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On the Bookshelf

Gurus, guides, and ideological glaucoma

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Devotion: A Memoir

Religion is on the rise, even among the secular. In Dani Shapiro’s Devotion: A Memoir (HarperCollins, February), for example, a 40-something mother who had long before abandoned the traditions of Orthodox Judaism with which she was raised, seeks better answers to her son’s questions about God than her laissez-faire secularism provides. Being a novelist and memoirist, she does what professional writers do: she reaches out to religious authorities from various faiths who become her “guides through a spiritual crisis” and writes it all up as a journey to self-discovery.

Asking similar questions, Daniel F. Polish has sought out considerably more impressive, but long dead, gurus. His 2007 book, newly available in a paperback edition—Talking about God: Exploring the Meaning of Religious Life with Kierkegaard, Buber, Tillich and Heschel (SkyLight Paths, February)—engages the thought of four profound modern theologians, each of whom attended thoughtfully to the representations of divinity in Genesis. Polish, a Harvard Ph.D. in religious history who has participated in interfaith dialogues with the Pope and with Muslim religious leaders in South Asia, preaches what he practices: he also serves as a rabbi of a Reform synagogue housed in a Presbyterian church.

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Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition

In Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (Yale, March), Rabbi Arthur Green, a stalwart of the Jewish Renewal movement, seeks to articulate a religious faith that does not just accommodate the arguments of Darwinian evolution and Biblical criticism, but folds these notions into the transcendent wonder of God. Calling himself alternatively a “seeker,” a “religious humanist” and a “mystical panentheist” (as distinct from a pantheist), Green acknowledges that “We people of faith have nothing we can prove…. Our strength lies in grandeur of vision, in an ability to transport the conversation about existence and origins to a deeper plane of thinking.”

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Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

Ian Buruma, a Dutch-English-Jewish scholar of East Asia, dismayed some of his sharpest readers in 2007 with a sympathetic profile of Tariq Ramadan and skepticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali; indeed, Paul Berman devoted 28,000 words in The New Republic to what Mark Oppenheimer called “a demolition of Ian Buruma.”. Buruma’s latest book, Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents (Princeton, February), argues that the intrusion of religion into politics threatens democracy in the U.S., in Europe, and—more surprisingly—in China and Japan. (It’s not the first time, by the way, that Buruma has pointed out that a phenomenon typically associated with the West can occur even in the Far East: he has also noted the odd resilience of East Asian anti-Semitism.) Will the new book redeem Buruma in the eyes of his former admirers, or simply confirm their sense of his descent into “ideological glaucoma”?

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Law and Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature

Precedent for reining in the reach of religious authorities, as Buruma proposes, exists very far back in the Jewish legal tradition, or so argues Indiana University’s Chaya T. Halberstam in Law and Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature (Indiana, February). The Torah may posit religious law that can be applied to human conduct, but the earliest rabbis, in Halberstam’s readings, weren’t so sure that humans could interpret, gather evidence, and administer justice with anything like divine precision.

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An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus

David Rosenberg, a frequent translator of the Bible who served a short tenure as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society in the 1980s, suggests in An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus (Counterpoint, January) that the common distinguishing feature of his two subjects—last seen together visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral in a Lenny Bruce bit—was not their connection to God, but the depth of their learning. One can’t help but wonder how Rosenberg’s respect for the erudition of these figures squares with his dismissal of contemporary scholar and translator Robert Alter as “pretty deaf to what real poetry is.”.

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From the Four Winds

Given the fundamental irreverence of so much literature, it is remarkable that Haim Sabato manages to weave together two careers as an Israeli rosh yeshiva and a preeminent Hebrew-language novelist. Sabato’s latest autobiographical novel to reach English, From the Four Winds (Toby, February), concerns a Mizrahi boy’s experience in an immigrant transit camp in the early years of statehood.

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Here’s something that beggars belief: publishers continue to shell out for premature Madoff exposés. The latest entry comes from England, where the literature on perfidiously greedy Jews stretches back to Marlowe’s Barabas and Shakespeare’s Shylock through to Dickens’ Fagin and Trollope’s Melmotte. In the rather condescendingly subtitled The Believers: How America Fell for Bernard Madoff’s $65 Billion Investment Scam (Orion, January)—were the Americans who invested with Madoff somehow more credulous than his Spanish or Austrian victims?—British journalist Adam LeBor emphasizes the scoundrel’s effectiveness in gaining the trust of the American Jewish community, as if that aspect of the case had not already received more than adequate press coverage.

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Spirited: Connect to the Guides All Around You

Not all Jewish frauds cause so much anguish; some even bring comfort to the bereaved. Take Rebecca Rosen. Raised as a Conservative Jew in Omaha, Nebraska, Rosen was studying for a B.A. in marketing at the University of Florida and struggling with an eating disorder when she realized she could channel messages from the dead, starting with her beloved bubbe. Having refined her shtick, the young medium now charges celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox Arquette, as well as less famous gullible souls, upwards of $200 an hour to deliver messages from their deceased loved ones. For those who can’t afford her rates, but are still intrigued by her ability to peddle bobbe-mayses for top dollar, Rosen’s memoir-cum-self-help guide, Spirited: Connect to the Guides All Around You (Harper, February), explains how she discovered her gift and how she adroitly markets it.

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David Rosenberg says:

Our reviewer Josh Lambert’s education in ironies is very impressive. Unfortunately, he seems to have been so marinated in the pop culture versions of irony, going back to poor Lenny Bruce (of Blessed Memory), that he has left no room in his sensibility for the layers of historical irony that have accrued to the authorship of the Bible. “An Educated Man” presents Moses as the core writer-figure of the Torah—and indeed, in his influence, of the entire Bible, including New Testament—and so it is no accident that I endeavor to turn the more grandiose and self-regarding enterprise of Higher Biblical Criticism on its head. This might seem like an insignificant project to our contemporary comic interpreters of Israel’s God and the Bible, from Crumb to Goldstein, but to those who take their own authorship far too seriously, such as poor criticized Robert Alter, it is cause for alarm. It’s hard to tell whether Lambert wishes to defend the aging academic from blows to his pedestal, or whether he is making further fun of him (in which case I may consider defending poor Alter myself). But the fact remains that our reviewer provides a link in his brief review to an interview conducted with me, entitled “Higher Biblical Criticism,” and it is from this interview that he has extracted the meany-sounding quote from me. Slyly, however, the review suggests that this quote comes from the book under question, “An Educated Man,” which it does not. There are a few paragraphs in the book of serious literary criticism that concern Alter’s translations-—but not, as Lambert may suggest, gratuitous name-calling. As for the interview, the quote is lifted out of a context in which I am at pains to explain, with many examples, exactly what I mean. The context is one of contemporary literature, not Biblical or Jewish Studies, but the writers to whom I allude, such as Joyce and Kafka, are understood to have engaged levels of irony beyond those that our current reviewer wishes to identify. Nevertheless, the book’s the thing, and its subject is hardly Alter or even Kafka, but merely the minor, insignificant subject (at least to many highly educated reviewers) of who wrote the Bible and how.

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On the Bookshelf

Gurus, guides, and ideological glaucoma

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