Judaism: A Way of Being
by David Gelernter
Yale, 248 pages, $26
The gateway to a man’s soul is his eyes—not in the sense of what one sees in his eyes, but in the sense of what he sees out of them. How a man views the world—the details on which he focuses and the meaning he imputes to what he sees—tells us more about him, the observer, than about his subject. David Gelernter has an artist’s appreciation for the quotidian detail of Jewish practice, and in it he perceives the spiritual beauty that makes a joy out of its observance. That is a contribution of some importance.
The apologetic points of departure are somewhat haphazard in Gelernter’s new book, Judaism: A Way of Being. He sets out to defend Judaism from four charges: that its rules are arbitrary, that its God is distant, that it discriminates against women, and that it fails to explain the persistence of evil in the world. In answer to the question of why he chose these charges, about the most one can say is that they provide a foil for the aesthetic—rather than theological or spiritual—appreciation that marks Gelernter’s approach.
At its best, Judaism: A Way of Being manages the difficult task of being both traditional and original. Certainly Gelernter breaks no new ground in theology, and his questions and answers generally fall well within the mainstream of Orthodox Jewish theology.
Are Jewish laws arbitrary? They teach adherents to distinguish between physical and spiritual, and between good and bad. Is God distant from humans? God is close but not too close, transcendent and immanent, separated from humanity by a thin veil. Does Judaism discriminate against women? It preaches different but equal roles for different people. Why does God allow evil? He hides his face and allows the world to proceed without direct interference.
Apologetics offers Gelernter an opportunity to illustrate—and that is the precise term—the spiritual beauty of an observant Jewish life. He employs the idiom of artistry to describe not only what Judaism teaches but also the inner experience of observance. Gelernter does not construct a theology; instead, he draws four image-themes together in a mosaic of Judaism.
Readers seeking the theological core of Judaism—its most important beliefs and commandments—will be served better by the many fine introductory works on this topic. But by focusing on the aesthetic and emotional significance of Jewish observances, Gelernter finds powerful means to convey the beauty of Jewish experience for a contemporary audience that has never lived it.
For non-Jews, or Jews who have no experience of observance, Gelernter’s little volume offers a window into the living core of Jewish life. Look carefully at the lives of strictly observant Jews in the United States, and you will see the original that Gelernter seeks to portray. What emerges vividly from Gelernter’s picture are the nuances, the small but definitive acts of devotion, that together make up the sum of religious Jewish life.
The Mishnah tells us we should not judge the importance of any particular action based on its attendant reward or punishment; rather, we should strive to fulfill all the Mitzvot. Gelernter applies this injunction to the spiritual evaluation of observances, according equal weight to the commands made explicit in the Bible and to minor contemporary requirements. In presenting Judaism, he shows how their performance resonates with those who fulfill them. If Orthodox Jews today incorporate a practice into religious observance, Gelernter values it in terms of its artistic significance, regardless of its historical origin or theoretical underpinning. Thus, for example, he emphasizes the importance of prayer at the Western Wall and the wearing of a prayer shawl, both of which are laden with spiritual and emotional impact but contain little theological import.
Gelernter’s Judaism is a religion that draws strength from its interpretation by the committed yet unlearned adherent. He is enthralled by the details of religion and the spiritual impact of even minor practices. In presenting a theology of religion as it is practiced, Gelernter has captured the spiritual sensibility of Orthodox Jews in early twenty-first-century America.
Fifty years ago, Herman Wouk ably described suburban Orthodox Jewish life in his book This Is My God. Wouk’s book informed as well as inspired many readers. Its impact today is muted, however, because it depicts the lifestyle of a different world—a mindset and pace of life that have long since disappeared. The acculturated Orthodoxy of the 1960s embraced a bourgeois suburbanism that seems quaint in the early twenty-first century.
While Judaism: A Way of Being will not become a perennial of Jewish literature, it certainly speaks powerfully to the time and place and people for whom David Gelernter wrote it.
Rabbi Gil Student is managing editor of Orthodox Union Press. His most recent book is Posts Along the Way. He writes for the blog Hirhurim-Musings.