Originally published in Journal of Jewish Sociology 23:2.
Alan Unterman, Jews. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, xiii + 272 pp., Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices (General Editor, John R. Honnells), Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, London, and Henley, 1981, £10.50 (paperback, £6.50).
This well-written book is more sociology than theology, an accurate description rather than an argument for any particular religious position. All three trends (a term the author prefer to ‘denominations’ which, he suggests, invites misleading comparison with Christianity) in religious Jewry – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – are treated quite objectively and with scrupulous fairness despite Dr Unterman’s own evident Orthodox leanings. The work does not pretend to be a full account of Judaism, only of the religious beliefs and practices of contemporary Jews. The whole area of Jewish ethics is intentionally ignored not because it is held to be in any way unimportant but because in the ethical sphere, for all the differences in nuance, all members of Western society are in basic agreement. The book addresses itself to the specifics of Jewish life and faith; it aims to provide the intelligent reader, Jew or non-Jew, with information on what it is that makes religious Jews ‘tick’. In this aim it succeeds admirably. The work is popular in the best sense; it is based both on wide reading and on the actual living of a committed Jewish life. Dr Unterman gives the lie to Renan’s famous dictum that a religion can be understood properly only by a former adherent who is now an outsider.
The author’s studious avoidance of anything that might be considered polemical, understandable enough given the nature of the book and of the series to which it belongs, is none the less irritating on occasion, as when he observes that Orthodoxy has elected to maintain a low profile on biblical criticism and its challenge to the doctrine of revelation. ‘Even the mere entertainment of the ideas of modern biblical scholarship, particularly those denying Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, is anathema to most Orthodox thinkers’ (p. 39). As a sociological observation this is no doubt correct, but it cries out for at least some slight indication of whether or not Dr Unterman thinks such a view is tenable; and if he does, how it can be defended.
One or two minor observations. ‘Cholent’ is defined in the Glossary as a ‘Sabbath dish of meat, potatoes and beans eaten by Ashkenazi Jews’. I am told that Sephardi Jews also eat it but call it hamin, and that they usually add hard-boiled eggs. Not all Orthodox Rabbis demand that members of the Bet Din be actually present when a female proselyte undergoes immersion, her modesty being protected by her wearing a loose smock. In many Orthodox circles today, the members of the Bet Din stand outside the mikveh with the door open and this suffices. On the subject of conversion generally, it is states that the required preparatory period of study and reflection is longest among Orthodox Jews ‘and may be prolonged by the Bet Din for as much as five years’ (p. 15). In fact, this practice of demanding a lengthy period of study before conversion is contrary to the Talmudic law and appears to have been adopted by some Orthodox Rabbis who copied here the Reform requirement!