Book review: Whose Torah?

by Maskil on January 18, 2009

Whose Torah?: A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism (Whose Religion? Series)

At just over 150 pages, this slim volume really is the “concise guide to progressive Judaism” it claims to be.

As progressive Jews, we are often made to feel that the social justice issues and values we champion are not a part of Judaism itself; not something Jews should be concerning themselves with. Instead, we are led to believe that these are simply democratic, liberal, secular or Western values that have been adopted en masse by assimilated Jews as an alternative to Judaism. Judaism, so we are told, is about piety, ritual, observance and Torah study, as well as identity and survival, but certainly not about justice. It deals with our relationship to God, not our relationship to one another, to humanity as a whole and to the planet that sustains all life.

It is therefore inspirational to read a book that convincingly asserts that these issues (concern with issues around sexuality, gender, race, war, poverty and the environment) do actually go to the heart of what Judaism is all about, far more so than do the minutiae of ritual observance.

As a teenager growing up in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg during the 70s, the genteel anti-Semitism I encountered resulted in my being heavily influenced by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the JDL. In Kahane’s view, there was (is?) only one authentic Judaism; the Judaism of Orthodoxy (even ultra-Orthodoxy). Reading “Whose Torah?” has played an crucial role in helping me to at last shake off the mental and psychological shackles of that worldview, and finally accept that there is no one true Judaism, but multiple Judaisms. It also helped me to realise that concern for social justice is part of our legacy to the Western World, not something we picked up along the way.

My quibbles? The issue of the Black anti-Semitism that went hand-in-hand with Jewish involvement in Civil Rights was not discussed. As regards Israel and the Middle East, there is little recognition that the Palestinians are a party to the conflict, not its innocent victims. One side cannot simply “declare peace”, nor did I get a sense of how human rights can be safeguarded in the middle of a civil war. (And sometimes, even when we act justly, we can still receive a slap in the face in return.)

The “Whose Religion?” series would benefit from a companion volume that focuses more on the theology and rituals that should be core to progressive Judaism in the 21st Century, i.e. what are the bedrock beliefs we should grapple with, and how should they be reflected in our customs, traditions and rituals? Or perhaps such a companion volume already exists?

My grateful thanks to Thaler Pekar for providing my “review copy” of this significant work, which now has a permanent place in my nightstand.

For an aspiring writer, having readers such as Thaler makes it all worthwhile.

(This review was originally posted to Goodreads.)

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