Politics, science, crises fodder for Jewish anthology

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Fine writing and editorial balance are the qualities Arthur Kurzweil sought in choosing entries for his new book, “Best Jewish Writing 2003,” a compendium of 58 articles, poems and short stories in which Jewish authors address modern issues.

Many try to interpret modern science and personal beliefs in the light of the Torah and the Talmud, and a few bring in the Kabbalah. Their chief focus is on the existential crises that afflict the Jewish people — Israel, the Holocaust, 9/11 and anti-Semitism.

The book opens with a polite, statesmanlike letter from Elie Wiesel to President George Bush in 2002, on the eve of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the United States. It asks the president to remember all the barriers to peace erected by the other side.

There ensues a fierce tug-of-war among essayists on the Middle East. In “Letter From an Anguished Soul,” the pro-Israeli David A. Harris accurately predicts the Palestinian buzzwords — “occupation,” “humiliation” and “economic strangulation” — slipped in by his opponents, most vitriolicly by David Grossman in “Fictions Embraced by an Israel at War.”

Several contributors debate the issue of pacifism versus the right to fight in self-defense, in response to terrorist attacks against both Israel and the United States. Several of the authors urge peace and forgiveness, while others agree with Mordechai Gafni that “sometimes pacifism is deeply immoral.”

Phyllis Chesler notes in a selection from her book “The New Anti-Semitism” that her first reaction to the attack of 9/11 was “Now, we are all Israelis.” But when Osama bin Laden announced that it had been retribution for American support of Israel and the Jews, she knew that “the new anti-Semitism had been formally declared.”

Other issues treated in the book include stem-cell research, feminism and intermarriage among Orthodox Jews, genetic research and drugs. In “Drugs and Jewish Spirituality: That was Then, This is Now,” Lawrence Bush communicates with great lyrical power the consciousness-altering effects of psychedelic drugs, with which he experimented at age 17. He quotes several rabbis and Jewish intellectuals — identified only by an initial — who use psychedelic drugs today and find the experiences “tightly interwoven with their Judaism and deeply influencing their professional practice.” He recommends the use of such drugs by Jewish adults as a religious experience.

The book ends on a cheerful note with Jewish humor, including epigrams from the Talmud.

Kurzweil has written and edited extensively in the fields of Jewish literature and genealogy. This book should contain something for anyone interested in Jewish issues and literature, although the general reader may have a problem with the essays on religious education and practice, Jewish spiritual thought and Kabbalah.

Best Jewish Writing 2003,” edited by Arthur Kurzweil (396 pages, Jossey-Bass, $19.95).