Welcome to the Jewish Review of Books

by David P. Goldman

David Klinghoffer, the “Kingdom of Priests” blogger at Beliefnet, was telling me the other day about the Orthodox shul in Seattle at which he davens. Very few members of the synagogue (the rabbi excepted) were raised in Orthodox homes. Almost all are Jews who embraced Orthodoxy as adults, including converts within mixed marriages and various degrees of baalei tshuvah (Jewish returnees to observance). His perception is that this phenomenon is common in the American provinces. The demographers appear far behind the facts: there appears to be a great resurgence of observant Jewish practice. Not only the fertility of Orthodox familes (3 to 4 children in Modern Orthodox families and 6 to 7 among the Haredi), but the attraction of Orthodoxy, is swelling the numbers of what until recently was America’s smallest Jewish denomination.

A sign of the spiritual stirring among American Jews is the number of new publications devoted to Jewish matters, including the website Tablet and now the Jewish Review of Books, whose maiden issue came in yesterday’s mail. The JRB’s format looks a bit like the New York Review of Books, except that it is quarterly rather than bi-weekly (I hope reader interest will elicit a higher frequency of publication). Its publisher, Eric Cohen, is a member of the Institution for Religion and Public Life’s board of directors, and an editorial board member, Prof. J.H.H. Weiler, will give this year’s Erasmus Lecture next week.

JRB adopts as its motto Franz Rosenzweig’s twist on Terence (“nothing Jewish is alien to me”), citing the great German-Jewish theologian’s observation that “not everything Jewish was worthy of celebration, only that it was worthy of understanding.” The first issue correspondingly has an air of “Here comes everybody (Jewish).” From the Orthodox side, Shalom Carmy, the distinguished head of bible studies at Yeshiva University, offers a review of a book on bio-ethics by former First Things editor Gilbert Meilander, and the leading Bible scholar, Prof. Jon Levenson of Harvard, has a lucid critique of the perfervid idea of “Abrahamic religions.”

Secular and reform Jews are included as well. Hillel Halkin, a frequent contributor to Commentary, reviews Rabbi Lord Sacks’ edition of the Koren Siddur (the Jewish prayer book). It is a uniquely Jewish study in contradiction: with what he describes as “my snobbery,” Halkin quibbles with details of Sacks’ translation that might diminish the aesthetic pleasure of Hebrew prayer (he is something of a maven of Hebrew poetry, and the translations of medieval Hebrew verse included in his recent biography of Yehuda Halevi are clever and well-crafted). He evinces the sensitivity of the Pea Princess to anything in the siddur that might detract from devotion. Yet he pulls back and observes:

Nothing, however, can keep one focused on one’s prayers when one loses faith in the God to whom one has been praying. This happened to me midway through adolescence. Although since then I have attended many synagogues services, I have never really been able to pray. A part of me still yearns for the days when I could…[I] feel like an imposter when I take part in a synagogue service today. Like anyone skilled at playing a role, I alone know I am playing it.

Halkin is quite secular, but retains aesthetic sense of the Hebrew service. For those who do know know the morning (schaharit) prayer service, Halkin’s article provides one of the best summaries available. And despite his own lack of faith, passages such as the one below doubtless will prompt not a few of his readers to stop by an Orthodox shul before work to pray:

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh: the prophet Isaiah’s three “holies” are customarily exclaimed while rising with each on the balls of one’s feet, as if the congregation were a throng of angels seeking to catch a glimpse of God’s throne over the heads of those in front of it. It is, as Jonathan Sacks writes in his thoughtful introduction, a moment of “astonishing drama.” Angels and men in rabbinic midrash are often portrayed as rivals, men striving for the angels’ closeness to God, angels jealous of God’s fascination with men, and there is an undercurrent of this competition in the morning prayer, which describes [His] ministering angels,

all of whom stand in the universe’s heights, proclaiming together, in awe, aloud,
the words of the living God, the eternal King. They are all beloved, all pure, all mighty,
and all perform in awe and reverence the will of their Maker.
All open their mouths in holiness and purity, With song and psalm,
And bless, praise, glorify, revere, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of [God]

What mortal can vie with such creatures of perfection? Yet in the kedusha, men and angels join together, serenading God with the same words. As it is above, so it is below. For a brief moment every morning, the universe is unified as it was at the time of its creation, of which shacharit is a recurring commemoration.

Jon Levenson’s discussion of “Abrahamic religions” is the strongest piece in the inaugural issue. Carefully, but ruthlessly, he shows that the concept of Abraham and what he means in the context of God’s election has different meanings for the three faith communities who cite the patriarch. The concept of “election” both unites and separates the Jewish and Christian understanding of Abraham, and lead to quite different readings of scripture they both embrace; the Muslim concept, in which election plays no role, is a different thing altogether. He concludes:

The very claim that God has graciously singled out a particular people–the people of Israel or the Church–constitutes both a bond and a barrier between these continuing communities, one that they do not share with Islam. But even in the case of Jews and Christians, to speak of the Abrahamic legacy as only a bond, or as only a barrier, is to simplify matters to the point of falsification. In this instance, as in so many others, the challenge before Jews and Christians alike is to uphold with integrity both the connections and the divisions. Since today the pressure to uphold the connections is vastly greater than the pressure to uphold the divisions, this is, alas, no easy task.

Prof. Weiler denounces the recent decision by the British courts to overturn as “racist” the Orthodox Jewish criteria for Jewish identity as applied to the selection of pupils for Orthodox day schools. His argument is very similar to mine in the January issue of FT.

A Reform rabbi’s review of Dana Evan Kaplan’s book Prospects for American Judaism also caught my eye, as it reiterates themes I raised in my earlier review of the book. Rabbi Lance Sussman estimates that the Reform Movement has a lost a third of its members in the past decade and is in danger of extinction. He writes:

Most perplexing is Kaplan’s cursory and inadequate treatment of contemporary Orthodox Judaism in America. He does have a sub-chapter entitled “The Surprising Survival and Revival of Orthodox Judaism.” But is it really so very surprising, in view of the world-wide revival of old-fashioned religion, including the tremendous growth of American Protestant fundamentalism? What is truly surprising is the scant attention that he gives to Orthodoxy, especially in view of his observation at the end of the book that “relations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews have been steadily deteriorating,” and that the two groups are rapidly moving toward a complete schism….

Closer to his (and my own) spiritual home, Kaplan also fails to critically examine Reform Judaism. Instead, he generally echoes the movement’s own triumphalism.

All in all, it is an auspicious beginning. One wonders, though, to which demographic the JRB is directed. Hillel Halkin is exemplary of an older generation of Jews raised in observance but long since alienated from faith, who nonetheless feel a deep loyalty to the Jewish people. Since it is old people who have the money to fund magazines, JRB seems to reflect this generational perspective. Yet is young Jews who constitute the backbone of Orthodoxy and portend a future Orthodox majority. Rabbi Ben Greenberg of Harvard observed in the February issue of FT:

Not until the appearance of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of 2000–2001 did the underlying strength of Orthodoxy register with the Jewish world at large. The year 2000 was also the year in which an Orthodox Jew ran for the vice presidency of the United States. The NJPS placed the percentage of American Jews who define themselves as Orthodox at 10 percent of the total Jewish population. In addition, another 21 percent of Jewish households belong to an Orthodox synagogue. What is perhaps most stunning is that 34 percent of Jews within the age bracket of 18–34 identify with Orthodoxy.

The grandson remembers what the father never knew, states a Yiddish proverb. The 18-to-34 demographic has yet to find its own voice, and its own intellectual fora.

from First Things

The original text of the article may be found here.


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