God's most highly tuned frequency

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism
December 10, 1999

This is a book about Judaism, written "primarily for a non- Jewish audience". It attempts "to promote the idea that the Jewish religion is a holistic set of inextricably linked values that together comprise a state-of-the-art system for human potential .... [and] to demonstrate the relevance of the world's oldest monotheistic faith to men and women of all colours and persuasions".

After reading about God, the Sabbath, the Jewish nation, the messiah, the law, women, suffering, the Holocaust, religion in action and the future of the diaspora, I asked myself what the intended non-Jewish reader would make of this "state-of-the- art" Judaism.

Rabbi Boteach does not make it easy. None of the festivals, for example, comes in for any but the most cursory mention. The Jewish texts fare scarcely better, which, for a text-based religion, is positively bizarre. Then there are the varying presentations of God's relationship to the world. At one moment "God is attentive to human suffering"; at another, Boteach argues that for Judaism, suffering, together with death and illness, are "aberrations in creation that were brought about through the sin of Adam in Eden"; atanother, "there is no answer to the problem of suffering".

The fact that different, even contradictory aspects of a Jewish theodicy are presented would not matter that much - after all, better men than Boteach have stumbled here - were it not for the fact that when Boteach sets out to present a "holistic" Judaism, he means it literally, that Judaism is a seamless, unchanged and unchanging entity. The

consequence is that a somewhat spurious religion is created. No reader would imagine, for example, that the messianic idea, here depicted as central to the Jewish nation, has been relegated by certain thinkers and rabbis to a subordinate role. Nor would they think that Maimonides, a favourite source for many of Boteach's homilies, envisaged the messiah as an all-conquering warrior and by no means as the person who "distinguishes himself by the ability to bring out the good in vast numbers of people".

But that is at least some improvement on the later lapse into the purest mumbo-jumbo: "The messianic era will be a feminine period in which the infinite light of the God of History will shine unhindered through the currently obstructing 'male' layers of the God of Creation."

Perhaps most misleading and fundamentalist is Boteach's insistence on "law or precise rules of how we must live and behave". The Ten Commandments are said to be "immutable". They are the channel of communication - "the most highly tuned frequency", in the folksy style that Boteach affects - whereby man apprehends God.

There is a serious fallacy here. Far from the laws of the commandments being immutable, not only is there disagreement concerning their composition (which produced one of the most vitriolic disputes of the medieval period between the philosopher-rabbis Maimonides and Nahmanides); there is also, more seriously, the Talmudic argument that "the law is not in heaven" but subject to the decisions of the majority.

If this book does have a redeeming feature it is Boteach's engagement with what he calls "the fixation" on the Holocaust and his denunciation of those fundraisers who will give preference to the building of a Holocaust museum over educational establishments; of those who encourage pilgrimages to the death camps of Poland, Germany and Austria; of those who transform Judaism into a religion of suffering focused on death and absorbed in tragedy.

Suffering and anti-Semitism as a means to Jewish self-identification must yield to positive acclaim for the values of the religion.

But these eminently sensible remarks hardly compensate for the glibness and shallowness that characterise the bulk of this book. Judaism deserves better.

Lionel Kochan is senior research associate, centre for Hebrew and Jewish studies, University of Oxford.

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism

Author - Shmuley Boteach
ISBN - 0 7156 2864 X
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £12.95
Pages - 176

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