On the Bookshelf
Books on what makes Jews Jewish, from debates over conversion and consideration of kashrut laws to rethinking the Jewish body, with a cameo by Bob Saget
The news this month has shown, once again, how tricky it can be to tell Jews and Christians apart: a community of Majorcans, who have been Catholic for, oh, about 700 years, turned out to be Jewish according to ultra-Orthodox authorities, while Glenn Beck, addressing the Knesset in Israel, intoned the iconic words from the Book of Ruth that inspire and often figure in conversion ceremonies (“Your people is my people / Your God is my God”) but remains, nonetheless, steadfastly, creepily, vaguely Christian.
Complicating these matters further is the first book by Bible scholar Matthew Thiessen, titled Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Oxford, July), which argues that “for many Jews in antiquity Jewishness was a matter of genealogy. Gentiles could not become Jews regardless of whether or not they underwent circumcision.” Even back then, no one agreed about what makes somebody Jewish.
Today, there’s general agreement at least that conversion to Judaism is possible, even if there’s still plenty of disagreement among authorities across the religious spectrum about what constitutes an acceptable conversion. Reconstructionist Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin don’t want anyone to let that get them down on their way to joining the tribe, so their cheery guidebook, Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion (Rowman & Littlefield, September) shepherds eager aspirants onward with sections like “Facing the Bet Din: Don’t Sweat It.” Most remarkably, this has got to be the only book ever co-written by an ordained rabbi published with a foreword by the incomparable Bob Saget.
There’s no question, by now, that scholars of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity need to be reading and contemplating the same sources, as well as one another’s work. In Ann Astell and Sandor Goodheart’s edited collection Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Notre Dame, June), experts on the history of one or both of these religions—including such heavy hitters as Erich Gruen, Michael Fishbane, Robert Daly, and Bruce Chilton—riff on the theories about violence and imitation developed by the French Académicien and Stanford campus eminence René Girard. Meanwhile, Randi Rashkover, director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Mason University, brings Jewish-Christian comparativism into the high theory present: She contests recent arguments by academic superstars like Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek about Paul and the abolition of Jewish law in Freedom and Law: A Jewish-Christian Apologetics (Fordham, September).
Likewise comparative, and more appetizing, is David Freidenreich’s Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law (California, August), a study that explores the ways that the quotidian rituals of breaking bread have served as a means of identification and exclusion in the three monotheistic faiths. Everybody knows that kashrut functions socially—have you heard about the time Rabbi Akiva avoided a honey-pot trap because he smelled trayf on the breath of the ladies sent to seduce him?—but Friedenreich, an ordained Conservative rabbi and assistant professor at Colby College, offers extensive treatments of the aims and effects of Christian and Muslim laws about culinary consumption, too.
Freidenreich focuses on ancient and medieval religious authorities, but obviously food has continued to serve its function, shoring up religious identity and demarcating social boundaries, in modernity as well. Frederick Isaac’s A Road of Our Own Choosing: A History of Reform Judaism in America (URJ, June) offers wider context for the Trefa Banquet of 1883, but there’s a reason that the serving of little neck clams and soft-shell crabs to the attendees of a rabbinic ordination ceremony in Cincinnati has become an iconic moment in the history of American Judaism. At the same time, the title of Yoel Finkelman’s new book, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature, Artscroll, and the Construction of Ultra-Orthodox Identity (Academic Studies, August), reflects how resonant culinary metaphors can be; here it speaks to literary, rather than gustatory, practices. In the book, Finkelman, who teaches Torah at progressive Orthodox institutions in Israel including ATID and Midreshet Lindenbaum, follows Jeremy Stolow’s Orthodox by Design, in attending to Artscroll as exemplary of the way the ultra-Orthodox community draws on secular cultural models.
How post-Enlightenment Germans, both “Jewish-identified” and “ ‘Jew’-identifying” ones, have distinguished Jewish from non-Jewish bodies is the subject of Jay Geller’s The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity (Fordham, September). Geller is known for his supple and richly informed readings of Freud; here he addresses a host of other writers, from Rahel Levin Varnhagen to Arthur Dinter, analyzing the body as the site of Jewishness, as well as the appropriation of anti-Semitic tropes by Jews who were trying to figure out who they were. Don’t expect any of this scholarship to simplify matters when it comes to figuring out who’s Jewish and who’s not: That will inevitably remain a puzzle as long as there are any Jews to argue about it.
Recent superhero movies—Green Lantern, Thor, Superman—are terrible. The solution? Hollywood should make these heroes more Jewish.