Originally published in the Edinburgh Star.
THE JEWISH RELIGION – A COMPANION
edited by Louis Jacobs
published by Oxford University Press, 1994, 641pp, £25.00 (ISBN 0-19-82643-1)
reviewed by Ian Leifer
This is a truly excellent book. Perhaps it could be given a subtitle – ‘Everything you wanted to know about Judaism but were too frightened to ask’ or, more seriously, ‘An Encyclopaedia of Judaism’. The entries are arranged accessibly in alphabetical order. It assumes no prior knowledge of Hebrew and all Hebrew terms are fully explained in non-technical language. The numerous cross-references, the brief bibliographies at the end of many articles, and me detailed list of other works of reference at the end of the book, make it easy for one to literally meander through the pathways of Judaism by pursuing topics of particular interest through the book and beyond.
The topic of ‘Controversies’ is a good example. The author begins the entry as follows: ‘There have been numerous controversies in the history of Judaism’. He then proceeds to deal with a long list from the Samaritans in the Second Temple Period down to the great divide between Orthodoxy and Reform in the nineteenth century. Near the end he states – ‘It seems almost as if a major controversy has to erupt in each century’. For some [half-line unreadable] include anything on the twentieth century – a slight disappointment. However in the entry there are no less than thirty two cross-references, each one referring to another entry in the book.
The book covers only the religious aspects of Judaism; the cultural aspects are considered only in their relation to the religious, although as the author says ‘the two are really so interlinked that any attempt to separate them too categorically will certainly result in distortion’. In his introduction the author provides a potted history of the development of Judaism. Here he makes first mention of Conservative Judaism – usually referred to in Great Britain as ‘Masorti’ or ‘Traditional’. ‘Conservative Judaism seeks a balance between Orthodoxy and Reform, taking issue with Orthodoxy in its theory and with Reform in its practice. Conservative Judaism affirms the validity of the traditional observances accepting the authority of the Halakhah (Jewish Religious Law), yet is more open to change than Orthodoxy’. Conservative Judaism is defined as ‘Orthoproxy’ – that is non-fundamentalist in theory but allegedly fully Orthodox in practice. Thus, in the article on Conservative Judaism, it becomes clear that there are considerable divisions within the movement – for example over the issue of women Rabbis and, as the author states, ‘Conservative Rabbis have long been divided into those groupings adopting respectively the right, left and centrist positions’.
In the last section of his introduction, the author discusses the ‘objectivity’ of his work as follows: ‘Works on religion are of two kinds: those which advocate that a particular religion or religious outlook be followed, and academic treatises such as the encyclopaedias of religion, the authors of which need not be followers at all of the religion they describe. This book belongs in neither category or possibly in both. I have tried to be objective, referring to all the points of view among Jews on matters that are the subject of controversy’.
The book is packed full of information on Judaism. From Maccabees to Mysticism, Rabbis to Ruth, Faith to Fundamentalism, Kabbalah to Kibbutz. It is an outstanding source-book on Judaism and I would thoroughly recommend it to readers of the Edinburgh Star.