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Three Perspectives on Modern Judaism

September 27, 2013
by Rabbi Reba Carmel Discussed in this Essay: The Modern Guide to Judaism, by Shmuely Boteach. 2012, Overlook TP, 208 pages. Breath of Life — God as Spirit in Judaism, by Rachel Timoner. 2011, Paraclete Press, 180 pages. Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, by Sarah Bunin Benor. 2012, Rutgers University Press, 288 pages. JewsThe Jewish religious tradition maintains that all Jews stood together at Sinai and in unison accepted their covenantal relationship with God. In real life, however, Jews have been interpreting and reinterpreting their individual and communal relationship with Judaism for centuries. The Bible is merely the beginning of our theological library: Subsequent generations of rabbis built layers upon layers of discussion, debate and argument based upon their understandings of biblical precepts. They also anticipated how cataclysmically the Jewish understanding of Judaism would change: “When Moses ascended on high,” says a talmudic story (Menahot 29b) “he found the Holy One . . . engaged in affixing coronets to the letters of the Torah. . .” God tells him about Akiva, the sensitive, humble yet daunting scholar and teacher who lived in Israel in the 1st century CE — who “at the end of many generations,” the story says, would serve as a creative master of Jewish law. Moses then finds himself in a classroom (eighth row) listening to Akiva and his contemporaries discussing the law — and Moses is entirely unable to follow their discussion, although they are teaching in his name. The sense of dislocation that Moses feels seems an appropriate backdrop to the assessment of three recent books that present remarkably divergent views about the essences of Judaism. Shmuely Boteach, declared by Newsweek as “the most famous rabbi in America,” presents the Modern Guide to Judaism. Rabbi Rachel Timoner, a Reform rabbi in California, offers us Breath of Life — God as Spirit in Judaism, which attempts to concretize the ephemeral concept of “spirituality.” Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union college, is the author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. Shmuely Boteach is a rabbi on a mission, and he carries it out with hot-rod gusto. After insisting that we live in a depressed, dysfunctional, and drug-addled stupor, he tries to save us with a creed that will offer us “a life worth living”: “What we require is the answer to how to master our lives in a confusing world of endless possibility and choice.” Like-what-youre-readingBoteach’s answer is the “triumph” of feminine energy, embodied in his image of shabes: “A mother of the household gathering her children around her in the presence of her husband and lighting the Sabbath candles at sunset on Friday night . . . Family life is essential for this light to shine . . .” His presumptions are astounding: Women, especially mothers, all have husbands, and gather the family to light candles at sunset; different models of family, or of Jewish communal or personal practice, do not seem to exist for him. In truth, this is not a “modern guide” to Judaism, but to Boteach Orthodoxy. (The book is thoroughly undocumented, without footnotes or even a single textual citation.) Judaism, he writes, “charges man to submit of his own free will to the law of God”; there is no need for us to evaluate the halakha (religious law) or wrestle with the incongruity of submission and free will. Circumcision, he continues, is the primary symbol of this submission. Are women, who have no such ritual, actually full members of the covenantal relationship? For Boteach (and numerous Orthodox apologists before him), women are inherently more “spiritual” and need no outward signs of covenantal obligation: “God’s words are actually written on their hearts and embedded in their souls.” Boteach departs from his bluster only when he discusses the Jewish response to suffering. Here he seems almost humble. Maintaining that suffering is neither “ennobling” nor a “punishment” for one’s misdeeds, he asserts that hope is the only response possible. Like former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg (in The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes, 2008), Boteach believes that perpetuating the legacy of the Holocaust feeds a culture of victimization and fear. However, while Burg urges Jews to reclaim the vibrant values and ethics of the Jewish tradition through whatever means — denominational affiliation is irrelevant — Boteach puts forth a shamelessly grandiose Orthodox vision. The majority of Jews, of course, are less interested in Boteachian ritual practice than in finding a Jewish community rich with honesty, integrity, and shared values. Most Jews do not define themselves as Orthodox or view Orthodox ritual as a true path to God — and most do not want to be harangued. Whereas Shmuely Boteach urges Jews to embrace an Orthodox life firmly grounded in ritual, Rachel Timoner, a Reform rabbi who serves the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, offers to caress us with a gentle breeze upon which ruakh, the Spirit of God, floats. It is impossible, she writes in Breath of Life, “to capture God in a confined image.” We trap God in anthropomorphism, but for Timoner neither name nor image suffices to capture God’s ethereal reality. She tries to evoke that reality — “singular, without image, with a name that hints at spirit” — through what she presents as Judaism’s story, embedded in the themes of creation, revelation and redemption. (Almost twenty years before Timoner’s book was published, Rabbi Arthur Green’s Seek My Face, Speak My Name, A Contemporary Jewish Theology also used these overarching themes — and embedded each in multiple contexts of philosophy, theology and painstaking inquiry.) Ruakh, asserts Timoner, with great seriousness, is what allows leaders to lead. Ruakh presents itself through two different types of biblical models, one in which God’s spirit “rests” upon an individual (as the Torah says of Joshua and Elisha), the other in which a leader is chosen (as in the cases of Saul and David). God’s emanations inhabit the earth, she believes, and are always at the ready to rest upon the individual who is unknowingly blessed with “highly developed courage.” For support for her views, she invokes Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, which identifies eleven degrees of “prophecy” among Biblical characters. Our actions matter, Timoner concludes. Since Judaism is one large spiritual ecosystem, and our actions have the power to alter the balance in the universe, we need to adhere to mitzvot and be mindful of the ethical teachings of the prophets. Unfortunately, her book says less about the spirituality of doing than about the spirituality of breathing. On the other hand, Sarah Benor’s Becoming Frum is very much about doing: about the mindful and self-conscious choices that non-Orthodox Jewish adults make when they choose to become part of a rigorously Orthodox community. “A central finding of this book,” she writes, “is that religion cannot be separated from social life and practice; religiosity and religious transformation involve an interplay between the spiritual and the cultural, between the individual and the communal.” Benor studies the food, dress, language, even home decoration and pets, of “BTs” (ba’alei teshuvah, “returnees” to Orthodox Judaism) as she visits a number of “black hat” communities in the Northeast. A respectful participant and observer, she willingly accedes to the female dress code of her hosts and is completely transparent about her purpose and intentions. Benor interestingly notes the dominance of Eastern European food culture, even among those of Sephardi origin. Citing a study by Shari Jacobson, she notes that “Syrian-origin BT women made frequent use of English language cookbooks from North America as they replace their Middle Eastern cuisine with European foods. . . . I argue that it represents the hegemony of eastern Ashkenazi culture as the most respected form of Orthodoxy, spread by a number of Hasidic and yeshivish institutions. It is rare to find FFB’s [frum or Orthodox from birth] who are vegetarians or who experiment with world cuisine . . . A few FFBs and BTs told me they can tell when they are in a BT home by the food they are served. . . . [I]f sushi, Indian spices, or fake shellfish are involved, or if dinner includes no meat, it is clearly a BT home. The Grateful Dead seem emblematic of the cultural shifts that BTs make. Some who adopt a more observant lifestyle keep a frayed poster of the group, perhaps from a college dorm, hanging in the basement. Others blast the Dead at high volume while shuttling a vanload of kids from one activity to the next, but lower the volume for inappropriate lyrics. Others exorcise all remnants of their prior existence and seemingly create themselves anew. Still, hints always remain of their former selves. “BTs conform to many of the norms of Orthodox dress,” Benor writes, “especially those mandated by halakha, but also continue to distinguish themselves in some ways. In a black hat community, a woman wearing a fashionable skirt outfit with sandals, or a man wearing a sweatshirt or a brown blazer, is much more likely to be a BT.” Benor devotes considerable time to explaining the rightward shift of Orthodox Jews during the past few decades. Drawing upon resources both academic and anecdotal, she reaches the seemingly reasonable conclusion that the turn towards stringency “was possible due to the ruptures caused by early 20th-century migration from Eastern Europe and by the Holocaust. These ruptures led to the increasing centrality of the yeshiva among haredi Jews, and the students began to prefer the authority of texts and their teachers who analyze those texts over the authority of their family traditions.” In addition, she says, since the 1960s (here she references Samuel Heilman, who has studied Orthodox communities), Orthodox Jews perceived America as “shifting away from the ‘wholesomeness’ of the 1950s,” with college campuses becoming “sites of chaos and assimilation,” which “led to a devaluing of secular higher education.” Benor’s also notes that the influx of ba’alei teshuvah into Orthodox communities has led FFBs to become more guarded and stringent. One difficult aspect of becoming frum that she notes is the infantilization that new members feel as they take on learning new language and cultural norms. More than one BT, for example, has received impromptu guidance on custom and practice from a child. While most BTs feel embraced by the communities they have chosen, their self-acceptance as full-fledged citizens may take a generation. Nevertheless, for most of them, the process of becoming frum seems as deeply gratifying as Benor’s eminently readable and absorbing study. Boteach, Benor, and Timoner all approach their subject matter with caring and passion. Boteach’s bombast, Timoner’s gauzy spiritual inclination, and Benor’s academic perspective each represents an existing sensibility within the Jewish world — and each writer’s love of Judaism and its vibrancy is clear. We can choose to accept or reject their interpretations and their religiosity, we can be comforted, intrigued or outraged by their thoughts — but wherever our internal Jewish compasses point, these books are part of the shared cultural memory that binds us. They deserve a fair hearing among those of us all who were and are “present at Sinai.” Reba Carmel is an attorney and rabbi who holds a Masters degree in Biblical Studies from Jewish Theological Seminary. She serves on the advisory board of the Jewish Dialogue Group, and works as a freelance writer and speaker on multi-faith issues. She holds Israeli and American citizenship and lived in Israel for ten years.