Jews don't have to believe anything?

TorahI have heard variations of this statement many times and have heard it on the lips of many different kinds of Jewish believers -- the most controversial issue in modern Judaism is God. Then the questions begin. Do Jews have to believe in God? Is it good for Jews for believe in God? Do Jews need to believe that Judaism is true? Should they live their lives as if Judaism is true, even if, in their hearts and minds, they are not sure? Can you be a Jew and believe nothing at all? Is the only essential Jewish belief the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is not the Messiah?

You cannot cover trends in premodern, modern and postmodern Judaism without hearing all of these questions.

So I was rather surprised to pick up my local newspaper this morning -- the Baltimore Sun -- and read the following statement in the midst of a nice, ordinary little Metro front feature on a new trend in Jewish education in our city's large and very influential Jewish community. The headline introduced the news hook: "Jewish teachers grapple with a big question: God." The second deck of the headline said even more: "Jewish religious school teachers have been exploring a topic rarely covered in class: God." The key institutions in this story are linked to the Center for Jewish Education.

Here's the key part:

But at the request of principals of Jewish schools, the center -- an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore -- this year has organized a series of workshops and training sessions to help teachers better express their understanding of God and spirituality. Ultimately, the center's staff members hope that the exercises will help the instructors when students raise questions of their own.

Judaism does not require adherence to specific doctrines, said Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the San Francisco-based author of books about Jewish spirituality. He addressed nearly 400 educators at a recent conference organized by the Jewish education center titled "Yom Iyun: Teaching G-d to Children, Teaching G-d to Ourselves." (Some Jews avoid spelling out "God" to avoid defiling the name.)

"Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a dogmatic spiritual tradition. You don't have to believe anything to be a Jew," Kushner said in an interview before the talk.

I want to stress that this story by reporter Liz F. Kay includes a lot of information about the complex nature of modern Judaism. It clearly states that the center's work is complicated by the fact that it works with teachers from the different branches of Judaism -- Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Oh, and the "secular" Jews, too.

Still, I cannot help but think that many Jews would challenge the story's blunt statement of fact that "Judaism does not require adherence to specific doctrines." This is attributed to Kushner, who is a Reform leader from San Francisco, an NPR commentator and a visiting professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

I kept wondering if Orthodox Jewish leaders here in Baltimore would embrace Kushner's statement as a statement of fact or challenge it.

Is this, in fact, a clear statement of faith that can be made on behalf of the different brances of Judaism? Can you be an Orthodox Jew today and reject all belief that the Torah is inspired by God? Can you be a Conservative Jew and believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Can you be a Reform Jew today and believe that it is wrong for women and gays to serve as rabbis? Or, are there doctrines that you don't have to believe, but you had better be quiet about it if you don't?

I think the Sun story needed a bit more clarity here. It needed another voice to respond to Kushner.

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