Four Views on Jewish Spirituality

Passing Life's TestsPassing Life’s Tests
Bradley Shavit Artson

Jewish Lights, 2013

Torah of ReconciliationTorah of Reconciliation
Sheldon Lewis

Gefen Publishing, 2012

Amazing ChesedAmazing Chesed
Rami Shapiro

Jewish Lights, 2013

Holy War in JudaismHoly War in Judaism
Reuven Firestone

Oxford U. Press, 2012






Noting that rabbinic literature describes God as a teacher, Bradley Shavit Artson’s Passing Life’s Tests encourages us to approach Bible stories by asking “what aspect of holiness, what cluster of insight, they mean to transmit, to symbolize, to embody just beneath the surface.” Rabbi Artson, dean of rabbinical studies at the American Jewish University, shows how a wide variety of lessons can be learned from the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Among other things, he argues, the near-sacrifice reveals a transformation of God, as God realizes that one should not test love: “God retreats from the demand of full or exclusive devotion…. There are limits to what one can demand of others, no matter how close they may be.” Artson’s creative book is filled with insights about life and God. This openhearted and psycho-spiritually sensitive reading of the Bible’s stories is a true masterpiece of contemporary Jewish wisdom and Torah-based spirituality.

If you value careful readings of the Torah to inspire new understandings of the world, Sheldon Lewis’s Torah of Reconciliation deserves your attention. Rabbi Lewis presents us with new insights about each Torah portion as he plows through the weekly readings. Among the lessons he draws: No one is complete without the Other. God’s essence is mercy. There are limits on human vision. Peace is the dearest of all God’s treasures. Lewis is famous for his openhearted approach to Judaism, and this book captures much of his wisdom.

Amazing Chesed by Rami Shapiro challenges the notion that grace (chesed in Hebrew) is a Christian, not a Jewish, ideal. Grace, writes Rabbi Shapiro, is “God’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.” He adds that there is no one outside the reach of grace—“not the sinner, the heretic, the unbeliever, or the differently believing believer,” arguing that “there is nothing one can do to merit grace, earn grace, or even avoid grace.… Grace is unlimited and all-encompassing.” Shapiro then goes on to draw the implications of this approach for contemporary theology as well as to outline what a life lived graciously would entail. This is a fabulously important book.

Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, presents a masterful rereading of the concept of “holy war” and how it has been appropriated at different times in Jewish history for strikingly different purposes. Holy wars may have had some relevance in the ancient Jewish world, but while hotly debated in theological circles in the Middle Ages, the idea of holy war had no immediate relevance then. The concept became central only after the emergence of Zionism and the outcome of the 1967 war in which Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. Firestone details how the idealism of religious Zionists before the creation of the State of Israel eventually morphed into an ultra-nationalist force heavily influenced by right-wing, secular, national ideologies. This shift, he argues, forged the path to a Judaism that sees the settling of the West Bank (and for some the displacement of Palestinians) as part of a holy war sanctioned by Torah and God. Firestone stops short of drawing any ethical or political conclusions, but his careful analysis, particularly when read in conjunction with Aviezer Ravitsky’s classic 1997 study Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, provides a solid understanding of the Jewish religious ideologies that have led many otherwise decent and ethically sensitive Jews to become oblivious to the cruelty and robbery inherent in the Occupation of the West Bank and the suppression of the Palestinian people.

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