Literary Look at the ‘Jewish Experience’

To what extent do we (and would we) internalize the essence of the Torah?
June 5, 2003

This Shavuot, as we read about Ruth’s decision to convert, we should examine our own religious connection: To what extent do we (and would we) internalize the essence of the Torah?

In fact this question touches upon the much larger issue of what it means to be a Jew. "The Jewish Experience" is mentioned frequently and can refer to bagel brunches as easily as it can to surviving the Holocaust. That both of these are cultural references is not a coincidence; Judaism has traditionally emphasized actions and American society echoes this approach. There is however, a component beyond The Jewish Experience. There is an experience of being Jewish. There is a unique way of seeing life that informs all of our cultural practices and associations. This distinct worldview is what we embrace on Shavuot.

Three books in particular directly address the experience of being Jewish, each from a slightly different vantage point.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s work, "To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life" (Basic Books, $18.50), is often at the top of the reading list for people considering conversion. It begins with an overview of the basic tenets of Jewish thought, then elaborates upon these tenets by showing how they manifest in Jewish practices. And while it can certainly function as a practical handbook, it differs from one in that it constantly engages in a discussion of "why". Donin explains early on that the Torah was given in order to bring sanctification to the world. He continues, "The purpose of holiness permeates all of Jewish religious law, and encompasses every aspect of human concern and experience." Even if the reader gets no farther than page 35, orienting oneself to this concept alone can be life-altering.

The book is highly informative, with facts brimming on every page. It can be read in its entirety or consulted as a reference. Discussions are authoritative without being preachy. And where there is the possibility of controversy (e.g., birth control), Donin is remarkably adept at focusing on areas of common ground among rabbinic opinions.

"Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith "(Basic Books, $27.50) by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (of Kosher Sex fame) incorporates imagery and language from popular culture, especially the realm of New Age. The book contains a great deal of social philosophy, a fair amount of theorizing on contemporary life by the author and some very cogent articulations of the Jewish perspective on life. By packaging traditional Jewish thought in Bodhi Tree wrapping, potentially daunting ideas are made accessible to an audience that might not otherwise be reached.

Among the book’s most compelling points are the contrasts between Judaism’s views on life and those of the ideological competition. Jackie Mason jokes that Jews don’t have a sense of what it means to be Jewish beyond the understanding that "we’re not goyim." In this age of cross-cultural pollination, it is useful to know where ideas originate in order to better recognize what is the essence of our own.

Divergent approaches to suffering place Judaism in opposition to Christian thinking as well. Boteach notes that the message of the crucifixion to Christians is: "Without suffering there can be no redemption." On the other hand he writes, "In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive…. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance." As a supreme example of this view he cites the establishment of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "The response to death is life." Though it borders on the melodramatic, no one familiar with Jewish history would argue with this statement.

The most profound distillation of what it means to be Jewish can be found in the pages of "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels" by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Books, $14). The book is written with a poetic sensibility that belies an appreciation of life so rare in academic circles it is almost nonexistent. Cahill’s scholarship focuses on history as "the narratives of grace."

The Jewish gift referred to in the title is the introduction of linear thinking. Prior to Abraham, all people conceived of life as a circle or spiral, with events simply repeating themselves into infinity: "The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing … so much that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."

The text illustrates how choice and decisionmaking could not exist without the shift from the circular to the linear. The Ten Commandments could not exist, nor could the capacity for morality, nor, ultimately, Western civilization.

It seems ironic that the book that best encapsulates the Jewish contribution to society was written by a non-Jew. Then again, perhaps it is appropriately heartening and in keeping with our role as the standard-bearers for a more perfect world. Maybe we’re doing something right after all. And maybe, the more we internalize our gifts as a people the better able we will be to share.

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