Off the shelf | Scholars grapple with religious conflict, contradiction

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Books on religious thought tend not to be big movers in bookstores or libraries. But, particularly for those of us who spend any portion of our lives in synagogue or in religious study, these books can offer a new lens that changes our thinking — whether it involves appreciating the big picture or concentrating on a small part of the picture.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has become an increasingly visible figure presenting Jewish thought in the public arena.

The occasion for the former chief rabbi of Britain’s latest book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” is the alarming rise of Islamic extremist violence. However, rather than engaging in Islam-bashing, Sacks describes the growing phenomenon as an expression of a danger endemic to Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Sacks sees in each of the monotheistic traditions a possible tendency, if unchecked, toward a “pathological dualism”: When one group believes in the supremacy of its own vision, it is just a short path to fomenting animosity and violence towards others.

Sacks’ response comes largely in the form of an impassioned reading of portions of the Book of Genesis. In particular, he examines the prominent sibling rivalries, which seem on the surface to yield winners (Isaac, Jacob) and losers (Ishmael, Esau). Sacks tries to demonstrate that even when one brother is chosen, the biblical narrative takes pains to uphold the humanity of the other brother and prevent vilification.

He also calls attention to two covenants in Genesis with radically different dimensions. God’s covenant with Abraham reinforces a particular group’s identity. But Sacks asks us also to be mindful of God’s earlier covenant with Noah, which promotes universalism and justice. Sacks argues that we walk a dangerous path when we cling to the tribal vision at the expense of the global one.

Sacks rails against fundamentalist readings of text. He notes that the scriptures of all the Abrahamic religions feature passages which, when interpreted literally, can lead to hatred. But each of these traditions has also developed interpretive strategies that foster tolerance and healing. Sacks calls for a concerted campaign within religious communities to promote these outward and conciliatory stances, and warns that if they are not taught, religious violence will surely worsen.

In “Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter,” Alan L. Mittleman responds to a very different challenge to religion — the increasingly heard propositions emerging from science that consciousness and thought can be reduced to the expression of nerve cells and chemical processes, or that there is nothing essential to distinguish humans from other animals.

Without negating the validity of scientific inquiry and discovery, Mittleman, a professor at the Conservative  movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, responds with a defense of “personhood” from within the Jewish tradition — a conception of who we are that cannot be reduced to the body’s chemical and biological operations.

While I don’t feel equipped to evaluate the book as a response to the challenge from the scientific world, I do find it to be an excellent presentation of Jewish beliefs about humanity. Synthesizing a huge array of Jewish texts with modern philosophical and scientific thinking, Mittleman explores, among other topics, Judaism’s emphasis on free will and ethical behavior and what it means to be created in the image of God.

The V’ahavta, which immediately follows the Shema, is one of the best known pieces of the Jewish liturgy. Taken from Deuteronomy, it states, “You shall love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” It is a passage that perplexes many of us, for how can the act of love be commanded?

This is one of the questions that Jon D. Levenson, who has taught Jewish thought at Harvard for decades, takes up in “The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.”

There is deliberate ambiguity in the book’s title, as the term “love of God” can denote love that is either given to God or received from God. Because God and Israel exist in covenantal relationship, both are essential parts of the story.

Levenson emphasizes that there are numerous forms of love at work in this relationship, and the primary ones — which recall a master-servant relationship or a parent-child relationship more than a romantic one — may not agree with modern sensibilities.

The model of love Levenson proposes carries an inevitable inequality — but the two parties in this particular covenant do not have equal footing. Seen within the tradition as being bound to God and protected by God, the people Israel have a reciprocal duty to serve and obey. It is a relationship of mutual obligation, which Levenson looks upon positively. Love that depends on sentiment presents a risky foundation because emotional states tend to waver, he maintains.

Levenson concedes that there may indeed be an “affective dimension lurking there” as well, but such a connection motivated by feeling is at best secondary.

“The Love of God” offers a wide-ranging analysis that draws on a huge selection of source material, ranging from political documents of the ancient Near East to the writings of medieval theologians Bahya ibn Paquda and Maimonides and 20th-century philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.  The book is well worth reading.

“Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  (320 pages, Schocken)

“Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter” by Alan L. Mittleman (215 pages, Princeton University Press)

“The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism” by Jon D. Levenson (226 pages, Princeton University Press)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.