Review: A Brief Guide To Judaism

By Paul Lester, December 23, 2008

A Brief Guide To Judaism — Theology, History and Practice
By Naftali Brawer
Robinson, £8.99

If, like me, you are rusty on your religion, this is surely a Chanucah must-buy; a neat précis of the story and beliefs of — according to the jacket — one of the “least understood” major faiths.

Naftali Brawer, the American-born senior rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue, makes no claims for his book’s all-inclusiveness. But he does declare it to be the first compact introduction which pulls together the different strands of history, philosophies, theological principles and ceremonial procedures. He also makes it clear this is “a profoundly personal narrative”, guided by his own experiences, education and upbringing as an Orthodox Jew from a Chasidic background.

It doesn’t read like a profoundly personal narrative, however. Despite the occasional anecdote, his voice seems remote and a more playful style would have been more inviting. It feels too much by-the-book, or rather books, condensed from thousands of pages of history and liturgy.

Granted the book’s stance that, for an Orthodox Jew, the stories of the Bible are “a matter of fact”, still the author might have stepped in to say whether he believes that Adam and Eve, for example, are indeed more than mythic archetypes or characters in an allegory. Or to reveal whether he ever had any doubts and how he overcame them.

Some readers, too, might have welcomed a less prim treatment of physical intimacy, which is presented as part of a rigid Shabbat programme that includes prayer and ritual. Can a red-blooded Jew have sex any day of the week, I was left wondering: or is that proscribed by talmudic law?

But then, who the guide is aimed at remains unclear. It can’t be for academics, because they will already be familiar with the content. Neophytes serious about a greater understanding of the religion will require heftier treatises. And sceptics, the disillusioned or the young repelled by the formality of Jewish practice and the rigid and archaic language which is used to convey it, are unlikely to suddenly find themselves passionate advocates.

This is a shame. Judaism is at a critical juncture, its numbers threatened by marrying out and Jews alienated by a religion that fails to relate to their 21st-century lives. This is the ideal moment for a book that attempts to re-engage the uninterested. Although it unravels some of the complexities of Judaism such as free will, and describes its most significant events, from Herod’s Temple to the Holocaust, Brawer’s Guide is not quite that book.

Paul Lester is a JC columnist and music writer

Last updated: 6:28pm, December 23 2008