Richard L. Rubenstein

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Richard L. Rubenstein

Richard L. Rubenstein (born 1924) was an American Jewish theologian and writer who defined the agenda of post-Holocaust theology for Christians and Jews.

Richard Lowell Rubenstein was born on January 6, 1924, in New York City. The eldest son of an assimilated, educated, poor Jewish family, he did not have a Bar-Mitzvah, the traditional rite affirming a 13-year-old as an adult member of the Jewish community. Educated at the prestigious Townsend Harris High School, as a teenager Rubenstein considered converting to Unitarianism and becoming a minister. When the pastor advised him to change his last name, Rubenstein began his slow journey back to Judaism.

Ordained as a Rabbi

In 1942, during the height of the Holocaust, Rubenstein entered the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (Reform Judaism's rabbinical seminary) and simultaneously continued his studies at the University of Cincinnati. While millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, Rubenstein was taught an anti-Zionist theology of religious liberalism, which spoke of the evolving perfection of man and enthusiastically welcomed modernity. Increasingly disillusioned, Rubenstein left the Hebrew Union College for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1952, prior to which he had also studied at an Orthodox yeshiva. The death of his infant son on the eve of the Day of Atonement triggered a personal and theological crisis for Rubenstein.

After ordination, Rubenstein worked as a pulpit rabbi and began a Ph.D. program at Harvard, completing his dissertation on a psychoanalytic understanding of rabbinic legends. Rubenstein served as the chaplain to Jewish students at Harvard (1956-1958) and later at the University of Pittsburgh (1958-1970), where he also was the Charles E. Merrill Adjunct Professor of Humanities (1966-1970). He subsequently moved to Florida State University, where he was the Robert D. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion and co-director of the Humanities Institute.

Literary Works

In 1966 Rubenstein published his first book, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. An innovative, controversial work, it suggested that no Jewish theology could afford to ignore the twin revolutions of modern Jewish history—the Holocaust and the reborn state of Israel. Rubenstein argued that the Holocaust overturned traditional Jewish teaching regarding the God of history. To portray history as an expression of God's will is to maintain that God wanted Auschwitz—an idea which Rubenstein dismissed as thoroughly obscene. Like his teacher Mordecai Kaplan, Rubenstein rejected the concept of Jewish chosenness. Jews must recognize, Rubenstein argued, "that we are, when given normal opportunities, neither more nor less than any other men, sharing the pain, the joy, and the fated destiny that Earth alone has meted out to all her children."

Influenced by Freud's psychoanalytic theory, Rubenstein nevertheless affirmed the priestly functions of religious life. Religion is the arena in which people celebrate the joys and vicissitudes of life, its tragedies and triumphs. Though he denied the God of history, Rubenstein did not abandon the idea of divinity. He offered an ultimately tragic theological vision: "omnipotent nothingness is the Lord of all creation."

After Auschwitz took the Jewish community by storm. It was widely considered the Jewish contribution to the "death of God" theologies popularized in the 1960s. Yet, unlike other death of God theologians, Rubenstein viewed God's death not as an event in the divine life but as a mournful statement of the human condition. "We live in the time of the death of God," he wrote. After Auschwitzset the theological agenda of the Jewish community for the next period. It forced Christian theologians to confront the Holocaust but also reinforced Rubenstein's growing estrangement from the Jewish establishment.

Over the next eight years Rubenstein wrote four books: The Religious Imagination (1968), a psychoanalytic study of rabbinic myth which won the Portico d'Ottavia Literary Prize in Rome in 1977; Morality and Eros (1970), an examination of ethics in a permissive society; My Brother Paul (1972), a psycho-biography of Paul's struggles with Jewish tradition and his relevance for contemporary religious life; and Power Struggle (1974), Rubenstein's autobiography detailing his formative years, his failed first marriage, his happy remarriage to Betty Rogers Rubenstein, and his relationship to his three children. The memoir also deals with Rubenstein's struggles with Jewish tradition and authority.

In 1975 Rubenstein published The Cunning of History, in which the Holocaust is portrayed not as an aberration from Western tradition but an extreme expression of the deepest tendencies of civilization—demographic, religious, political, and economic.

According to Rubenstein, Western societies have been producing superfluous populations—people who could not find a place within the economic system—for the past 350 years. For most of that time, superfluous Europeans went to settle the new world or colonize Asia and Africa. Once the gates of the new world were shut, the Nazis undertook the next logical step: they murdered the people they deemed superfluous (Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the retarded).

He felt that Christianity believes that it has superseded Judaism, a relic religion that will disappear in time. The Nazis took Christianity's target and sought to make the world Judenrein, free of Jews. On a political level, Nazism represented the perfection of bureaucracy. The Nazis could successfully destroy millions because they employed a highly disciplined bureaucratic system. Economically, I. G. Auschwitz, the corporately-sponsored slave-labor camp adjacent to the death camp, represented the perfection of human slavery. Human beings were reduced to a consumable raw material expended as a by-product of manufacturing. In The Age of Triage (1983) Rubenstein further developed the theory suggested in The Cunning of History and expanded his discussion of modernization. The Cunning of History had marked Rubenstein's transition from a Jewish theologian into a major theoretician of modernization and its consequences.

Rubenstein's works have been translated into Dutch, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, and Japanese. As the president of the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy (a conservative think-tank that explored religion and politics in the 1980s), Rubenstein traveled extensively in the Far East and Europe lecturing and consulting. Later he wrote on the crisis of modernization in the East and West.

In 1986 Rubenstein co-authored with John Roth Approaches to Auschwitz (1986), a scholarly and diverse text on the Holocaust. It is methodologically eclectic, incorporating history, ideology, theology, literature, philosophy, and the social sciences from a humanistic perspective. Other publications include Modernization: The Humanist Response to Its Promises and Pitfalls (1982); The Dissolving Alliance: The United States and the Future of Europe (1987); Spirit Matters: The Worldwide Impact of Religion on Contemporary Politics (1987); The Dissolving Alliance: The United States and NATO (1987); and After Auschwitz: History, Theology and Contemporary Judaism (1992).

Rubenstein retired from Florida State University in 1995 and became the president of the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He was a bold, innovative thinker whose approach to Judaism and religion was informed by the social sciences and then transformed by a fertile imagination.

Further Reading

Rubenstein's wife, B.R. Rubenstein and M. Berenbaum were the editors for a series of essays entitled What Kind of God? Essays in Honor of Richard Rubenstein (1997). Aside from reading Rubenstein's own work, the reader can find an understanding of Richard Rubenstein's early work in Michael Berenbaum's The Vision of the Void (1979); Steven Katz Post-Holocaust Dialogues (1983); and Eugene Borowitz's Contemporary Jewish Theology. William Styron's chapter "Hell Revisited" in This Quiet Dust (1982) deals with Rubenstein's later work. An advanced student might want to read a full length Ph.D. dissertation on Rubenstein: Jocelyn Hellig, The 'Death of God' in the Thought of Richard L. Rubenstein (The University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1982). □