Judaism: A Way of Being

A creative excursion into Jewish ideas

By Harvey Belovski, reviewer, April 8, 2010

Judaism: A Way of Being
By David Gelernter
Yale University Press, £20

In this unusual work, Professor David Gelernter offers a romantic vision of the major ideas and practices of Judaism. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, became well-known in 1993 as a victim of the Unabomber; although critically injured by a mail-bomb, he has continued to write prolifically.

Gelernter presents Orthodox Judaism as an holistic scheme of thought, meaning and practice, whose central themes, key observances and objectives are interwoven in curious and unexpected ways. He opens with the bold claim that he will answer, "from the standpoint of normative Judaism, the great questions of human existence". These include understanding the place of human beings in the vastness of creation, whether anything exists beyond the physical, how to order one's life in a meaningful way, and identifying the purpose of existence and God's role therein.

The book suggests four "image-themes" he believes encapsulate all of Judaism - the rather cryptically named separation, veil, perfect asymmetry and inward pilgrimage. For example, he claims that the canvas he calls separation consists of such diverse ideas as the two separate staves of a Torah scroll held aloft, Jews entering a synagogue, the walls of water at the Red Sea and kashrut.

Correct comprehension of these ideas, and appreciation of their complex interrelatedness, constitutes what Gelernter calls Torat halev, the Torah of the mind and heart, an impressionistic formulation of Jewish thought, practice and aspirations.

There are some beautiful and memorable ideas in Gelernter's book, although I found its claims over-ambitious and its presentation somewhat complex. I enjoyed the challenging reformulation of the entirety of Jewish thought, but also found some of the core ideas on which the book's thesis hang somewhat questionable. However, I was enamoured by the breadth and creativity of his thought and agreed with many of his observations about the modern Jewish world and his sense of frustration that so few Jews really take Judaism seriously.

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green United Synagogue

Last updated: 11:16am, April 13 2010