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What the Rabbis Said: The Public Discourse of 19th Century American Rabbis

by Naomi Cohen

New York University Press, 252 pages, $45

Naomi Cohen charts how Jewish clergy negotiated the competing claims of tradition and the novel cultural, political, and religious context of America. In the absence of external religious restriction and a unified internal religious community, nineteenth-century American rabbis had to develop new ways to define and defend Judaism in a land where political liberty and religious denominationalism were the norm a situation far from the Jewish experience in Europe. Cohen ably depicts the frustrations and successes of these rabbis and the evolution of the rabbinate.

Most American rabbis were European born and trained. When they arrived in the United States, they encountered a laity that insisted on limiting the themes of the rabbi’s sermon, preferring decidedly uncontroversial discussions from the pulpit. Congregations hired their own rabbi, and they sought to lead him rather than to be led by him, a situation analogous to that of Christian clergy. Many clergymen tried to resist such constraints, but they had no leverage to do so. But Cohen shows that the shape of the rabbinate changed over the century, and, by its closing years, clergy could speak more openly about potentially divisive issues. Many Jews feared that if the rabbi spoke out too vehemently on a contemporary matter, it would bring undesired attention to the politically quiet Jewish community. Gentile opinion greatly affected the public presentation of Judaism. In their sermons, the rabbis depicted American Jews as patriotic, and they regularly noted the moral similarities between Judaism and Christianity. Rabbis also had to contend with various competitors for the loyalties of American Jews: Switching to another religion or discarding religion altogether was an option, and the clergy had to battle Christian missionaries, secularists and socialists for the hearts and minds of young Jews.

”Matthew LaGrone

Catholicism and Religious Freedom: Contemporary Reflections on Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty

edited by Kenneth L. Grasso and Robert P. Hunt

Rowman & Littlefield, 258 pages, $29.95

Dignitatis Humanae ”the 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom promulgated by Paul VI”was, as John Courtney Murray observed, as much a beginning as an end. While the Declaration famously affirmed the right of the human person to worship in accord with his or her conscience, it provided nothing close to a comprehensive theory or account of the church-state problem. The Council Fathers appreciated and proclaimed that a “sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man,” but they did not purport to flesh out fully the implications of this impression. Instead, as professors Grasso and Hunt remind us, Dignitatis Humanae left an “unfinished agenda” whose resolution is “long overdue.” This helpful and engaging ­collection of essays takes up this task.

Consider some of the questions that, even after the Declaration, remain very much on the table for Christians struggling to make real the promise of ordered liberty: To what extent are non-coercive “establishments” consistent with religious freedom? Is there a tension between the Declaration’s statement that governments ought to “take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor” and its insistence on the “equality of citizens before the law”? Dignitatis proclaims that the “exercise” of religious freedom”even by those who “do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth””should not be “impeded, provided that just public order be observed,” but it says little about the content or demands of “just public order.” And so on.

The contributors to this volume address, from a range of perspectives, a stimulating variety of the action-items on the Declaration’s “unfinished agenda”: Avery Cardinal Dulles explores the way in which the teaching of Dignitatis represents a “development of doctrine”; Prof. John F. Crosby, armed with John Paul II’s “Christian personalism,” pursues the philosophical foundations of the right to religious freedom; and Prof. David T. Koyzis puts the Declaration’s claims in conversation with Abraham Kuyper’s “sphere of sovereignty.”

Of particular interest will be the several essays that focus on the necessity of an accompanying “theory of the state” for an account of religious liberty. Given that the most pressing challenges to religious freedom today involve not only the accommodation of individual practices but also the independence and autonomy of religious communities” libertas ecclesiae , the freedom of the Church”these chapters are especially welcome.

”Richard W. Garnett

The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God

by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, translated by Brian McNeil

Ignatius, 113 pages, $14.95

Cardinal Ratzinger begins The God of Jesus Christ by saying that he wants these meditations to provide a bridge between the propositions of theology and “a spiritual knowledge that addresses man in his personal life.” In each meditation, Ratzinger explores a theological concept, often relating it back to man’s encounter with God in Christ and the relationship of love between the persons of the Trinity. Topics explored include the names of God, God’s role as ­Creator, and the Resurrection of Christ. Particularly striking is Ratzinger’s meditation on the Book of Job. In it, he gives as succinct (seven pages), true-to-life, clear, and hopeful treatment of Job as readers will ever encounter.

”Nathaniel Peters

On Thinking Institutionally

by Hugh Heclo

Paradigm, 220 pages, $19.95


Social scientists are rarely inspiring, but Hugh Heclo is the exception as he examines the ways in which individualism, our national strength and failing, has undermined loyalty to communal ventures embodied in institutions of all sorts. Common sense that deserves the name of wisdom.