle!"
(I hasten to add that the Jewish story is part of who I am & I'm not sure who or where I'd be without it. But the broader culture's obsession with storytelling is not a benign one.)