Originally published in The Heythrop Journal, A Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology, 31:1 (1990), pp. 94-5.
Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages. Edited by Arthur Green. Pp. xxv, 450 (World Spirituality 13) London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, £39.50.
The editor of this volume of essays by outstanding Jewish scholars had to face the problem of how to define Jewish spirituality in view of the rich diversity of forms of Jewish expression and the way ideas have been so variously fashioned in different ages and climes that any attempt at discovering a Jewish essence or a mainstream Judaism is doomed to failure. The very word for spirituality in Hebrew—ruhaniyyut, from ruah, meaning both ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’—is medieval coinage; an artifice created at first to express philosophical and scientific concepts that were Hellenistic in origin and when it was taken over later to describe a religious ideal it was a thorough amalgam of the spiritual legacies of Israel and Greece.
This is how the editor describes his approach (p. xiii): ‘Life in the presence of God—or the cultivation of a life in the ordinary world bearing the holiness once associated with sacred space and time, with Temple and with holy days—is perhaps as dose as one can come to a definition of “spirituality” that is native to the Jewish tradition and indeed faithful to its Semitic roots. Within this definition there is room for an array of varied types, each of which gives a different weight to one aspect or another of the spiritual life’. Each of the learned articles in the volume examines one of these types.
The book is not too technical for the non-specialist but neither does it make too many concessions to popularity. We are informed that a second volume is due to appear shortly to bring the story down from the medieval period to the present day. The scholarship is impeccable but it is a pity that the ubiquitous error is again perpetrated (p. xix) that the Jewish doctrine of revelation is that of Torah mi-Sinai, ‘Torah from Sinai’. In fact no Jewish teachers ever made the absurd claim that the whole of the Pentateuch (the Torah) was given at Sinai. How could it have been since it contains an account of events that took place 40 years after the Exodus? The traditional Jewish doctrine is not Torah mi-Sinai but Torah min ha-shamayim, ‘Torah from Heaven’.
The book is very expensive even by present-day book prices but anyone who wishes to gain considerable insight into Jewish spirituality will find the price worth paying.