Originally published in The Expository Times 104:3 (December 1992).
Of the two books under review, Chaim Nussbaum’s Semblance and Reality: Messianism in Biblical Perspective (Ktav , $16.95, pp. 156. ISBN 0-88125-385-5) and Louis Jacob’s Religion and the Individual: a Jewish Perspective (Cambridge University Press , £27.95/$44.95, pp. 163, ISBN 0-521-41138-6), the first engages the heart, the second the head.
Rabbi Nussbaum presents us with a view of history filtered through the prism of a midrashic-kabbalistic reading of the Bible. By this reading history is revealed as the dialectical interaction of two human processes: confusion (irruv) and clarification (berur). The end-product of these processes is the emergence of the Might of the Messiah’, the Davidic image projected into future history. Though Semblance and Reality doesn’t succeed in changing my perspective on history, it does help me experience what it is like to read the Bible through Lurianic spectacles. The overriding feeling it communicates is compassion. The traditional Jewish sources which provide the basis for Nussbaum’s interpretation are embedded in his text; there are no footnotes. I found this a gratifying read, more than a convincing one; hence, a book for the heart.
In his midrashic exposition of the Tower of Babel episode, Nussbaum comments that the ‘semblance’ of the protective society typified by Babel is in ‘reality’ the totalitarian destruction of individual freedom (pp. 40f.). This is as close as he gets to Rabbi Jacobs’s argument, which denies the claim that society, or peoplehood, is always stressed in Judaism at the expense of the individual. Jacobs shows that the individual also has significance by amassing evidence from Jewish writings ancient and modern, which he organizes under various headings: ‘attitudes to life and death’, ‘family, relationships’, ‘loving the neighbour’ (following Lev 19:18), ‘worship with the body’ and so forth. Occasionally he enters into debate, as with Ahad Ha’am over the value of preserving life (pp. 28ff.); or into prolonged discussion, as regarding the-problem of free will (chapter on ‘God and personal freedom’). All of this demonstrates Jacobs’s huge erudition, and it is done with such clarity of thought I hesitate to criticize. Yet I have misgivings about the whole exercise. Despite the critical nature of his scholarship, it lacks social and historical depth. Thinkers are identified by their epoch but not interpreted within their epoch. He records diverse views but doesn’t account for the diversity, except in the conclusion where he says (correctly) that all religions have to provide frameworks for understanding the relationship between community and individuality, so that in the end it is ‘a question of emphasis’. But what determines the emphasis, and how does it shift (or not) over time? The view of Jewish collectivism that Jacobs sets out to disprove is, I would argue, found today in reality only among a few extremist groups within Judaism. There is here a gap between doctrinal ‘semblance’ and social ‘reality’ which cries out for investigation. Jacobs criticizes the neo-Orthodox scholar David Hartman for his modernist ‘cultural conditioning’, but he doesn’t seem able to challenge his own traditionalist assumptions; his conclusion is many peoples’ starting-point. In sum this is a learned book but not a brave one.
Rabbi Fred Morgan