What I Learned from My Summer Reading

Sermon given July 25, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


I think of myself as a reader. Every morning, amidst all the chaos of a house with two small children and two working parents, I find time to make my way through two newspapers. No wonder Toni is constantly threatening to cancel our subscription to the New York Times! In addition to those two papers, I am constantly reading magazines, journals, and synagogue bulletins from around the country. In fact, it seems to me that I read everything except books. Unless I’m on vacation, I haven’t yet figured out how to make the time to concentrate through entire books very often. With children, even vacations provide less opportunity for reading. The trouble, of course, is that most important scholarship is found in books; I’m missing a great deal. Moreover, reading as many periodicals as I do, one comes across reviews of books that sound compelling and important. Not infrequently, I go and purchase the book, with all the good intentions in the world, and then struggle to find the time to read it.

This spring, I resolved to make at least a dent in the problem. I would offer four book discussions as adult education programs during the summer, thereby imposing upon myself the discipline to read at least four of those books that have been piling up on my desk. Yes, I wanted to offer a thoughtful program to the congregation, but I must confess that part of my motive was selfish, or at least self-directed: I wanted to force myself to read those books!

Having completed those book discussions this week, I thought I would take the time tonight, not to offer a book review, or worse, four book reviews, but to try to identify and expound a common thread, something that I learned from reading all four books.

Tonight’s assignment is certainly the most challenging one that I gave myself. The common threads in these books are not apparent. Let me begin by telling you a bit about each.

First, we studied What Shall I Do with this People?: Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism. The author, Milton Viorst, is angry. He is a journalist, not a historian, whose book explores the history of Judaism, in an attempt to understand the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a fellow Jew. He particularly focuses on the politics of ancient Israel, around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, in the first century. He particularly discusses two groups, the Zealots and the Pharisees, who disagreed violently about the course that the Jewish people should take. The Zealots argued that Jerusalem should be defended to the death, insisting that Judaism could not exist without Jewish sovereignty in Israel. The Pharisees, on the other hand, emphasized the study of Torah, to preserve Judaism, with or without the land. They did not believe that the Romans could be defeated, so they taught that fighting the Roman legions would only lead to the needless deaths of Jewish people. Viorst compares today’s Jewish moderates to the Pharisees, predecessors to the Rabbis, who deeply value the true spiritual heritage of Israel. The ideological descendants of the Zealots, in his mind, are the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing of Judaism, who see Jewish sovereignty over a greater Land of Israel as the ultimate goal. The author blames Rabin’s murder, and countless other atrocities, on this idolatry of power and land, whose false god and charlatan rabbis demand the death and destruction of all who disagree.

The next book is entirely different. We read Abortion in Judaism, by Rabbi Daniel Schiff, a dense scholarly tome that reviews, in great detail, the history of Jewish law on this most modern of topics. Schiff does not have an apparent agenda, but he does have a thesis. For close to 1000 years, Jewish law on abortion has depended two long-standing legal definitions of the fetus. The Talmud teaches, ubar yerech imo, “the fetus is a limb of its mother.” Since we are not permitted to cut off any other limb for a frivolous reason, we must have a good reason to abort a fetus. Based on this and other justifications, abortion is prohibited, unless a good reason is established, but abortion is certainly not murder, as cutting off one’s arm would not be murder. Then, in the Middle Ages, the incomparable commentator Rashi wrote that the reason abortion is not murder is because lav nefesh hu, a fetus is not a person. As a result, some later Rabbis rule that abortion may be permitted even for a slight reason. Schiff demonstrates the role that surrounding culture plays on this matter. In times when abortion is rare and highly stigmatized, even traditional Rabbis tend to rule in favor of abortion, permitting it for women who need it. In times when abortion is more common and easier to obtain, traditional Rabbis tend to rule against it, attempting to rein in what they see as a culture that devalues life.

Third, we read The Reform Judaism Reader: North American Documents, edited by Rabbis Michael Meyer and Gunther Plaut. This book offers a glimpse at the history of our own movement in Judaism, in the words of those who have gone before us. Of personal significance for our congregation is the cover. One of the eight photographs there is the oldest Confirmation class picture from the walls of our own Temple hallway. Reading the entries in this book, I was increasingly struck by the continuing relevance of some of the older writings. For example, in 1928, Rabbi Jacob Zvi Lauterbach offered a lecture, entitled “The Kippah Syndrome,” at a rabbinical convention. Citing Jewish religious history, he argued for the equal validity of a minhag, or custom of praying with head covered or bare. For Lauterbach, the custom could legitimately vary from one synagogue to the next, while for us, it changes from one head to the next. Be that as it may, we can all learn to respect each others’ ways from learning the historical treatment of the matter.

The last book we studied, just this Wednesday night, was Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year, by America’s preeminent Protestant theologian, Harvey Cox, of Harvard University. Late in life, Cox married a younger Jewish woman, and their son is Jewish. Though Cox remains Protestant, he and his family faithfully celebrate Jewish holidays, including a weekly Shabbat observance. The book has many theses, one of them a rather tortured and unnecessary defense of intermarriage. Weaving several of his purposes together, Cox has written for both Christians and Jews, clergy and pew, town and gown alike. The most interesting passages concern what Cox has learned about Christianity from practicing Judaism and what he, as a Christian theologian, can offer to Jews about our own faith. For example, observing Yom Kippur, Cox is troubled by the constant confession in the first person plural. As a Christian, he is accustomed to seeking forgiveness only for his own sins. In the synagogue, he recites with the Jewish congregation: al het shehatanu lefanecha, “For the sin we have committed against you.” At the same time, he notices that Jews, comfortable though we be with vicarious sin, sharing the guilt of our fellow congregants, are not at all content with having somebody else repent for us. Jews are puzzled, at best, by the idea that a person’s sins could find atonement in the death of Jesus. And yet, Cox points out that Judaism, too, offers vicarious atonement. He cites a section of the Yom Kippur Afternoon service, when we retell the story of the “Ten Martyrs,” Rabbis murdered by the Romans for the crime of teaching Torah. He quotes an Orthodox Rabbi, Irving Greenberg, who argues that we recall those Rabbis, so that “‘the merit of their devotion and martyrdom should win forgiveness for their descendants, the living people of Israel.’” Cox demonstrates that knowing more about another faith can help us to find what we might not be seeing in our own, even though it has been there all alone.

By now, you are probably thinking that these four books can’t possibly have anything in common, except that I read them all this summer. In fact, I purposefully chose four different kinds of books, not so much for myself as for those who would study with me. Indeed, history written by a journalist with an axe to grind, a scholarly examination of Jewish law, documentary history, and Protestant-Jewish theology are certainly four different kinds of books. And yet, I promised a common thread, and I pray that I shall not disappoint.

All four of these books invite the reader into a conversation across time that informs our Jewish life today. Milton Viorst argues with the Zealots of 2000 years ago, just as vehemently as he disagrees with the right wing ultra-Orthodox today. He asks our modern Torah faithful to hear what he believes to be the true message of the ancient Rabbis, whom he reveres, together with the memory of Yitzhak Rabin. Working toward an understanding of current Jewish law on abortion, Daniel Schiff enters the minds of medieval Rabbis, attempting to understand their legal justifications and sociological motivations. Michael Meyer and Gunther Plaut offer us our Reform predecessors, in their own words, that we might struggle with this very particular heritage we have received for ourselves. As we make our own decisions today, about head coverings, to use the example I offered tonight, we may learn from those who dealt with the same issue under different circumstances. Presenting our most difficult challenge, perhaps, Harvey Cox teaches us that we will learn more about our own faith, if we will consider aspects of ancient Judaism that were highlighted by our fellow Jews who inspired the founding of Christianity, but who never saw themselves as anything other than Jews.

Just this week, our member, LaDina Epstein, called me to recommend a book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism. As is my habit, I looked for the review, but what I found first was an address by the author, Douglas Rushkoff, published in the Jewish Outreach Institute newsletter. Rushkoff argues that Judaism’s problems can be summed up in our crystallizing aspects of Judaism that are meant to remain fluid. He argues that the roots of Judaism are in a revolution against the fixed power structures of the ancient world and the false gods that supported them. Judaism, was always meant to be “a conversation, not a doctrine.” Rushkoff points to the requirement of a minyan, the quorum required for worship, forcing us to gather in Jewish communities. I might also mention that we are known as “people of the book,” not only entitled, but even obligated, to interact with the sacred texts of our tradition. Jews don’t read passively, we traditionally study, with two poring over the same volume, one upside down and one right side up, finding cause for discussion of every word, even each individual letter.

The four books I read in the last eight weeks reminded me that Judaism is a conversation. We have much to say to one another, and much to hear. We have much to be taught by those who went before us, and we may even creatively put words and thought back into their pens and mouths and minds, to continue the conversation further.

May our learning, our speaking, and our reading ever inspire us to keep the conversation alive.

Amen.