Judaism: A Way of Being
by David Gelernter
Yale University Press • 2009
Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love
by William Kolbrener
Continuum • 2011
I blame Jonathan Sacks. Across his oeuvre he has pioneered a style of writing about Judaism designed to put even the most refined gentile Englishman at ease. Beautifully written, his work weaves in philosophy, literature and history, giving the impression of a writer who draws upon all the wisdom of the world, seeking truth wherever it may be found. Naturally the Judaism portrayed is of a relatively orthodox variety; but this style and breadth of reference gives the reader the sense that Judaism is not dogmatic or parochial; rather it is tune with the best of humanistic and rational thought; [authentic] Judaism is both timeless and utterly relevant to the modern condition. Sometimes the philosophy is a little woolly, the logic slightly questionable, but we are swept along by the quality of the prose and the frequent anecdotes, designed to dig the Chief Rabbi out of whatever intellectual hole he may have dug himself into.
As a result of his undisputed success, Sacks has spawned a line of imitators, each displaying prose of impeccable quality, littered with philosophical and literary references. William Kolberener is the latest in this dynasty, and is rewarded for his efforts by a fulsome endorsement from the master on the back cover. Kolbrener, according to Sacks “engages in conversation with the timeless texts of the Torah [and] the result is both enlightening and enthralling.” While Kolbrener indeed sets out to engage in a conversation between classical Jewish texts and wider intellectual currents, the dialogue is frequently a one-sided one. Demonstrating his breadth of knowledge, Kolbrener references a diverse array of writers and thinkers: Wittgenstein, Hobbes, Descartes, Freud, Niels Bohr and Sophocles among others. These voices however, are rarely used to demonstrate an insight from which the tradition can learn. They either reinforce Jewish tradition or present an opposing view, which is then shown to be wrong. Either way, Judaism, or at least Kolbrener’s version of it, always wins. In Isaac’s Bad Rap T.S. Eliot is depicted as believing that “a classic is not the work that begins a literary tradition, but the one that allows for the tradition’s continuity”. So Eliot is supportive of Jewish textuality; this would have been a surprise to the notoriously antisemitic poet. In Modernity and Hell, Korah and Hobbes, the eponymous philosopher, who believed that “brute power provides the only barrier to endless war” fails to understand the possibility of Judaic conflict management in which “disputes for the sake of heaven” can be resolved because “these and these are the words of the living God.” Jewish reformists do little better: Prayer and the People sees Kolbrener baffled by the Reform movement’s attempt to create a contemporary liturgy that “reflects our values and ideals” — far better to stick with the (apparently heaven-sent) traditional siddur, ideally in the version edited and introduced by Jonathan Sacks.
There are, of course, several iterations of the classic Sacksian trope: clever Israel and the stupid Greeks. ‘Lighting Up; The Beauty of Hanukah’ sees the “Greek scoffers reducing everything to the laws of nature” as opposed to the Hanukah lamp that leads to “continuous recognition of the miraculous character of the every day”. Torah and the Pleasure Principle contrasts Greek thinkers who ‘stand outside’, relying on ‘rational principles’ and the sages of the Talmud who ‘think with their hearts.’ This is feel-good knockabout masquerading as philosophical reflection; whatever the rhetoric of Hanukah, the long history of Greek speaking Jewish communities, centred in Alexandria demonstrate centuries of Greek-Jewish synthesis; Judaism as we experience it today has been inescapably shaped by Hellenism. Open Minded Torah creates a superficial feeling of intellectual cosmopolitanism in which Judaism is in dialogue with the great ideas of modernity and western civilisation, but the wider sources function as a series of straw men whose all too easy rebuttal is designed to assure the reader of Judaism’s intellectual sophistication and superiority.
The idea of a work that weaves high- level Jewish scholarship around everyday life events is a powerful one. Unfortunately though, Kolbrener misses the opportunity to say something profound about Judaism and modernity. Modern Jews are in genuine need of unflinching analyses of the possible ways a rethought and renewed Judaism might offer an intellectually credible path in contemporary society. The requirement however, is not for writings that blithely assert the superiority of the Hebraic over the Hellenistic but instead, as Levinas suggested, bring Athens and Jerusalem into a genuine dialogue of equals.
If Kolbrener is Sacks’ direct descendant, David Gelernter is his wayward bastard child. The elegant prose is present, the literary and philosophical references (Kant, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Newton, Chesterton et al) utilised, the attempt to answer head on the great questions of life in a language accessible to the secular reader. But while Kolbrener’s view of Judaism represents a fairly mainstream Modern Orthodox position, Gelernter portrays a Jewish orthodoxy that he seems to have dreamed up himself. Gelernter writes extensively of the ‘Torat Halev’ (Torah of the heart); the term is used so frequently and with such assumed authority that the reader might imagine it to be rabbinic in origin; it is in fact a moniker of Gelernter’s invention. The hubristically titled Judaism presents itself as nothing short of a contemporary Mishneh Torah, with its author a latter day Maimonides. Gelernter declares his hand in the Preface: he is writing about a “common”,“normative”, “full strength, straight up; no water, no soda aged in oak for three thousand years” Judaism, which he identifies as “Orthodox”. This is a discomfiting start to all who view the Judaic tradition as diverse, plural and having been radically changed throughout its history; we, presumably, are practicing a Judaism more akin to cheap white wine. Gelernter sees as inadequate approaches to Judaism that focus on the particular; he wishes to move beyond specific aspects of Judaism in order to reinstate “the grand scheme itself: the picture that encompasses all these elements; the underlying idea.” While Gelernter doesn’t quite say that only he can access this God’s- eye perspective he comes pretty close. Not for Gelernter the approach of summarising “current thinking among theologians and philosophers of Judaism”, instead: “I attempt to summarise Judaism itself ”.
The main body of the book is split into four extended meditations: Separation; on halacha, Veil; on an ineffable transcendent deity, Perfect Asymmetry; on women and marriage, and Inward Pilgrimage; on the problem of evil. Perfect Asymmetry is by far the weakest: in attempting to justify a conservative position on gender roles and relations Gelernter sounds like a tea-party moralist and an apologist for some of Judaism’s most offensively patriarchal texts. Despite this, the other chapters work fairly successfully as free flowing, romantic ruminations on Jewish practice and texts, inventing new metaphorical and mythical frameworks to understand and promote Judaism. There is nothing wrong with this romanticism; the beauty of the prose and the novelty of some of the ideas make for engaging reading. What is problematic is the insistence that Judaism is homogenous, coherent and unchanging along with an accompanying insistence that said Judaism is defined, not by its classical texts, but by David Gelernter’s idiosyncratic understanding. Where there is a minor text that fits his viewpoint it is elevated to the status of ‘authentic Judaism’; where there is a major one that gets in the way it is treated as an aberration or an accident of history.
There are moments, however, where Gelernter goes further and presents ‘normative’ Judaism in ways that simply beggar belief. An especially unhinged appendix on Jewish and Christian ethics contains a series of remarkable claims on Judaism’s approach to violence: ‘In Judaism pacifism is immoral;…’Jewish morality is warrior morality. It is no accident that Abraham, Moses, and David, the Bible greatest heroes should all have been described as warriors… Judah Maccabee…frequently cited in Medieval Europe as the model of a Godly and chivalrous knight.’ Any familiarity with pre-modern Judaism would reveal this to be nonsense — most rabbinic and medieval texts display strong hostility to violence, an attitude which seeped through society and led Jewish communities to be famously passive and non- violent. Gelernter’s normative Judaism then is not ‘orthodoxy’ nor is it historically grounded: it is the ideal Judaism of Commentary magazine, where Zionism is central, social morality conservative, and God’s role is ultimately to let you ‘preserve the morality you already accept’.
Jonathan Sacks’ ultimate tragedy is the wasting of his gifts. An impressive knowledge of philosophy and a talent for elegant prose are squandered because of a need to tow the party line and defend a Modern Orthodox status quo. These two books are no less missed opportunities; while Kolbrener fails to take on board any lessons from non-Jewish sources, Gelernter’s obsession with depicting an essential and authentic Judaism leads him to downplay his own innovation and distort evidence to fit his goals. With such exquisite writing, knowledge of classic Jewish texts and broad frame of literary reference both writers could have produced works of transformative scope that point towards future Judaisms. As it stands, both, despite their tremendous sophistication, are works of apologetics.