Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Jewish Book Review: "To Life!" by Rabbi Harold Kurshner

Several people recommended To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking as a good introductory book, and, when I saw it at one of my local indie bookstores, I decided to see if it was as good as everyone said. Compared with the other Judaism 101 book I reviewed here, George Robinson's Essential Judaism, it has fewer facts and more interpretations. (It's also much shorter.) I don't think that's a good thing or a bad thing; I actually think they'd complement each other quite well.

I'm at least somewhat past the 101 level when it comes to Judaism, so most of the information wasn't new to me. A lot of the ideas, however, were. (I realize this may be a subtle distinction, but there's still a difference.) One idea I particularly liked was Kurshner's description of how he interprets the concept of God watching us: not scrutinizing our every move, waiting for an excuse to damn us (there isn't even a Hell in Judaism), but of a mother watching her child learn to ride a bike, "so that the mother will take pride in her [the child's] achievements and will be available to pick her up if she should fall" (153).

Kurshner does have a tendency to quote or paraphrase another source and say he's quoting or paraphrasing someone, but not say whom. At first this irritated me. For one thing, if you're going to quote someone, you should damn well say who you're quoting, if not in the text then in endnotes (there aren't any), or at least have a bibliography (also missing). If nothing else, if someone finds a quote or interpretation they like, they'll want to look that source up and see what else that person said. I can appreciate that Kurshner didn't want to intimidate or confuse people new to Judaism with tons of names, but, again, endnotes. Bibliography.

This was still only a minor irritation until I got to the section on Shabbat. The first sentence reads, "The holy days of the Jewish calendar have been called 'cathedrals in time'" (92). The phrase "has been called" is meaningless, beyond implying that Kurshner didn't come up with the concept himself. Who has called them that? One person? Two people? A movement? Is it a Talmudic tradition? Hasidic? Now, actually it's from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath. This is also where the title of the chapter, "Sanctuaries in Time," comes from. Like I said, I can appreciate that Kurshner didn't want to throw too many names at newbies, but come on, it's Heschel. He's not exactly an obscure figure. (And, again, endnotes. Bibliography.) I mean, he gave the chapter its title, but Kurshner couldn't be bothered to reference him by name?

So I was obviously a little irked by all of that. Then I read the next few paragraphs. Much, though certainly not all, of the text is essentially Kurshner paraphrasing parts of The Sabbath, this time without any sign that he didn't come up with those interpretations. That's at best borderline plagiarism in the academic sense, though not in the publishing one. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Kurshner didn't intentionally try to pass off Heschel's work as his own, but that fact is that someone unfamiliar with Heschel--and this is an introductory book, so that's most readers--would assume Kurshner himself came up with all of that. Honestly, that may have affected my opinion of To Life! enough that I couldn't look at the last half of the book in quite the same light as I'd looked at the first.

I think another major problem for Kurshner is that, like a lot of very knowledgeable people (and quite a few less knowledgeable people), he just doesn't know when he's too ignorant to discuss a topic. One such example is on page 186 when he discusses how, according to Jewish law, "the mentally ill" don't have to fulfill most mitzvot because we're not responsible for our actions. Obviously he knows much more about halakha than I do, but I apparently know a lot more about mental illness than he does. He seems to be lumping all mentally ill people together and sticking us under the category of "not mentally competent." He says he switched majors from psychology to literature almost immediately; maybe if he hadn't, he'd have learned that not all mentally ill people are the same.

At the risk of sounding like a man-hating lesbian (or man-hating sapphist, I guess), I think another area where he's kind of clueless is women. I can't find the exact page, but there's a tongue-in-cheek line about how we shouldn't judge whether the saga of Joseph and his brothers is more riveting than laws concerning menstruation and (I think) leprosy. The implication is that laws concerning menstruation, like the laws concerning leprosy, are boring and irrelevant. Except menstruation is actually pretty relevant to about half of all Jews, and in theory all Orthodox women follow those laws.

The best/worst example regarding women was in the section on b'nai mitzvah. Kurshner talks a bit about how cultures need coming of age rituals and, even though a lot of kids who'd had bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies say they did it for their parents, it is also for the kids themselves. Then comes the line, "For a boy to know his father approves of him entering manhood and independence, for the girl to know that her mother is not jealous of her emerging femininity, is truly an important gift" (223). What? What? I mean, what? (I was actually at my parents' house when I read that, and I read that aloud to my mom. That was her response too.) No, really, what? Is that a thing? Like, I don't know, some sort of reverse Electra complex? Because honestly that seems really creepy, like moms go around hitting on their twelve- or thirteen-year-old daughters' boyfriends or something.

Those issues aside, To Life! is a decent 101 level book and, like I said, should also interest more advanced readers. If I had to change one thing about this book, I would've added endnotes and a bibliography. I think part of the problem may be that Kurshner wrote To Life! like he would write a sermon, where you don't need to cite your sources. Given the nature of the book and of his intended audience, I'm surprised he didn't at least provide a recommended reading list. (I guess that's my job. God help us all.) As I said earlier, I think the incident with Heschel, or more accurately, without Heschel, colored my views of Kurshner and To Life! to such a degree that I couldn't look at the last half in an unbiased light. That said, the problems I mentioned would be problems regardless. In any case, I'd recommend it as an introductory book, but I'd recommend it with reservations, and not as the only intro book. Kurshner himself says he doesn't To Life! to be the only Jewish book you read.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Jewish Book Review: "A History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson

 Disclaimer: I did not finish this book. I could not finish this book. I gave up in disgust about a third of the way through. I know it's kind of tacky to review a book you didn't finish, but all I can say is that if you read this review or, God help you, if you attempt to read the book itself, you'll understand.

I did not buy or read this book out of my own free will. It somehow ended up on the list of books that my synagogue gives out to potential converts. I have honestly no idea how, other than it having been a bestselling book (what a horrifying thought) of what is ostensibly Jewish history, but is actually biblical literalism and thinly-veiled Christian supersessionism. My rabbi wanted me to go through the various books they recommend and tell him which ones  they should get rid of. I think I've made my opinion of this one clear, but if you wish to know more, read on . . .

On page six, the Johnson notes, “Unfortunately, historians are rarely as objective as they wish to appear.” He could’ve easily been talking about himself. He begins by saying that he became interested in Judaism and Jewish history after writing a book on the history of Christianity. This was a bit of a red flag for me. Christians looking at Judaism and Jewish history through the lens of Christianity have never been the best chroniclers. He notes this briefly but, as with the quoted statement, does not seem to apply this to himself. He consistently refers to the Tanakh as the “Old Testament,” which, in addition to being inappropriately Christianity-centric, isn’t even accurate; the Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament aren’t the same document. The “Old Testament” contains books that the Tanakh doesn’t and some books are in different orders—and that’s just if you ignore the changes the document went through during the translation processes.

In addition to this, Johnson seems to believe, if not in a literal interpretation of the Torah, at least in a much more literal interpretation than is really historically supported. (It's not that biblical literalists can't be good historians, just that they, like everyone, and, yes, I'm including myself in that, have to appreciate that there's a difference between what one believes and what has been proven. And not just religious people; honestly, I think Dawkins-esque Christian atheists can be the worst in this regard.) He takes it as a given that all of the figures in Genesis were real people and that the events in Genesis took place more or less as the text says they took place. He cites the Nuzi Tablets, which I’d never heard of. Obviously I’m totally a layperson here, but I’m pretty sure that if there was an archeological find that proved that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs actually existed, everyone would know about it and Richard Dawkins would be throwing a fit. Certainly the only websites I can find that cite the Nuzi Tablets as incontrovertible proof are the super religious ones; all the others just say the tablets provide interesting background information. The Nuzi tablets showed a culture in the very ancient Middle East similar to the cultures described in Genesis, including legal cases similar to the Patriarchs’ and Matriarchs’. As far as I can tell, Johnson decided that the people involved in the cases in the Nuzi tablets must’ve actually been the various biblical figures.

The next major warning sign comes on page twenty-eight, when Johnson writes that Moses was the “most influential of all the Jews of antiquity before Christ.” Great. That certainly disposes me towards belief in Johnson’s objectivity. Or it makes me want to dispose of this book. Something like that.

Johnson also uses outdated language to refer to Black people. This was written in 1987, three years before I was born and three years after my brother was born. That was a while ago, but not long enough ago that referring to Black people as n*groes was considered acceptable.

Another sign of Johnson’s lack of objectivity is his tendency to dismiss the indigenous polytheistic religions of the Middle East and North Africa as superstitious, primitive, and generally inferior. It was then to my considerable surprise that he defended the practice, considered idolatrous by the Israelites, of having statues and other images of their gods. This turned out to be the exception that proves the rule: it must be all right, he says, because Christians do it.

Don’t even get me started on what he does with (or to) Isaiah.

About a hundred pages in, he actually begins quoting the New Testament and talking in glowing terms about how much certain passages from various parts of the Hebrew Bible, excuse me, the “Old Testament” resemble various things that Jesus says in the Christian Bible.

Even after this, I was still surprised when on page 126 he essentially said that the Afghani people attacked the British on the border with India because the Afghani people were a “difficult, warlike, tribal and essentially backward society . . .” (He does not apply the description I quoted directly to them, but he links the two damningly close.) So apparently he’s pro-British-colonialism.

So I was joking (sort of) when I said not to get me started on him and Isaiah, but when we reached Jesus’s birth, he said that Jews who thought and think that the Messiah would be a human, earthly, military leader (i.e. all Jews who believed or believe the Moshiach/Messiah) were completely wrong in their interpretation of Isaiah, because actually Isaiah makes it clear that the Messiah was and will be . . . exactly what Christians believe Jesus was like, and, according to them, will be.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, well, it did. I’m honestly not sure how to phrase this properly, but here goes: I know that an early Christian, I think it might’ve even been Paul but I’m not sure, said that Judaism was the religion of the letter of the law and Christianity was the religion of the spirit of the law. This is a fairly common dichotomy. Here Johnson applies this to Shammai (letter of the law/Judaism) versus Hillel (spirit of the law/Christianity). That isn’t egregious in and of itself, though it’s at best a huge oversimplification, but it did start the alarms in my head. The alarms got louder when he said that Jesus was of the School of Hillel and could’ve even studied with him. I mean, yeah, he could’ve, but there’s no evidence that he did, other than a passage in the New Testament (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) that resembles a famous Hillel aphorism (“do not do unto your neighbor what is hateful to yourself”). Not exactly an uncommon sentiment, in theory if not in practice: Aesop said the same thing.

In any case, the warning sirens in my head got louder and louder as I read on. When I reached the point at which Johnson started gushing about how Jesus “[took] Hillel’s teaching to its logical conclusion,” I thought it couldn’t get any worse. How naïve I was.

I continued reading now out of duty rather than any enjoyment or curiosity, except the sort of curiosity that makes drivers slow down and stare at a particularly gruesome car wreck, as the warning sirens (in my head, not in the car wreck) got louder and louder, and when the writer describes Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution in almost exactly the same way anti-Semitic Christians have been describing it since it supposedly happened, the sirens in my head turned into a voice shouting . . .

“. . . fuck it. I’m not paid enough to deal with this fucking book*. I can’t take it any longer. Fuck it.”

*Obviously, I’m not paid at all, but I hope you’ll forgive my slight liberty with the truth. What can I say--I echoed the spirit of the truth, not the letter of it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jewish Book Review: "Gimpel the Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

My (non-Jewish) dad loves Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I discovered Singer when perusing the "library" at my parents' house. ("Library" is a little too grand to describe what's actually a spare bedroom crammed with bookshelves, and which doubles as a guest bedroom.) I may or may not have liberated several of his books from there. Ever since I first read Singer's stories--long before I officially converted or even knew I had any ancestral connection to Judaism--I've been moved by his way of mixing of depictions of shtetl life with magical realism (not that it was called that at the time), all flavored with a touch of dark humor and whimsy.

Like many of his stories, several of the short stories in this collection have supernatural elements. Lilith and Asmodeus, as well as a host of other, lesser demons feature in here, tempting a vain young woman to sin and dooming a middle-aged couple. Singer has a way of writing morality tales that would in less-skilled hands be dull and preachy. Part of this is the aforementioned dark humor: the sly wit with which an imp tells the reader of his plans to ensnare the weak. Sometimes it's more serious, as in "The Gentleman from Cracow," where temptation and desperation nearly lead to the destruction of a village, and does cause the deaths of their young children. No matter what the tone is, it's always engaging enough to make you want more.

Singer's stories often have a kind of timeless feeling, as if they could have taken place anytime from the seventeenth century on.

Or anytime until 1933, that is. In the "The Little Shoemakers," the protagonist's timeless little village is bombed by Nazis, shattering this illusion. Gimpel the Fool (this collection of short stories, not the story that gave the book its name) was first published in 1953, and according to the acknowledgements, all of the stories within it were written between 1943 and 1953. The only exception is "The Old Man," which was written in 1933. In any case, all of the stories were written during or immediately after the Shoah. I cannot critique the way Singer depicts the Shoah. You should read his works for yourself.

The story that I found most moving in this collection was "Joy." It's about an elderly Hasidic rabbi whose children have all died young. Grieving and bitter, he pushes everyone away, everyone except the local heretic, whom he shocks with his blasphemy. Then he sees a vision of his long-dead daughter. Realizing that it's his time to die, he makes merry with his remaining followers before following his family. It's the kind of thing that in lesser hands would've been sickeningly saccharine sentimentality. Written by Singer, it's poignant and sweet, yes, but not cloying.

I will warn that "The Gentleman from Cracow" contains some offensive ideas about Romani people, implying that they associate with the Devil. To make matters worse, the English translation refers to them using the g-slur. I have no idea what the original Yiddish is, but regardless, it's an issue.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is from the short story "Gimpel the Fool:"

"After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year . . ."