Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Book Review: The New American Judaism

I count people of many faiths as my friends. Yet, I find that I know no Jews. I don't know why that is. Perhaps it is because there are so few. Then again, it might be because I simply don't know the faiths of all my friends. I started wondering about this after reading The New American Judaism by Rabbi Arthur Blecher. Reading this book resulted in a long list of questions for further study. Perhaps it is time I make a few new friends?

The New American Judaism
The Way Forward on Challenging Issues from Intermarriage to Jewish Identity

By Rabbi Arhur Blecher
Published October 2007
ISBN: 1402977461

Buy it here

The good people at Palgrave Macmillian sent me a copy for review. It took me longer than I expected to warm up to the subject. I know little of Judaism besides how the media portrays it. I read it once two months ago and then set it aside to think about it. I read it again a few days ago, this time with an eye towards a review.

When it comes to reading non-fiction I look for one thing - illumination. I read non-fiction to learn. And that is essentially it for me when it comes to reading non-fiction - do I learn anything? If I learn little of value, the book goes in the dustbin. If I learn something new, I include it the religious studies section of my personal library.

The author, Rabbi Athur Blecher, is known as "The Unorthodox Rabbi". He is a traditionally trained Rabbi who left his calling to become a therapist. His critical analysis of American Judaism runs against the grain of traditionalist. I am sure if ruffled a few feathers.

One misconception I have long held was shattered by this book. I thought of rabbis as akin to pastors. In a historical context, I projected this image back to when most Jews lived in Europe prior to the 20th century. Rabbi Bleacher asserts that the power of the rabbi as a central figure in life-cycle ceremonies arouse after the Jews migrated to the Americas. Historically, heads of households filled this role, not rabbis.

Another misconception dealt with the permanence and historical anchoring of Judaism. Of course, as a young Christian in the 70s my understanding of Jewish history was shaped by the biblical interpretation my pastors. I learned about the gradual change from private worship to state sponsored worship lead by an elite priesthood in the first temple era. with the fall of the temple, the practice worship moved back towards private rituals that could be performed in the home.

The New American Judaism is written from the view point of a conservative Rabbi who has left the fold in order to speak from a position that is contrary to most of his contemporaries. American Judaism is ascending rather than on the decline. And, American Judaism is a modern creation with few links back to the long history of biblical Judaism.

Rabbi Blecher's writing are meant for two audiences. There is the obvious secular audience and then the not so obvious religious seeker, or person looking to learn more of their heritage. I fall into the secular audience, but never felt over my head. Rabbi Blecher took amble care to write his book with an understanding that some readers may not understand his faith.

Chapter 7 - Rabbis, Knowledge and Self-Reliance provides a glimpse at the transformation of Judaism from a monarchy and a religion of priests, to a religion of the mind and the People of the Book. Further, this chapter describes how rabbis adapted when they migrated to America in the 1900s. Where they once held absolute power over matters of Jewish law, in America they shifted to leading ceremonies, like weddings and funerals, while at the same time moving to become the governing body of Judaism in America. The motivation for this transformation was the fear that Judaism would fade to obscurity. What follows is the development of a modern Jewish identity and practice similar in many respects to American Protestants.

I read Chapter 8 with interest. Community, Intermarriage and Optimism is where Rabbi Bleacher shines as the Unorthodox voice of Judaism. He challenges the mainstream positions of his peers. Are Jews on the road to extinction? No - year after year the Jewish presence in America grows. What about intermarriage?

The Jewish community has come to believe that intermarriage violates ancient Jewish tradition, that it weakens Judaism today and that it threatens the future of the Jewish people. None of these beliefs has any basis either in present-day or in Jewish history, yet now is questioned. instead, American Jewish leaders view the current high rate of Jewish-gentile marriage in America as a kind of systemic disorder- and a potentially fatal one at that.

Suffice it to say that Rabbi Blecher supplies evidence to support his position that intermarriage healthy. For example, Blecher explains that intermarriage became a problem during the rabbinic period when marriages where seen as legal contracts. Since gentiles were not subject to Jewish law, intermarriage became forbidden. Over the centuries, this law became part cultural identity and part legend (at least in the eyes of popular media).

I recommend this book to readers interested in learning about other cultures (and religions). I found it easy to read and insightful. Plus it satisfied more core requirement of teaching me something new about a culture I know little about. Thank you Rabbi Blecher, you wrote a fine book.


Aidan said...

Interesting review. Your points about how Judaism has changed in the course of adaptation to the American way is very true. My sister-in-law is Jewish and I've learned a lot from her about the ways in which Judaism is practiced in Canada, along with the culture associated with the religion.

I'm interested in Kabbalah, and a number of rabbis have opened up this area of Jewish thought, that was formerly considered esoteric or 'hidden' knowledge.

Thanks for this.

Lubab No More said...

Shalom my brother(in arms). If you're looking for a Jewish friend (or resource) feel free to drop me a line.

Nina Amir said...

I agree that Judaism is on the rise, especially a more spiritual and meaningful Judaism that seems to have been lost to many people. I belong to both a Reform Temple, where I think many people are still searching for what I call "something more," and to a Jewish renewal "chavurah," or community, that is full of people who have found "something more" by renewing tradition in ways they find personally relevant.

Also, I agree that interfaith marriage doesn't hurt but in many cases helps Judaism thrive. My marriage is a classic example. I
married a man who was raised a Southern Baptist. When we decided to raise our children as Jews, he needed to "do" something Jewish. I was raised in a secular, non-religious home in which we only celebrated the major holidays. I felt culturally Jewish but that was all. I agreed to begin observing Shabbat (the Sabbath) each Friday night. This grew into an occassional Saturday service, many adult ed classes and Hebrew classes. Before long, we were celebrating even the minor holidays at home or at the synagogue, and we were "regulars" at services. When my husband decided to convert, the rabbi didn't tell him to take a conversion class, he just asked, "When?" He knew that my husband led a more Jewish life than most of the other Jews at the temple and that he was more Jewishly knowledgable that most of the temple members as well. Plus, I had become a more observant and educated Jew as well. In the process, our children developed a much stronger Jewish identity -- culturally and religiously and spiritually -- than I ever had at a young age.

If you want to learn more about Judaism and the meaning behind its holidays and traditions or its mystical tradition, visit my web site, www.purespiritcreations.com.