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.