Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 26th January 1973.
Where Judaism Differed. By Abba Hillel Silver. Macmillian (NY). Available UK at 70p.
This is a paperback edition of the by now famous book, first published in 1956, in which the author endeavours to trace, in the words of the sub-title, the distinctiveness of Judaism. A book by Abba Hillel Silver is naturally eloquent, very readable and packed with information, justifying the quote on the cover from the Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal: “A superb book—the best introduction to Judaism that we know.”
The learned author takes his readers on a journey through the religions and philosophies of the world, comparing them with Judaism in order to demonstrate the latter’s superiority. His opening words set the tone:
“There arose among the .people of Israel in ancient times a group of men who had a message for their nation and mankind, which made of Israel a distinct people everywhere for nearly three thousand years. . .
“These men did not carve in marble or cast in bronze, or fashion dramatic art an epic of ageless beauty, or mould the subtle syllogism, or pioneer in the natural sciences, or build large empires or set their victorious triremes sailing the highways of the seas.
“They developed a clean and noble art of life for men and nations, without which, as we have witnessed in our day, the populous city becomes a heap and man reverts to the jungle.”
This is fine, full-blooded stuff but belongs to the literature of apologetics rather than to precise scholarship. The fatal weakness of a book of this type lies in its selectivity. Ideas in the classical Jewish sources which appeal to the author are said to be typical of normative Judaism.
Ideas found in profusion and among foremost Jewish thinkers which do not have this appeal are declared to be untypical and un-Jewish. Thus Judaism is said to be opposed to asceticism so that ascetics like Bahya and Luzzatto are virtually read out of Judaism because they have been influenced by Sufism or Christianity.
This kind of approach fails to enlighten us as to why the works of the ascetics and the anti-rationalists, for example, occupy such an honoured place in Jewish devotional literature. In other words, Judaism is too rich and varied a mixture to be neatly bottled and labelled even by one of the most distinguished Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.