To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People

To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People
To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People. Noah Feldman. 2024. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Review by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Convener of Shabbat with Friends.  

A Jew is rescued from a deserted island after 20 years living as a survivor of a shipwreck. He takes his rescuers on a tour of the island, proudly pointing out two structures he built by the labor of his own hands. The impressed party of rescuers wonder what the structures are. He tells them that they are shuls (synagogues). Astonished, the rescuers ask him why he labored to build two shuls instead of one. He points to one of them, saying “That it is the shul I go to”.  He then points to the other, “That’s the shul I never go to.”   

Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University and a leading public intellectual has just come out with a book that aims to counter the Jewish tendency to denigrate Jews who we do not agree with. In To Be a Jew Today, Feldman offers a magisterial and profound reflection on the many ways Jews think about their Judaism.  

Not only will you find “your shul” thoughtfully and incisively presented in the book, but you will also read compelling presentations of all the other “shuls” that you do not go to. Feldman takes us on this journey because “I have had the fortune or misfortune to identify with nearly every view I lay out here at one time or another in my life.” The breadth and depth of his Jewish journeys lead to a beautifully written, lucid, and insightful account of Jewish life today in all its manifestations.  

Feldman also does something very brave. He directly confronts a troublesome aspect of Jewish culture.  

“The ability to judge others has never been lacking in the Jewish tradition. The Jesus who said “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) was speaking to fellow Jews. Not for nothing did his aphorism become central to the Christian religious tradition that grew from his example, not to normative Judaism. The feeling of being a bad Jew is therefore archetypally Jewish—and simultaneously a misreading of the Jewish way of engaging the world. A Jew can sin and repent, depending on your conception of sin and repentance. A Jew can judge and be judged, regardless of what conception of judging you hold. A Jew should not, however, slot herself or himself into the category of bad Jew. Nor should Jewish communities, however defined, define others as bad Jews. A bad Jew is just a Jew expressing irony and self-skepticism and maybe a little guilt. In other words, a Jew.” 

To overcome the bad Jew problem, Feldman presents a compelling description of Jews today organized around how Jews think about three distinct Jewish categories: God, Israel, and the Jewish People.  Intentionally, Feldman eschews denominations such as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.  Instead, he identifies 4 distinct Jewish belief patterns: the Traditional, the Progressive, the Evolutionist, and the Godless.  

His description of each of these points of view is empathetic and respectful, but also brilliant and incisive. The flow of his arguments, which are clear and follow from one another, make the book a real page turner. His Talmudic training shows in the way he welcomes the reader to dissent and argue with him without ever feeling that he is dismissive or judgmental.    

The book is brimming with original ideas. But it is also timely. Feldman writes that he worked on the book for three years and finished it prior to October 7th, 2023. The events of that day and the start of the Gaza war forced Feldman to revise the book. His observations about Israel and Zionism, especially in Part 2 of the book, are remarkably relevant, important, and original.    

Part 1 explores the role that God and Godlessness plays in the thinking of contemporary Jews. One of the fascinating dimensions of this book is his examination of specific groups within the Jewish community. His presentation on Chabad is the best that I have read anywhere, pointing to its uniqueness in the Orthodox world and its significance for world Jewry.   

Feldman argues that Israel has become utterly central to contemporary Jewish thought and spirituality. This is true for many Jews for whom Israel has replaced God as the centerpiece of their identity. He identifies the growing dissonance for “Progressive Jews” who identify Judaism as a profound commitment to social justice but find Israel failing to uphold social justice regarding the Palestinians.  

 As Feldman observes with a bit of humor, “The word “Israel” conjures energy—mostly the energy to argue. You can get exhausted by talking about Israel, but that somehow doesn’t seem to make the conversation stop.” 

Part 3 deals with Jewish peoplehood. It includes deep inquiries about the idea of chosenness, intermarriage, and who is a Jew. Like the rest of the book his ideas are original and very thought-provoking.   

This book presents an opportunity for couples, families, and communities to discuss their Jewish identities honestly and with empathy. The book not only enables us to chart our own Jewish journeys, but to understand the journey of someone you know or love or disagree with.  

Not enough of these discussions exist today in our current environment of doxing, canceling, and shunning behaviors. Instead To Be a Jew Today depicts the diverse views of Jews across the entire spectrum from Traditional to Godless with love, insight, and honesty. I was so moved by the book that I have asked my own community to read it, discuss it, and share it with others. I hope you will encourage people in your circles to read it as well.  

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