On Judaism: Conversations On Being Jewish In Today's World

Written by: Emanuel Feldman;Shaar Press, N.Y.
Reviewed by: Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen - author of ''The Universal Jew - Letters to my Progressive Father,'' published by Feldheim

The author of ''On Judaism,'' Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, served as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, for over thirty-five years. During that period, he was instrumental in creating in Atlanta a large and dynamic Orthodox community which has attracted many searching and unaffiliated Jews. When Rabbi Feldman was asked to write a book which would inspire more Jews to return to Judaism, he chose a format which was based on his own life experience.

''On Judaism'' is written in the form of a dialogue between a Rabbi and a member of his congregation, David, who initiated a series of conversations with his Rabbi in order to explore what Judaism has to teach about the meaning and purpose of life. Through David's probing questions and the Rabbi's thoughtful and honest answers, we rediscover a living Judaism - a spiritual path which takes the most noble, ethical ideals and weaves them into the fabric of everyday life. A central theme of this work is that Judaism emphasizes deeds - actions which lead us to a loving and respectful relationship with the Creator and all creation.

As the Rabbi points out, all of Jewish law is known by the term halacha, which means ''the way'' or ''the going'' with God. Even the Table of Contents of this book emphasizes Judaism as a path -rather than as a ''philosophy'' or ''religion'':

  • Teshuvah - Returning home
  • God - Wondering about God
  • Prayer - Reaching Towards God
  • Torah - Learning God's Wisdom
  • Holiness - Sanctifying the physical
  • Mitzva - Directing our deeds
  • Shabbat - Discovering Serenity
  • Yom Tov - Celebrating Holy Days
  • Kashruth - Enjoying God's bounty
  • Interpersonal Relationship - Loving our neighbor
  • Jews and Non-Jews - Viewing the world

The Rabbi's insights and responses are directed to the logic of the mind and the understanding of the heart; yet ''On Judaism'' is not a book of apologetics designed to redefine Judaism in order to make it ''popular'' among modern Jews. The work is meant to both inspire and challenge the contemporary seeker. For example, David and the Rabbi engage in a fascinating dialogue as to whether there are absolute ethical values which are rooted in a truth higher than ourselves. In this discussion, David points out that there are people who don't believe in an absolute or Divine truth, but who nevertheless try to be good people. The following is an excerpt from the Rabbi's response:

I would nevertheless ask such people some serious questions. First, is an ethical life without a grounding in some higher standard - based on something other than that which I by myself consider to be right and moral and ethical - truly a solid ethics? Will it be able to survive all crises and challenges?... You simply can't have an ethics which takes its guiding principles from what each individual feels is right... Murderers feel they are justified. Thieves have their own rationalizations. (The Talmud in Berachot 63a says that even a thief prays to God that his thievery should succeed!) There has to be some higher, universally binding system if ethics is to have any force or meaning. (Interpersonal Relationship, p.248)

The Rabbi also argues that one needs to be connected to a higher, transcendent source of morality in order to be able to objectively deal with complex ethical issues relating to the value and sanctity of human life, such as abortion, euthanasia and suicide. He states that even in ordinary, everyday activities, ethics need to be anchored in a Divine truth and mandate, for as he reminds David: ''In general, there are always going to be times when you simply do not feel like bothering to be kind, or sensitive, or charitable - you're not in the mood, you're angry or upset - and then the ethical element in you tends to evaporate on the moment unless there is a solid anchor in God and His law. That is why Judaism presents an extensive system of moral and ethical law which sets up moral imperatives, not suggestions, and which endeavors to create within us a self-discipline which will in the long run make us instinctively good...(Ibid p.249).

A particularly uplifting section is the chapter on the Shabbat and the way ''she is the source of all blessing'' (Friday night prayer welcoming the Shabbat bride). The Rabbi describes how the Shabbat allows us to pull back from the world and from the immediate business of ordinary life in order to contemplate things from a different perspective: "Surprising things happen when we let go of the physical things which control us during the week, and when we allow our souls to rise to the surface. It's as if a window is thrown open within us, allowing fresh air to enter." In this case, the fresh air is God, Who has been waiting patiently outside for a chance to come into our lives. When you ''do'' Shabbat in the way it's supposed to be done, He comes in - through prayer... through Torah study... through a renewed awareness of the world around us and of the people around us; and even through the special wine and food and songs of the day. We rest, as do members of our family, as does our servant, as does our beast of burden. (And as does the beast of burden within us.) When this happens, we achieve a sense of internal peace, of harmony and oneness with the world, and with people and with nature. Discord, anger, resentment, strife are all set aside. It actually happens when you give it a chance.(Shabbat, p.169)

The Rabbi points out that the word Shabbat means not only ''rest,'' but also ''return,'' for Shabbat helps us to withdraw from our creative physical activity upon the earth and ''return to our original selves''. It is a return which takes place on both the individual and collective level. When we return to ourselves as Jews, it is not because of ethnic pride or because of nationalistic aspirations. In the section on how the Jew views the world, the Rabbi explains how the unique and separate role of the Jewish people is for the sake of a universal goal: to become ''a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'' (Exodus 19:6), which can serve as an ethical and spiritual model for all the nations. Among the spiritual strengths of the Jewish people which enhance their potential to fulfill this task is the awareness that ''religion and God-consciousness are not merely one compartment of life, but are in fact the summation and totality of life.''

Other peoples, however, also have God-given gifts, teaches the Rabbi:"Other nations may be superior in other respects: they may be more clever, more intelligent, more inventive, more athletic, more attuned to law or economics or science or music or mathematics or philosophy. Each nation has its own God-given genius." (p.259-70) The genius of the Jewish people is not due to racial factors, since the Jewish people are composed of all the racial groups upon the earth. Moreover, the Jews accept converts from all races and nations. And the Rabbi points out that Ruth, the biblical prototype of the classic convert, is the ancestor of the Messiah - a reminder of the ultimate unity of all humanity.

''On Judaism'' is a work which is ''timeless'' rather than ''timely.'' With rare exception, it does not explore specific contemporary issues such as the environment, poverty or life-style issues, although it does refer to these topics. Instead, it attempts to provide the reader with the classical Torah beliefs and teachings which will hopefully enable the reader to begin to think about a variety of issues - old and new - from a Torah perspective. Does this mean that the subtitle ''Conversations On Being Jewish In Today's World'' is inaccurate? It is accurate in the sense that the seeker being addressed has modern questions and doubts which are part of contemporary, secular culture. Fortunately, the Rabbi does not claim to have provided all the answers. Instead, he concludes the dialogue with the following remarks to David which speak to all of us: "We have touched only on some of the basics.The rest is up to you. Go and learn. And think. And absorb. And review. And ask. And experience. But most of all, go and learn."

The Mind - Our Inner Sanctuary; An Excerpt from ''On Judaism''

Rabbi: When you get down to it, study of Torah is a form of worship of God. And if I may say so, it's a kind of conversation between the Jew and God which began at Sinai and goes on into eternity. All this affects us as individuals.

D: That's all very pretty, but if I may say so, if this is a true conversation how do I get to hear God's end of the conversation? Sometimes it's rather hard to make out.

R: It's not always apparent, but in the very words of the Torah is His conversation. In His own hidden way, God responds to each individual through the Torah, and the amount of response we hear from Him depends on the amount of effort we put into Torah practice and study. What I mean is that when our minds become preoccupied and caught up with Torah and its ideas, it stands to reason that the mind itself becomes sanctified. Trivialities and foolishness slowly get filtered out, so that we are no longer dominated by them. The mind gradually becomes a repository for holy things. It becomes a kind of holy vessel which is now able to absorb thoughts and concepts and ideas which previously had been foreign to it. In other words, as the mind is saturated with Torah, the common, the ordinary, and the unsacred are crowded out, and suddenly there is space into which God's presence can enter. (p.109)

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