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BOOK REVIEW: by Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism

by Shmuley Boteach

Published by: Duckworth. 170 pp. 14.95

Agitated and entertaining! That's what I would call Shmuley Boteach. His mercurial mind jumps from one subject to another, burning up nervous energy to convince us that Judaism is not dead, that Judaism is not dusty and old-fashioned, but very much alive and well, and acutely relevant to now, to contemporary life. Why?? Because it "Champions law above love, practice about faith, and religious service above theology and dogma..." In short, because it sets out clear laws of ethics and conduct. And this, according to Boteach, is exactly what our modern and self-indulgent world is in need of. This modern world which seems to have lost its integrity, its way and its purpose because...... Godless.

"..... without God, modern-day ethics have no anchor and are based solely on human whim. Without an ultimate standard by which to measure right and wrong, good and evil become nothing more than euphemisms for personal or collective tastes."

But our dear rabbi is no ordinary salesman. He is a sophisticated marketing man who uses journalistic devices to sell his ideas... to-the-point and brief chapters... clear and attractive headings and subheadings (promising answers to age-old questions) to name but two. Knowing that our concentration span is short these days, he zaps like lightning from one serious subject to another to insure that we do not put his book down too quickly, that we do not get bored.

I am sure that the title "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism" was not a random choice. Advertisers use words in a particularly careful way and so does Boteach. It is a very catchy title and what it is suggesting (not overtly, of course) is that all other guides about Judaism were not written for intelligent people or, to put it more bluntly, that they were written for the unintelligent and since you are a very intelligent person (you do consider yourself intelligent, don't you? it seems to be asking.) Then, this is the book you have been waiting for. This guide is for you. Buy it now! That seems to be the underlying message.

In his acknowledgement he says: "There are many books written on Judaism, but this one differs in that it seeks to present the ideas behind the Jewish faith in today's context, rather than serve only as how-to guide to Jewish ritual. Whereas other books present Jewish ideas as having evolved historically, I am seeking to promote the idea that the Jewish religion is a holistic set of inextricably linked values which together comprise a state of the art system for human Potential." Wow! Note the use of words like 'holistic' and 'state of the arts', much in Vogue these days. A good journalistic device securing him a younger and, dare I say an 'alternative' audience.

But whether one agrees with Boteach's views or not does not matter, or rather should not stop one from reading him because he is essentially entertaining, informative and often courageous. He is not afraid to ask difficult questions which he tackles openly and bravely, albeit, fleetingly. Serious issues such as the law, suffering, women, male and female energy, the Jewish nation, the Sabbath, God, anti-Semitism and the future of the Diaspora and much more are all discussed in his book. However, he gives me the impression of a man in a hurry whizzing through complex questions, concepts and philosophies in a matter of seconds. Not much depth but a lot of breadth!

Did you know that no human was ever predestined to suffer, die or ache? That, like his Father in heaven, man was meant to live eternally? "But severing themselves from the infinite source of life when they sinned, Adam and Eve began to decay. Adam brought destruction into the world. He might live on after the sin, but then he would succumb to death, just as every apple when detached from a tree succumbs to rot, God condemned Adam to a physical death."

However, Boteach believes passionately that it is reversible. In his chapter on suffering he says: "....as there was never meant to be any place for death in our world, neither was there ever any plan for suffering or pain. The Garden of Eden, previously this earth, was perfect. Only now, in this interim period between life in Eden and life in the perfect world-to-come, are we ravaged by cancer, aids, car crashes, war, hatred, and genocide. But since it was not part of the original plan, this rabbinic teaching declares suffering has no meaning. It was an error, an aberration, a mistake to be corrected, a crooked line that can still be made straight..." but unfortunately, he does not tell us how. Unless he means that when all men become 'good' and obedient, only then will the crooked line be made straight... He spends time on the issue of suffering which he believes is a profoundly Christian issue in contrast with the Jewish view which totally rejects any belief in the ennobling qualities of suffering. However, our rabbi loses his cool very quickly on the subject ".... it irritates me no end whenever people speak of how much they have learned from hardship and suffering, as if similar lessons could not have been acquired through a far less painful means."

He goes on to contradict himself two paragraphs later by saying "...undeniably, suffering can cause man to rethink his life and find wisdom as to its enhancement and the betterment of the lot of his fellowman."

This is typical of Boteach. Talking so fast that he forgets what he had just said and contradicts himself in the process. Or, feeling that certain ideas are too passionately stated he counter balances them with milder and opposing statements. An adept juggler of ideas who wants to pull us into the whirl-wind of his enthusiasms.

There is a chapter on the very fashionable subject of female and male energy. The Ying and Yang of Judaism, so to speak, with a provocative sub-heading "Judaism as the next Buddhism," here he states that in the coming century Judaism will emerge as the next Buddhism, "A religion which the West's inhabitants do not directly adopt, but look to as the source for their own spirituality." And he ends with a hard-sell, "Judaism enjoins man not to leave the earth and connect with God in heaven, but to create heaven on earth. Not to renounce material pleasures, but to celebrate our humanity with God as our partner. Not to embrace a life of celibacy, but of holiness in sexual relations. Only Judaism emphasises that body and soul can achieve a perfect harmony, and that man can do good by harnessing, rather than transcending, his most basic instincts. Judaism is the perfect spiritual energy for a generation that wants to be wealthier and more prosperous than ever before, but not to be seduced by its own prosperity.... This does not mean that our religion is any better than others. Only that the opportunity has finally come for our religion to reveal its teachings to an increasingly willing audience." Wishful thinking, perhaps. I don't know about you, but I felt rather uncomfortable reading this, however, a rabbi who dares say that he has no problem in admitting that religion is a crutch because "Experiencing insecurity is part and parcel of being human".

 

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