Loving the Torah More than God? Toward a Catholic Appreciation of Judaism
by Frans Jozef van Beeck, S.J.
Loyola University Press, 100 pages, $9.95
A series of lectures given by a distinguished Dutch-American Jesuit theologian. The book's unusual title is borrowed from that of a 1955 radio lecture given by the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who himself based it on a Yiddish version of a story by Zvi Kolitz, “Yossel Rakover's Appeal to God.” The story emphasizes the point that despite God's silence during the Holocaust, his moral law must nevertheless be obeyed. Levinas built on this point to argue for the superiority of Judaism over Christianity on moral grounds. (Such an argument has its roots in the thought of the great German Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen, who died in 1918—and whose wife was murdered at Auschwitz in 1942—although neither Levinas nor van Beeck deals with these roots.) Van Beeck attempts to answer this charge by accepting its basic premise regarding the importance of human moral responsibility but denying its conclusion regarding Christianity's shortcomings. He emphasizes that the Catholic tradition, with which Judaism “is most closely related,” teaches much the same thing as Judaism about the active role of human moral responsibility in redemption. One can certainly dispute a number of other points van Beeck makes, both from a Jewish and a Christian point of view. However, the book is an impressive example of theologically serious interfaith dialogue, conducted against the backdrop of the Holocaust (some of whose horrors van Beeck himself saw as a child in Holland), which has so radically challenged Judaism and Christianity, both separately and in relation to one another.
After Modernity, What? Agenda for Theology
by Thomas C. Oden
Zondervan, 224 pages, $14.95
The author, a professor of theology at Drew University, has thoroughly revised his important Agenda for Theology, published in 1979. That book marked Oden's “coming home” to Christian orthodoxy after having explored, and frequently propounded, some of the theological views that had presumably replaced “dead orthodoxy.” After Modernity is written in a “post-critical” mode and is a marvelously readable introduction to current theological thought and, more importantly, to the classic Christian tradition. The appearance of this revision under an Evangelical label indicates a welcome openness among some Evangelicals to take Christian history more seriously in interpreting the authoritative Scriptures.
God and Evil: A Jewish Perspective
by David Birnbaum
Ktav, 266 pages, $19.95
A lucid, highly accessible introduction and overview on the subject of theodicy, i.e., the justification or explanation of God's actions in life and history. The conventional questions are posed at the outset: “If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-merciful, why does (gross) evil befall the innocent, e.g., infants? ... If God is all-merciful and omnipotent, why does evil exist at all?” Despite its subtitle, this book will be useful to Christians as well as Jews, drawing as it does on a great variety of sources: Jewish, Christian, and other. Within a fairly short space (the actual text—excluding appendices, bibliography, index, etc.—is only 167 pages) the book does an admirable job of placing questions of theodicy within a broader theological framework, though some important matters get treated too briefly and lightly. The author offers his own variation on the notion that God's role in history recedes as human powers increase. There is not much comfort here for the vexation caused by suffering, loss, and evil. On that score, however, theodicy literature as a whole has been unsatisfying, despite the heroic efforts of theologians through the ages to explain why the good suffer and the wicked prosper. It may be that the question of God and evil affords only responses (more or less helpful), but no final answers—at least not in this world.