Judaism: A Way of Being by David Gelernter
Reviewed by Richard Kahn
“This is a book for Jews who are unsatisfied with the usual approaches to the ‘message’ of Judaism,” David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, writes at the beginning of his Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale University Press, 2009). Like so many other thinkers (Samson Raphael Hirsch, Jonathan Sacks, and Herman Wouk, to name a few), Gelernter writes what can only be termed a kiruv book, a collection of thoughts intended to bring Gelernter’s religion to the reader. Though this field is arguably already saturated, Gelernter believes that he has something significant to add to the conversation.
Indeed, Gelernter holds that his book transcends the genre; he views his book as the greatest thing since the Oral Law, quite literally: “Judaism long ago wrote down its two sacred Torahs . . . It has yet to write down the Torah Shebalev, or ‘Torah of the heart’—Judaism seen whole” (5). The book is intended to be the first step in creating an “authoritative rendering of Judaism-as-a-whole.” Alluding to Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s (1269-1343) legal codex, the Four Rows, better known as the “Tur,” Gelernter divides his book into four sections, each corresponding to one of the Rows in the aforementioned work.
In “Separation,” the first pillar of Torah Shebalev, Gelernter addresses a challenge that served as a motivating factor for the formation of Christianity and classical Reform Judaism: “Why can’t religion be a personal matter between man and God, with no complex rule book butting in?” (22). He responds that the complexity of Jewish law is necessary to holiness because it provides a framework for separation. Holiness is closely related to separation—both etymologically and thematically—and Gelernter sees it as the connecting motif of much of Jewish collective memory and law. From the Jewish narrative, he brings the parting of the Red Sea, the Creation of the Universe, and the two different scrolls of the Torah mentioned in the Bible, national experiences he claims resonate with each other because of their common theme of separation. He also demonstrates that separation is pervasive in Jewish ritual: Shabbat, separate seating in an Orthodox synagogue, and kashrut all contain elements of separation. Halakha, Gelernter argues, thus banishes chaos: “[Halakha] transforms Jewish life into a richly symbolic artwork whose theme, separation, recurs in countless variations and whose ultimate subject is sanctity and the struggle of joyous life against cruelty, decay, and death” (31).
Though a stirring interpretation of Halakha, Gelernter’s reading cannot possibly fully encompass the complexity of Jewish Law. Although this model can explain many of the ritual elements of Judaism, it offers no justification, for instance, for Bava Kama, the Talmudic tractate on damages, which is arguably the prime example of a “complex rule book” seemingly “butting in” between man and God. That said, the notion of separating oneself from normal routine is very clearly a central element of Jewish law, and his arguments for separation as the driving force behind biblical narrative are compelling.
The second pillar, “Veil” explores how it is possible to interact with a God who is seemingly abstract and infinitely distant. Gelernter describes God as behind an opaque veil. We cannot see through the veil, which makes God infinitely distant, but the veil is “warm with the radiance of God’s presence and care and love” (87). As such, God can be “utterly transcendent and intimately linked to every moment of existence” (60).
He applies this pillar to elements of Jewish life. For instance, the Western Wall is considered the holiest Jewish site in the world, but there hasn’t been anything concrete behind it for almost two thousand years; there is only the abstract concept of holiness. One could see this blank wall as exemplifying Judaism’s disdain for imagery, but it also proclaims that “transcendent sanctity is so near, you can feel it in these stones” (71). The shofar, one of the central rituals of the High Holy Days, is a remarkably blank sound, but in its blankness, it “makes a direct appeal to God unburdened by words” and “expresses what words cannot” (73). We revel in these bare rituals because Judaism’s God is hidden—even verbally, “Hashem” hides “Adonai” hides the Tetragrammaton. We have the religious drive to peer through an opening to see what’s above, but “Judaism covers the opening with a sacred veil, which is not God and not an image of God, but is the concrete connection human beings need to an idea as abstract and difficult as transcendence” (66). This sacred veil allows God to be wholly transcendent yet wholly near.
“Perfect Asymmetry” is Gelernter’s defense of the gender roles that traditional Jewish law establishes, in response to those who criticize its seeming sexism. Gelernter claims that although traditional Judaism relegates women away from public leadership roles, it by no means devalues women. He argues that “no literature knows its characters better than the Bible, women emphatically included” by exploring how the Bible treats Rachel, Sarah, Michal, and others (100). The Bible presents them not as one-dimensional generic women but as complex characters. The Bible also treats sexual relationships seriously, as we see with Abraham and Sarah’s inability to give birth, or Michal’s anger at David for dancing indecently in celebration with the Holy Ark. While the Bible does not ignore women, however, it does assume certain gender differences, and traditional Judaism follows this trend. Men are the warrior-poets and are in charge of the public domain. Women have been prophetesses, but generally their domain is the household, as portrayed in the biblical poem Eishet Hayil. Gelernter asserts that women are free to take charge in the secular world, but not so in the religious world: “Religious practices do change, but must be moved as slowly and gently as a brimful glass of wine” (110).
With regard to perfect asymmetry, Gelernter argues that the union between man and woman – wherein two perfectly asymmetrical parts unite to form a much greater whole – mirrors the union between Israel and God. It is for this reason that Rabbi Akiva said of the beautiful but seemingly secular Song of Songs that “the whole world put together is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel” (Mishnah: Yadayim 3:5).
He does not address the more strikingly misogynistic statements found in the Talmud, such as the Talmudic principle “nashim da’atan kalot,” that women are emotionally or mentally frail. He does say that the Talmudic prohibitions on women studying Talmud “have been disregarded in the modern Orthodox community, embodying as they do only prejudice and no basic point of law,” but a more systematic analysis of the rabbinic derogatory attitude towards women is needed; this denigration, contrary to Gelernter’s assertion, does endure in some modern Orthodox communities, if not in most Modern Orthodox communities. The argument that women are indeed given an important, “perfectly asymmetric” role by Judaism strikes me as weak apologetics, more so than Gelernter’s other pillars.
In the final pillar, “Inward Pilgrimage,” Gelernter tackles the theological problem of the coexistence of evil with an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. He essentially rejects the question of theodicy as “inconsistent by its very nature with the Jewish view of God, man, and the universe,” because Jews do not believe that God is the God of history (156). After the Second Temple was destroyed, God withdrew from the world, and Jews must look inwards to find Him. We see the theme of inward pilgrimage in the Bible, where many characters go on a physical journey to learn something about themselves; epiphany and theophany are intimately related. For instance, Gelernter interprets the bizarre “bloody bridegroom” confrontation between Moses and God (Exodus 4:26-28) as teaching Moses to be up-front about his Jewishness. Regarding another enigmatic biblical narrative—Jacob’s wrestling match with an angel—he quotes Robert Alter: “Jacob’s mysterious opponent is an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle with within himself.” In order to find God, man must go on an inward trek, and Halakha is the guide on this journey. It is the spiritual path to God, the way to bring God’s presence to earth. If we view God not as an external force directing history but as the internal force that can give us spiritual and emotional, but not physical help, “the problem is not why God allows evil but why man allows it” (156).
Besides his expertise in the area of computer science, Gelernter is also a prolific artist. His artwork appears on the cover of the book and in eight pages of full-color inserts, and, true to his artistic roots, Judaism imagines a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing vision of the Jewish experience. He integrates biblical sources, Talmudic disputes, and Jewish ritual into a magnificent tapestry that accurately captures the emotional value of Judaism. Similar to Asher’s Four Rows, these four sections by no means restrict the content of each individual chapter; Gelernter acknowledges that his book is “written in a kind of dream form,” with ideas freely flowing into one another, whether or not they bear relevance to the specific issue he is addressing. Although some of his connections seem forced, his poetry is sufficient to justify compromise on accuracy.
Despite its beauty, Gelernter’s presentation leaves something to be desired. Specifically, the framework, while clever, is highly self-serving. By labeling his work the beginning of a new genre of Jewish literature, Gelernter sets narcissistically high expectations for himself. Judaism: A Way of Being is not the next Mishna, nor will it inspire the canonization of Judaism’s imagery. In addition, non-Orthodox readers will cringe at Gelernter’s declaration that he is presenting “normative, or ‘Orthodox’ Judaism” (ix), but what is more offensive than the equation of “normative” with “Orthodox” is that it becomes clear very quickly that when Gelernter says “normative,” he considers not the norms of current “mainstream” Orthodox Judaism (assuming that these can be determined) but his personal beliefs to be the be all and end all of what is “normative.” Many—if not most—in the Orthodox camp would challenge his adamant denial of a literal reading of Genesis. His rejection of Providence, of the God of Israel being the God of history, would also put him outside the “normative” camp according to many Orthodox leaders. But, as the author of the first volume in “torat halev” (“the Torah of the heart”) he entitles himself to define exactly what normative Judaism is.
Many readers of Judaism will expect Gelernter’s outspoken neoconservativism to be front and center. (Indeed, the book is dedicated to Gelernter’s wife and to Neil Kozodoy, the former editor of Commentary.) To his credit though, Gelernter manages to avoid discussing politics overtly, excepting his seemingly random three-page protest against the “pro-nature (verging on pagan) bias of modern civilization” (34) and his not-so-subtle attack against “postmodernism’s most deadly dangerous project” (44), the dismantling of gender separations. His position on female rabbis, while not political, also merits special mention:
The woman who yearns to be a rabbi resembles the openly practicing homosexual who wants the same thing. Both cases suggest a man who yearns to be a hazzan but lacks the ear or voice for it…. If you create woman rabbis, you not only break the law, you break the poetry. And law and poetry are all there is.
An openly practicing homosexual is barred from the rabbinate for violating a verse in Leviticus. The tone-deaf man cannot be a hazzan for purely practical reasons. Orthodoxy prohibits female rabbis largely for sociological reasons related to heterodoxy and accepted Orthodox practice, although some argue for minor halakhic reasons. It is hard to see how Gelernter analogizes these three personalities, who, while all arguably tragic, have little to nothing in common. And if the only thing stopping women from becoming rabbis, something that Gelernter himself deems a “tragedy,” is “poetry,” then he hardly has a sufficient argument.
But if Gelernter loves anything, it is poetry. Indeed, his strength lies in the beautiful imagery he uses to present Judaism. For instance, he explains “veil” by asking the reader to visualize the tallis separating the chazzan’s face from God, the blank sound of the shofar, and Moses’s face glowing after his encounter with God. By superimposing these images taken from Jewish history and ritual, he successfully creates a narrative through which his themes emerge. Despite my criticisms of his work as a whole, his imagery is, at times, highly evocative and does capture some of the feelings that Judaism creates. He may at times create poetry where there isn’t any, but such is his artistic license. He creates a Judaism that, for the most part, is beautiful, and even “poetic.”
He does, however, use poetry to describe elements of Judaism that are far from poetic. The “poetic” barring of certain personalities from the rabbinate is a clear example. He sees beauty where there seems to be none; separating milk and meat, keeping Shabbat, avoiding mixtures of wool and linen, and the parting of the Red Sea are all thematically connected, according to Gelernter. Nevertheless, the leitmotif of separation sometimes seems be highly coincidental and hardly sufficient to provide a rational basis for the wool/linen prohibition, for example. When he overstates his themes, he sometimes becomes ridiculous..
Beyond this, viewing Judaism as an aesthetic experience raises issues that Gelernter does not address. Savoring the poetry inherent in Judaism is immediately reminiscent of traditional Hassidic ideology. It was the Hassidic Rabbi, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who said, “Know that every blade of grass has a song unique to it.” Indeed, classical Hasidism aggressively and controversially valued the emotional and aesthetic over the intellectual. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Neo-Hassidic thinker, also emphasized “radical amazement,” in rebellion against a purely rational conception of Judaism. The anti-intellectual Hassidic and neo-Hassidic (Heschelian) overtones of Gelernter’s Judaism are most likely not intentional; Gelernter seems proud to identify with “modern Orthodoxy . . . the most intellectually vigorous part of Orthodoxy today” (xi). It is possible that he views Judaism as an attempt to elevate the emotional without sacrificing the scholarship, but the trajectory of Hassidism seems to show that the poetry vs. scholarship interplay is, indeed, a zero-sum game. The first Chabad Rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Liadi, reformed Hassidism by elevating the intellect, but his movement was markedly less emotional. His magnum opus is not a standard Hassidic book of homiletics but the Tanya, a heavy philosophical work. (His second most important publication is the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, a law code.) In a similar vein, the counter-Hassidic movement started by Yehudi HaKadosh emphasized that “Gemara with Tosafot,” rather than Hassidic literature, “purifies the brain.” Although it is by no means necessary for intellectual Judaism to suffer to make way for poetry, history seems to suggest that such is the norm, and Gelernter should be cognizant of this potential damage to scholarly Judaism.
And while Hassidism (and Heschel) for the most part preserved the traditional framework of Jewish practice, once Judaism is primarily an aesthetic experience, praxis might become unnecessary. If seeing a beautiful plant leads me to exclaim, “O Lord, how manifold are Your works!” (Psalms 104:24), is this not Judaism as an aesthetic experience? Perhaps there is poetry in traditional gender roles, but the sound of a female voice reading Song of Songs may contribute just as much to the poetry. Gelernter reminds us that “law and poetry are all there is,” and the framework of his book involves answering tough questions directed at “normative” Judaism, but he fails to answer one of the most significant questions leveled at traditional Judaism, one that directly converses with the centerpiece of his ideology: What happens when the law seems to inhibit the poetry? What should I do when my experience in synagogue is damaged by the restrictive liturgy? What if my Shabbat would be aesthetically enhanced with live music? Gelernter explores the poetry in traditional Judaism, but he fails to consider whether there might be more poetry in alternative forms of Judaism, ones that compromise on the law. Gelernter can argue that the law, by nature, cannot be compromised. But if this is the case, poetry will have to take a back seat. If aesthetics have no power relative to the law, it would seem that Gelernter is merely taking a preexisting legal tradition and apologetically superimposing poetic value on it.
I should confess that I do sympathize with Gelernter’s claim that there is poetry in existing Orthodox frameworks. While the traditional liturgy may seem restrictive, it has been canonized for a reason, and its immense literary value should not be downplayed. Although halakhic frameworks do sometimes strike me as anachronistic and remarkably apoetic, I, too, am wary of calls to modify the law in the pursuit of more poetry. Gelernter would probably argue that poetry flows from tradition, and poetry that goes against normative Judaism will simply be lacking in power. This may be true for me, Gelernter, and the old man in Judaism who was not consulted before a female rabbi was hired, but, as an artist, Gelernter surely knows that the experiential value of anything will vary by individual, with Judaism being no exception. If poetry is truly an independent value, it cannot always be overruled by the normative law. The poetry-law balance is something that all streams of Judaism confront, and it is clearly a much more complex and problematic interplay than Gelernter admits.
While Gelernter’s Judaism clearly has little room for pluralism—(his) Orthodox Judaism is the definitive Judaism—the inherently individualistic nature of poetry seems to lend itself nicely to Judaisms. Gelernter finds aesthetic value in Orthodox Judaism, someone else might find more poetry in Reconstructionist Judaism, while a third individual might have more of a connection with the Havura movement. Each Jew tries to maximize his poetic utility, per se, and doing so requires multiple modes of Judaism, each with varying approaches to the authority of Jewish law and each with a different way of realizing the Jewish experience. By approaching Judaism the way he does, Gelernter unknowingly and unwittingly opens the door for liberal Judaism.
Gelernter explicitly, however, does not allow for liberal Judaism, and his abrasive attacks on heterodoxy limit Judaism’s success as a kiruv book, as does his noble insistence to address issues wherein Orthodox Judaism is perceived as conflicting starkly with modernity, including gender, sexuality, and the rigidity of a halakhic system. He envisions himself encapsulating Judaism completely, rather than addressing non-religious Jews or religious Jews looking for an “upper.” However, Judaism: A Way of Being is hardly an intensive scholarly presentation of Judaism as a whole, and I find it hard to believe that Gelernter does not recognize this.
If not an important contribution to the field of Jewish scholarship, Judaism is, to be certain, an enjoyable read. Yet, I couldn’t help but continually wish that I were reading someone with a realistic perception of the genre of his book. As far as presenting an inspiring and uplifting image of Judaism, Jonathan Sacks’s A Letter in the Scroll (Simon and Schuster, 2004, referred to as Radical Then, Radical Now outside of North America) does a far better job of boosting my Jewish pride. If I’m looking for a defense of Orthodox Judaism, Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters (1836), while clearly outdated, provide clear and nontrivial positions.
And if I want to approach what Gelernter refers to as “torat halev,” well, I’m not convinced that such an entity even exists. Is there really a “normative” Judaism? Is Judaism monolithic to the extent that thousands of years of literature, ritual, and culture can be condensed into pretty imagery? Even if expressing Judaism in this fashion can be more instructive to the reader than other media, Gelernter should admit that the presentation is ahistorical and individual, not normative and universal. If the metaphysical “torat halev” even exists, it exists in the mind, and the holographs Gelernter creates are his own experiences of Judaism.
Had Gelernter not self-destructively overshot, his book would be a delightful contribution to the Jewish library. Besides his beautiful writing style, he finds common themes and images in Judaism, and once we are cognizant of them, Jewish life can be enriched. But, unfortunately for Judaism and for Judaism, Gelernter’s images are consistently obscured by his self-importance.