Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Barukh Atah Adonai

Rabbi Ted Falcon and David Blatner, Judaism For Dummies

Until recently, Jewish people and their faith were lumped into two categories in the public imagination: either stereotyped lawyers and entertainment executives, or abstract cultural “heroes” like Anne Frank. That is, when they weren’t hated for centuries-old fictional slurs. But recent trends have moved Judaism to a central position in public discourse, without necessarily answering important questions in outsiders’ minds.

Rabbi Ted Falcon and David Blatner come from a background in multi-faith outreach and cultural clarification. They have experience answering queries, some of them quite naive, and know what doubts and misinformation linger most in outsiders’ minds. They spot the gap between reality and what people think they already know. That makes them good choices to write a “For Dummies” book about the faith that founded the Abrahamic tradition.

If you’ve ever read a “For Dummies,” this book’s format is familiar. It’s designed to read out of sequence, dipping into the reference as questions arise. But it also rewards conventional reading, as the authors progress in inquirers’ most common sequence, from broad strokes of belief, through the people’s history, into brass tacks of practice, finishing with fine detail about what makes Judaism unique.

In their introduction, Falcon and Blatner say they write for two audiences: non-observant Jews interested in rediscovering their heritage, and outsiders curious about one of Earth’s oldest continuously observed religions. As such, the text is essentially bilingual. It gives a plain-English survey of Jewish religious precepts, then for those who want it, proceeds to a detailed investigation of exacting practice. The authors are good about defining terminology.

Jews have maintained their identity as a people over centuries of diaspora, in largest part because they have retained their traditions in ways other scattered peoples have not. Their elaborate mix of written history and oral tradition, bound in ritual that gives observant Jews a body of shared experience, preserves their mutuality. This includes their tradition of controversy, which outsiders have long mistaken for disunion.

Falcon and Blatner do a remarkable job keeping the balance between Orthodox and more Liberal traditions, especially considering that some parties in such divides consider their opposite numbers apostate. Controversy is at the heart of Judaism, as any Talmud student knows. Our authors carefully recount such debates as influence readers’ understanding, while remaining studiously neutral themselves—sometimes, the debate matters more than the solution.

Not that they are completely impartial. They say some controversies aren’t worth having. They completely exclude Messianic Judaism, as even the Israeli Knesset does, saying it constitutes a wholly separate religion. Also, though they address humanist Judaism briefly, they preponderantly assume Jews share belief in God, while they admit the word “God” admits multiple definitions. “Israel,” after all, means “he wrestles with God.”

The authors include glossaries of Hebrew and Yiddish terms, useful in understanding Jewish thought, and several standard Orthodox prayers, including the ritual blessings, famed for their salutation: “Barukh atah Adonai.” Because Judaism, like any religion or philosophy with a long history, has its own vocabulary, these glossaries help readers understand more, better, faster.

I initially felt frustrated that the authors didn’t cite sources for some of their claims, especially for important rabbinic controversies, which they report in a “some say... others say” manner. But Appendix C cites several valuable books, magazines, websites, and organizations for readers wanting in-depth study. I still wish the authors integrated their citations, but they do pave the way for readers who’ve had their interest piqued.

Christian readers will especially enjoy this book. Our Sunday School history of Judaism often stops in the late Second Temple period, ending when the Gospels diverge from the Talmud. But Judaism, like Christianity, is a living faith. We need to understand where it is, now, if we want to understand where we came from ourselves.

As inclusive as this book is, readers should remember what it is not. Falcon and Blatner craft a synoptic introduction to the Jewish religion, not the Jewish people; you’ll find nothing about Jewish art, culture, or non-religious history. It’s also a layperson’s overview, not a rabbinical textbook, and will make nobody more spiritual, or more Jewish. Remember, this is Judaism for Dummies, not Judaism for the already learned.

But for non-observant Jews seeking a connection to their heritage, or Gentiles wanting deeper understanding of Judeo-Christian roots, this book makes a good primer. The authors’ plain English explanations, laced with gentle but pointed humor, keeps the reading brisk. Any readers interested in browsing Jewish beliefs have here a good reference to begin their research.

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