I recently finished Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith by Shmuley Boteach. The back of the book consisted of quotes from the book on various topics, and the following quote on suffering caught my eye:
Too many religions emasculate mankind, asking us to bow our heads and accept God’s justice in the face of suffering. But the word Israel means ‘he who wrestles with God.’ We have a right to shake the heavens and spar with God whenever the innocent suffer.
What an interesting statement! So I checked it out and began to read earnestly. I left the reading experience feeling conflicted and slightly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good book and if you’re interested in theology, especially Jewish philosophy, this book does a fantastic job getting into the mind and thinking process of an Orthodox Jew. But I had dived in, hoping for a treatise on philosophy and theology, when in reality Judaism for Everyone is less a handbook on how you can incorporate Jewish concepts into your life and more an apologetic text for Judaism.
On the one hand, it’s a book full of sweeping over-generalizations and platitudes, but it wouldn’t be apologetic, religious, devotional literature without them, right? But for every claim that made me raise an eyebrow, Boteach still walks down some interesting roads. he admits that religion is a crutch for many, but then moves onto how “real religion begins where human limitations end” (p. 42). He talks about Judaism’s purpose of bringing heaven down to earth, rather than forsaking earth to climb to heaven. The chapters on suffering, prayer, and the kosher laws especially bring out very different insights for my thoroughly Christianized mind. The book is a great apologetic text for orthodox Judaism, and along the way you can glean some pretty fascinating concepts:
In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive. It leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook on life. It scars our psyches and brings about a cynical consciousness, devoid of hope. Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of characters comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance (p. 197).
Or this gem on reciting prayers:
Many have complained that the rigidity of a set prayer book is stultifying and impedes individual concentration. They object to having to pray in a foreign language rather than their mother tongue, and they protest at having a fixed text composed of words that were consecrated and written thousands of years ago. My student tells me that they would rather take a banjo out into the fields and “sing a new song to the Lord” that is both personal and spontaneous. They feel stultified and uninspired in having to pray from a prepared text.
Their objects miss a crucial point. The great secret of Jewish prayer is that it is not about talking, but listening; not about beseeching, but imbibing. We awaken in the morning and pray to God, not so much to praise Him as to listen to the beautiful words that remind us of His omnipresence and that it is to Him that all terms of endearment should be offered (p. 131).
And another interesting quote of him defending the famous Mormon motto “modest is hottest”:
Modest dress is a good example. A woman who dresses modestly elicits great passion from her husband simply by undressing. The rule is simple: If a man does not wish to undress a woman in his mind first, he will not wish to undress her with his hands. Modest dress, a form of concealment, inspires lust and desire, in short, eroticism. Erotic obstacles are essential to the maintenance of seduction and passion.
Despite how much Mormons love to compare themselves to Judaism, much of his book is devoted to the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism and how those philosophies translate into cultural practice. Some of Boteach’s criticisms of Christianity will no doubt trouble many a Christian, even Mormons, and some of his writings, especially on suffering, will severely challenge the basic assumptions of Christian faith. Though you can tell he’s trying to be impartial, sometimes Boteach’s disdain for some of Christianity’s concepts show through the words. However, his criticisms against Christian culture hold merit, and a reader with an open mind can extract pertinent lessons from his sometimes scathing remarks, such as:
Judaism is best described as a celebration of life, no aspect of which is intrinsically un-Godly. And though Judaism condemns animalistic indulgence, the Talmud declares that in the world-to-come God will hold man accountable for refusing to partake of any pleasures that God has permitted, thinking that he would be more Godly as a result. Asceticism has a place only in a religion that imagines Satan behind every dollar bill and every sexual urge. But a religion that sees a spark of divine light hidden in every heart and hidden behind every tree teaches its adherents to bring this light to the fore. God wishes to be discovered within His world, and man is charged with this task (p. 49-50).
In the end, if you’re up for a whole new experience that will challenge some of the basic underpinnings of Western Christian thought and philosophy, read this book. As far as apologetics go, this book does a fine job introducing some of the major differences between Jewish and Christian thought.