An Introduction to Judaism
What The Jews Believe.
by Philip S. Bernstein.
Farrar, Straus, And Young. 100 pp. $1.25.
Only a man of courage could offer a streamlined version of living Judaism in one hundred pages, and only a wise man ought to try. Rabbi Philip Bernstein possesses enough of both qualities to justify the attempt.
In ten brief chapters, Rabbi Bernstein blocks out the major aspects of Judaism and Jewish life. He begins his presentation with an exposition of the meaning of Torah in Jewish life and of Judaism’s central affirmation of the unity of God. He then portrays the Jewish heritage as it has found expression in the cycle of Sabbaths, holidays, and festivals as well as in the individual observances and group practices of the Jew. The last chapter contains the eloquent address Rabbi Bernstein delivered at the Bar Mitzvah of his son in Frankfort, Germany, in 1947, an occasion fraught with deep personal significance for the author.
Rabbi Bernstein writes with an impressive simplicity and lucidity, and he has hit upon a method that is very fruitful, one that is inductive rather than deductive. Most scholarly or popular presentations of Judaism, setting up a peremptory distinction between “theory” and “practice,” start with an exposition of the theological foundations and fundamental affirmations of Jewish life and then proceed to a description of the individual and collective behavior patterns in which these concepts and affirmations are concretized. Rabbi Bernstein has reversed the procedure. He starts with the living and lived observances and uses their description as springboards for the exposition of Judaism’s fundamental ideas. Thus the description of Yom Kippur leads into a discussion of Judaism’s concept of the nature of man, the meaning of “sin,” and the role and scope of charity in Jewish life. The Passover story sets the framework for a discussion of the problem of miracles, ancient Jewish nationhood, the “chosen people” concept, the idea of the “suffering servant,” the Jewish attitude toward Jesus, current interfaith activities, Messianism, and Zionism. The transitions are skillfully managed and the linkage of such diverse elements never seems arbitrary.
And yet, one cannot put this book aside without having noted several disquieting limitations. One of these limitations may be traced to the fact that the book is an expanded and partly revised version of an article published in Life magazine some months ago, to be read by a predominantly non-Jewish audience. This probably accounts for the exclusion of virtually all fundamental controversies and basic tensions within Judaism and for the excessive amount of attention paid to apologetics. While the absence of creedal elements in Jewish life is merely mentioned in one line and Jewish thinking about God is—inadequately—covered in three pages, five pages are devoted to an exposition of the Jewish attitude toward Jesus, more than three to an analysis of the Jewish attitude toward conversion. The motivation and scope of Jewish charitableness is described in detail, from the enumeration of Maimonides’ “Eight Degrees of Charity” to a comparison of the amounts raised by the United Jewish Appeal and the American Red Cross in 1948. Even the number of Jewish chaplains serving during World War II is not missing. I do not mean to be petty. The information which Rabbi Bernstein presents is important. Yet the inordinate amount of space assigned to it gives an emphasis less to what the Jews believe and do than to why they don’t believe and do otherwise.
The book’s limitations become particularly evident in what it leaves unsaid. The book clearly is not meant for scholars, theologians, or the informed laity; it is designed to satisfy the needs of thoughtful Jews and non-Jews who seek an account of Jewish beliefs and practices unencumbered by theological detail and scholarly or pious verbiage. That there is a need and place for such an account will hardly be contested by any honest educator or religious leader who is engaged in the Gargantuan daily struggle with religious and cultural mass illiteracy. Yet how much can Judaism be “popularized” without robbing it of its distinct qualities?
Precisely because the book addresses itself to the uninformed but thoughtful reader, the reader, if he is thoughtful, will seek answers to a number of questions which are not posed at all or, if posed, inadequately answered. Thus the crucial problem offered by the absence of dogma in Judaism and the existing latitude of belief is disposed of with the simple statement that “there is no creed which all Jews accept.” The fact is true. There are no final dogmatic formulations, and “there is no supreme ecclesiastical body with authority over the souls of the Jews.” But what does this lack imply? What kind of authority, if any, is there in Jewish life? Are not precisely those Jews and non-Jews who sincerely seek information baffled especially by Judaism’s theological and ecclesiastic libertarianism? An analysis of Judaism’s aversion to formal creeds could have furnished a master key opening the door to the entire range of Jewish thought and life—the Jewish distrust of finality in any form, even of final assertions about God; the recognition that even our profoundest thoughts about God are still only man’s thoughts and not God’s; the fact that Jews are not simply congregants in a church but, as Milton Steinberg put it, “members of a historic people and participants in its culture”; the Jewish unwillingness to accept the depositum fidei as something completed but rather to regard it as something to be acquired and won ever anew through inquiry and study; the consequent intellectual emphasis of Jewish life and tradition which, in turn, is often subordinated to, and partly submerged in, the quest for the good life.
Other vital aspects of the Jewish heritage are treated in an equally sketchy manner. At times, there is an excessive amount of rationalization and slanting in the direction of “liberal” humanism. The meaning of Chanukah is reduced to the struggle for religious freedom. The humanitarian aspects of the Sabbath, important as they are, are overemphasized to the virtual exclusion of all other elements: creation, revelation, and redemption, which are fused into a unique synthesis in the Sabbath. Some important beliefs and concepts are omitted altogether—the covenant, the priesthood of Israel, the concept of kedushah (sanctification), the problem of evil (as distinguished from sin), the dietary laws, and other aspects of traditional observance about whose role and meaning people inquire consistently. Their omission in a magazine article is understandable; in a book, even in an elementary one, it can hardly be justified.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Bernstein’s efforts command respect even where one disagrees with him and even though one would have wished for greater depth and completeness. The book is written with dignity and warmth. Despite its limitations, it can well serve as a stimulating and helpful introduction to Jewish thought and life for the audience to which it is addressed. But one hopes that its readers will heed Hillel’s injunction: “Zil g’mor,” “Go and study—further.”