Saturday, December 27, 2014 Tevet 5, 5775

A Treasure-Trove of Ideas and Wisdom

September 10, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

There's perhaps no way that any reviewer, in such a relatively small space, could possibly convey the riches that have been amassed -- or more accurately, that were amassed more than 20 years ago -- between the covers of 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought. (For the record, when the book first appeared from Scribner's publishers in 1987, it was calledContemporary Jewish Religious Thought; I still have a copy of the large, impressive-looking hardbound in my library.)

The more than 1,100 pages of text, plus an extensive index, were skillfully drawn together by editors Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, intellectual heavyweights on the Jewish scene, even way back then -- and it really does seem like a whole different era. Cohen, who was a novelist, editor and biographer, among many other things, died fairly young (actually, just before the book first went to press); Mendes-Flohr is very much alive -- and healthy, I hope -- writing still and teaching modern Jewish thought at the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

Their book, luckily for all those interested in such matters, has been reissued by Philadelphia's own Jewish Publication Society in a paperback version that's very nearly two-inches thick.

The fact that JPS has been the publishing house willing to retrieve this significant volume from the black hole of obscurity is something of a story in itself, a tale that sheds light on how publishing in America has been transformed, and hardly for the good, over the last two decades. Books like this one -- serious, scholarly, well-written, and geared for an intelligent, educated audience of habitual readers -- used to appear with frequency from mainstream publishers every season; Scribner's initial involvement attests to that point.

But these days, only independent-minded and not particularly bottom-line-driven publishers (like JPS and some academic houses) would be the ones in this particular publishing atmosphere that would have the fortitude and courage (let alone the wisdom) to do such a monetarily foolhardy thing. Those readers interested in such matters owe JPS a debt of gratitude.

'Repentance' and 'Charity'

20th Century Jewish Religious Thought is really a compilation of brief essays rendered by various hands, themselves intellectual heavyweights, by any standards one might apply, both in the 1980s and now. Among them are Philadelphia's own David Stern, Hyam Maccoby, Nahum N. Glatzer, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Arnold Eisen, Arthur Green and Gerson D. Cohen, among many, many others. The subjects they tackled have been -- as they were originally -- listed alphabetically, so that readers can work their way from "Aesthetics" to "Zionism," or pick and choose among the more than 100 different topics on display. These include aesthetics, catastrophe, charity, conscience, exile, free will and immortality.

Since we are entering the High Holidays, it seems appropriate to look at certain entries that have bearing on the major concerns that dominate this portion of the Jewish calendar, such as "repentance" and "charity."

The author who considers the first topic is Ehud Luz, an Israeli writer and professor.

Repentance -- teshuvah in Hebrew -- "is a central concept in Jewish religious literature," Luz writes, "and may be said to express the essence of the religious and ethical ideals of Judaism. Though this idea occurs, in different forms, in most religions, it has been extensively developed only by those monotheistic faiths that see the relationship between God and man as primarily ethical in nature and view God's ethical claim upon the individual as absolute. In Judaism, this relationship is conceived as a covenant between two partners, each of whom has a role to play in bringing the world to perfection. When man sins, he violates this covenant and ruptures normal relations between himself and God. Teshuvah is the process by which this break is mended and the covenant renewed. Since Judaism views man's devotion to God's teaching and commandments as the means by which the covenant is to be realized, returning to God means a return to his teaching. There is a dialectic tension evident here, since teshuvah is at once both restorative and utopian in character; it is an effort to return to an ancient model, an ideal state that is imagined to have existed in the past (before man sinned in the Garden of Eden), but also, simultaneously, an endeavor to reach a perfect future, radically different from any reality that now exists or has existed in the past (the messianic era). Every movement for religious renewal that has appeared within Judaism, from the very beginning of its history, may thus be defined as a movement of teshuvah."

As for charity, two writers, David Hartman and Tzvi Marx, share their thoughts on the subject. Hartman is the world-famous writer, professor and religious leader. Marx, not surprisingly, is connected with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

"The concept of tzedakah (charity)," write the scholars, "a word that is etymologically related to tzedek (justice), involves a person's response to the needs of other human beings. According to the Talmud and Maimonides, the disposition to be responsive to human beings in need is a conditio sine qua non of membership in the covenantal community of Israel.

"Belief, in Judaism, is related to self-transcendence. It involves not only dogma and doctrine but also the psychological ability to acknowledge and respond to that which is other than oneself. A person who is imprisoned within his private needs and interests may be characterized as a nonbeliever insofar as his life lacks the dimension of transcendence. A person may utter the words 'I believe,' yet if he is unresponsive to others and generally unmoved by the world beyond his private domain, he fails to demonstrate belief in a transcendent God.

"Through personal moral training in the very specific issues involved in tzedakah, Maimonides and the 14th-century halachic authority Jacob ben Asher (known as the Tur) suggest that the foundation is laid for the reformation of society in its juridical and political dimensions. Efforts to solve the dilemmas and frustrations in the microcosm of charity are expected to bear fruit in the macrocosm of righteousness.

"The particularity of the problem tackled by tzedakah does not detract from the magnitude of the value achieved. On the contrary, its ripple effect is felt on the broader levels of society. Thus Maimonides can claim, on the authority of Rabbi Assi, ... that 'we are duty bound to observe the mitzvah of tzedakah more than all other mitzvot "aseh" (positive commandments) ... .' It is because of the overreaching effect that tzedakah works upon the character of man that such a claim can be made. The value meaning of the achievement of tzedakah lies at the heart and soul of all the mitzvot, and for this reason it is seen as the standard bearer of the seed of Abraham."

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