That Old-Time Religion

Elliot R. Wolfson writes in 2010 about David Gelernter’s 2009 book, Judaism: A Way of Being:

* Gelernter ascribes to Orthodoxy an air of authenticity, implying that all other denominations are weaker or compromised versions of the “real” thing. But it is not clear to me that this assumption can be justified either by rational argument or by appeal to historical precedent. Orthodoxy, whether ultra or modern, is itself a sociological taxonomy that cannot be assessed in isolation from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist denominations. The depiction of Orthodoxy as Judaism “at full strength” and “straight up” naïvely presumes the prejudice that the Orthodox community is the most legitimate instantiation of the tradition. More importantly, Gelernter’s language reflects an uncritical view regarding Orthodoxy’s ahistorical perspective on the historical development of its own tenets and rituals.

* I also concede Gelernter’s point that Judaism is, first and foremost, a way of being in the world. But this is hardly a difficult argument with which to concur. It is rather conventional to insist that, traditionally speaking, religious praxis, and not theological or philosophical dogma, has been the ultimate ground of Jewish piety and devotion. At most, Gelernter is to be given credit for delivering this old idea in a new bottle, namely by placing the emphasis on the visual dimension of Judaism and by understanding thought itself to be a process of envisioning. To apprehend the existential aspect of Judaism, in other words, one must learn how to see, and the author is an excellent guide on the visual journey into the rhythms of Orthodox ceremonial life.

* The “this-worldliness” of Judaism needs to be counter-balanced by its otherworldliness (which at times has even fostered an ascetic renunciation of the carnal on the part of pietists and mystics), just as the otherworldliness of Christianity and Islam needs to be counter-balanced by their this-worldliness (expressed in sociopolitical terms by the theocratic desire to build a kingdom of God on earth that will mimic the celestial realm).

* Gelernter is entirely correct to begin his analysis with the theme of separation. There is no question, as practitioners and scholars have long noted, that Jewish identity (sociologically, anthropologically, psychologically, and theologically) is determined by a strong sense of difference vis-à -vis other nations. Indeed, the biblical term for a member of the Hebrew nation is ivri, one who has come from the “other side” of the Euphrates, a geographical demarcation that eventually assumed metaphysical import in that it marked the Jew as the consummate Other. The concept of holiness and the “unifying idea” of Jewish ritual law likewise are closely linked to the idea of separation.

* What Gelernter has not dealt with are the more thorny implications of this dimension of Judaism. Predictably, he notes that “Judaism called on Jews to be separate,” and “anti-Semitic neighbors have often forced them to be separate”; consequently, we can think of the separation between Jew and Gentile as a “collaborative effort.” But there is no serious grappling here with the dark shadows of this separation, such as the expressions of a deeply negative view of the Gentile in some traditional Jewish sources, including rabbinic and kabbalistic literature. …But no mention is made of the fact that the representation of the Gentile in the same zoharic Kabbala—as I have demonstrated in Venturing Beyond: Law and Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (2006)—is the most acerbic in all of Jewish literature. There it is said repeatedly that the soul of the Jew derives from the holy side of the divine—in this sense, the word adam is attributed paradigmatically to the Jew alone—while the soul of the Gentile derives from the unholy side of the demonic.

…the skewed depiction of the whole of the tradition that results from an unwillingness to tackle some of the more problematic consequences of the Jewish emphasis on isolation and separateness. The aforementioned perspective in zoharic homilies has had an enormous impact on subsequent rabbinic authors and their often deplorable representation of the non-Jew.

* Even if for most of their history Jews did not have the means to execute physical violence against Christians in a manner comparable to how Christians treated Jews, the use of texts (liturgical, exegetical, speculative, and polemical) to mount a sharp attack on Christianity is well documented, at times reaching a feverish pitch in the portrayal of Esau as the evil twin brother of Jacob, and Edom as the demonic counterpart to Israel.

* At the conclusion of the chapter on perfect asymmetry, Gelernter grants that one cannot deny that in the biblical and rabbinic milieu, “men dominated women physically, legally, and economically.” Furthermore, no one can refute that the “public face” of Orthodox Judaism is male, and hence “those who believe that equal treatment for women demands that men and women be interchangeable will find that Orthodox Judaism falls short in many other ways.” After making this concession, however, he pulls back and offers what I find to be a rather astonishing claim: “Yet those who prefer tolerance to intolerance will find it easy to acquit normative Judaism of antiwoman bias. The role women play in Judaism’s daily life is too central and too charged with religious and poetic meaning to allow such a charge to stick.” To render the reluctance to accept the gender hierarchy as intolerant is neither prudent nor credible; in fact, it may itself smack of intolerance. The subsequent appeal to the survival of Judaism as a religious system in order to protect it against criticism is not a particularly resilient or astute tactic. Survival as such is not proof of moral or religious rectitude.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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