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On the Bookshelf

Bedeviled: when conscience rebels against the dictates of tradition

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The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition

A Jesuit school founded by the Roman Catholic Diocese, Fordham University isn’t the first New York institution that comes to mind as a hotbed of contemporary Jewish theology. But it’s Fordham, and specifically Robert C. Pollock, a professor of philosophy and Jewish-born convert to Catholicism, whom the founder and guiding spirit of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, Rabbi David Hartman, credits as having exposed him to the rich intellectual tradition of American religious pluralism. That background comes through in all Hartman’s work; in The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Jewish Lights, March), Hartman tackles a question that bedevils people of all faiths, approaching it from an Orthodox Jewish perspective that’s sensitive to the wide variety of beliefs of contemporary Jews: What should you do when the dictates of your religious practice conflict with what you know, in your heart, to be right?

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Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn's Theological-Political Thought

Hartman isn’t the first to ask this question. Struggles with problems of conscience against tradition, or reason against faith, have been at the center of Jewish theological wrangling and hand-wringing at least since the Enlightenment. Indeed, in Michah Gottlieb’s study, Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought (Oxford, March), an influential Jewish Enlightenment thinker comes off sounding a little like Hartman; Gottlieb’s Mendelssohn, influenced both by the religious icon Maimonides and by the atheistic radical Baruch Spinoza, “defends Jewish religious concepts sincerely, but in doing so gives them a humanistic valence appropriate to life in an enlightened society.”

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The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere

Books like Hartman’s and Gottlieb’s contribute to the sense that, as Gottlieb perceptively notes, “the wars between religion and reason … have been renewed” in the 21st century, especially on our bookshelves: “a dizzying number of new books have already appeared on the topic with more on the way and no end in sight.” Well, add one more to that pile: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia, February) offers academic celebrities like Jürgen Habermas, Cornel West, and Charles Taylor, riffing on religion and secularism. There’s also a chapter by Judith Butler in which she presents her take on Hannah Arendt’s religious influences and asserts that “to openly and publicly criticize [Israeli state violence] is in some ways an obligatory ethical demand from within Jewish frameworks, both religious and nonreligious.” As if any serious Jewish critics of Israel need Butler’s prodding to do their thing.

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The Synagogue in America: A Short History

A more informative discussion of relations between Jewish religion and the public sphere, at least in the United States, can be found in Marc Lee Raphael’s The Synagogue in America: A Short History (NYU, March). Spanning the history of American Jewry from the colonial period to the present, Raphael notes that until the 20th century, synagogues went unchallenged as the primary social spaces for America’s Jews, not to mention the structures whose location and architectural design made Judaism visible in the American landscape.

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Violence as Worship: Religious Wars in the Age of Globalization

If only what Gottlieb calls “the wars between religion and reason” were always metaphorical battles taking place in books of learned theology. Hans Kippenberg’s Violence as Worship: Religious Wars in the Age of Globalization (Stanford, March) concerns itself with literal religious wars, and particularly with the sort of faithful brutality that has become more and more common since the Jonestown disaster in 1978, in the United States and Middle East. Contradicting some scholars who understand violent tendencies to be an inseparable component of monotheistic Judaism, Kippenberg argues that the “link between monotheism and violence” is “contingent: it is neither necessary nor impossible” that monotheists will perpetrate reprehensible acts of destruction.

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The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb

“Nuclear zero”—the reduction of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons to zilch, a stated goal of Obama’s White House—would seem like the answer to many people’s prayers; at the very least, if that goal were attained, Ron Rosenbaum could relax a little. But as far as Catherine McArdle Kelleher and Judith Reppy, the co-editors of Getting to Zero: The Path to Nuclear Disarmament (Stanford, March), and their contributors are concerned, nuclear zero would raise more questions than it answers, especially in countries like Iran and India. In one chapter, Avner Cohen, whose 2010 The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb, surveyed Israel’s “strategy of amimut [opacity]” regarding its nuclear arsenal, “wonders what will become of Israel’s policy of opacity in a disarming world or in a Middle East that includes a nuclear Iran.”

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Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis: Suez and the Brink of War

Whatever nuclear crises the future holds, they will probably be even more complicated than the classic Cold War mess chronicled by David A. Nichols in Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis: Suez and the Brink of War (S&S, March), in which Ike had to respond to the Soviet invasion of Hungary and to the British, French, and Israeli actions in the Suez—all while recovering from surgery and a heart attack. Ike may not have supported Israel as much as some Americans and members of Congress would have liked, but at least he didn’t give Henry Byroade, American ambassador to Egypt, what he demanded: a presidential “fire-side chat” that would “break the back of Zionism as a political force.”

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For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge Of Time

Despite having created the most powerful weapons of all time, and the means with which humanity might someday eradicate itself, physicists can be good for a laugh, too. Walter Lewin, an MIT researcher whose lectures have become popular online, is the sort of serious scientist happy to act zany if that helps to make his subject appealing and comprehensible. A Dutch-born Jew, Lewin has been a fixture of MIT’s annual Latke vs. Hamantaschen debate; one year, he argued that Heisenberg based his uncertainty principle on the Hannukah miracle. In For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time (S&S, May)—an old-media companion piece for his web videos—he shares his infectious enthusiasm for physics and explains how he wound up as a scientific celebrity.

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On the Bookshelf

Bedeviled: when conscience rebels against the dictates of tradition

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