The Bookshelf

by Rabbi Neil Gillman

Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion. Princeton University Press, 2011. This slim volume is a systematic overview of the various responses to the central issue facing the Jewish people since the dawn of modernity, conventionally dated from the end of the 18th century. Until that time, when our ancestors might have been asked “What are you?” the sophisticated answer would have been “We are a religion and a people, indissolubly bound together.” Modernity, in the shape of the emancipation and the enlightenment, severed that nexus, and Jews were determined to adopt one definition in place of the other. Either we are a nation like France and the other emerging nations in the new Europe, or we are a religion, much like Christianity. How and why that choice was made by Jewish thinkers from the late 18th century to our own day is the subject of Professor Batnitzky’s illuminating study. The issue is not simply a historical one; it very much remains on the agenda of most thinking Jews today. This book, whose author is chair of Princeton University’s religion department, is an indispensable introduction to any enlightened conversation about that problem.

Joan Burstyn and Gershon Vincow, Searching for God: Study Partners Explore Contemporary Jewish Texts. iUniverse. At various points in the history of these book reviews, I have chosen to highlight publications by laypeople who have devoted years of study and serious thinking to Jewish theological issues. The partners in this striking exchange are Joan Burstyn, professor emerita of education and history, and Gershon Vincow, emeritus professor of chemistry and formerly vice chancellor for academic affairs, both at Syracuse University. What we have here is an extended exchange of letters between the two, essentially capturing a form of chevruta study, on topics such as mystical and rational approaches to God, revelation and command, and the interchange between physics and theology in forming metaphors for God. (Full disclosure: my own writing is one of the books studied by the authors.) The closest parallel to these exchanges is the celebrated early 20th century correspondence between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig on revelation and law published in “On Jewish Learning.” Both authors are academicians, both are serious, committed, worshipping Conservative Jews, and both are accessible writers. If the exchanges that form this book are indicative of the kind of studying taking place among lay Jews in our day, then the future of Jewish theology is in excellent hands. Thank you for that.

Eliezer Schweid, The Philosophy of the Bible as Foundation of Jewish Culture, translated from the Hebrew by Leonard Levin. Academic Studies Press, 2008. The name Eliezer Schweid is hardly familiar to American Jewish readers. In Israel, on the other hand, he is respected as a scholar, an intellectual, and a national treasure, a recipient of the Israel Prize. A former professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he is an astoundingly prolific author of a wide range of scholarly and popular books on issues of Jewish thought and Jewish and Israeli identity. Fortunately, Professor Leonard Levin has undertaken to translate a number of Schweid’s Hebrew writings into English.This two-volume study is a detailed review of how the Bible has fared in the modern age. Beginning with Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn, conventionally assumed to be the founding ideologues of Jewish modernity, it extends to the various approaches to Bible study and the various secular and religious approaches to teaching the Bible in contemporary Israel. Volume one is from creation to the Exodus, volume two takes us from the Exodus to the prophetic period. Schweid is fully aware of the conflicts that rage within Israeli culture today, but he works assiduously at proposing a mediating approach that sees traditional Judaism as a complex, evolving entity that must enter into dialogue with other surrounding cultures if it is to survive. This is but a tip of the iceberg of Schweid’s writings but it is a valuable introduction to his work.

Amos Oz, Scenes from Village Life, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. This novel, actually a weaving together of eight tales, all taking place in an Israeli village, may well be the most telling portrait of Israeli life today. It is hardly uplifting, but we have learned not to expect uplifting portraits of contemporary Israel from Amos Oz. We read these stories with a sense of irresolution, desolation, and disquiet. They exude uncertainty as to what lies ahead, along with a pervasive but always understated sense of tension stemming not from any specific incident but rather from the overall cultural condition of Israel today. The author may also be telling us something about our lives as well, about what it means to live a human life today. If so, be prepared for an upsetting experience, but this remains must reading for any thoughtful student.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Simple Actions for Jews to Help Green the Planet, 2011. There are many theoretical studies of Judaism’s approach to the issues raised by contemporary environmentalists, but relatively few that can serve as practical guides to the committed environmentalist, detailing what we should and should not do to further the cause. This is such a book. Theoretical discussions are curtailed in favor of do’s and don’ts for individuals and communities – a veritable Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law) answering the questions How? Why? and When? for the committed environmentalist.

Rabbi Gillman is the Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind emeritus professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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