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Review: Faith Without Fear

Orthodoxy must learn to live with different voices

    Defying conformity: Rabbi Michael Harris
    Defying conformity: Rabbi Michael Harris

    Michael J Harris
    Vallentine Mitchell, £18.95

    Faith Without Fear is a well written, well researched book. Its stated aim is "to articulate an approach, from a modern Orthodox perspective, to a range of important issues which remain unresolved in the global modern Orthodox community".

    Rabbi Michael Harris stands apart in several ways from most of his colleagues in the United Synagogue rabbinate. Whereas once graduates of Jews' College were expected to have an academic background and to favour rationalism, the current trend is towards a more fundamentalist, and anti-rationalist, stance on most theological issues. In a world in which chief rabbis have to retract unacceptable ideas, he has managed to stand firm, not without cost to his own career. This book is a testament to his intellectual integrity and indeed to his lonely position in the spectrum of Orthodox writers.

    The topics the author has chosen are indeed much discussed: the role and status of women in Judaism, mysticism, divine revelation of Torah, messianism and pluralism. Drawing mainly on scholars who write about Judaism from an academic point of view such as Moshe Halbertal, Menachem Kellner, Tamara Ross, Marc Shapiro and Avi Sagi, he presents the wide range of opinions, both historical and current, to show that there never has been unanimity. Even if ideological purists across the spectrum like to delude themselves that Judaism can speak and has always spoken with one voice.

    The current schisms in Judaism cluster around reformers and traditionalists, with what is problematically called modern Orthodoxy finding itself caught in the middle. It is too Orthodox for Reform and not Orthodox enough for the Charedi world. And although I personally detest labels in an increasingly fluid Jewish religious world, they refuse to go away even in post-denominational Jewish life.

    So the crucial question is whether these differences are a matter of theology, or practice? Are they as Freud suggested "the narcissism of little differences" or rather a clash of cultures between "the considered life", subject to analysis and creative thought or the "simple faith" of those who see no value in examining certain issues and whose tools of debate are of another order? In which case no amount of historical analysis or critical thought will make any difference. Indeed, virtually all the creative thinking in Judaism today takes place in academia rather than the synagogue. None of the great yeshivot are interested in theology and take it as read that their students will not indulge in philosophy.

    Wherever you look in Orthodox life, one sees conflict. This ought to be healthy except that the favoured methods of debate are demonisation, humiliation and often violence. The "battles" between different Chasidic dynasties, the divide between nationalist Charedi and non-Zionist Charedi, between competing rabbinic heirs to Charedi institutions. This all points to a world in which power and authority count for more than the pursuit of intellectual truth.

    The thinking person is not going to accept dogma for the sake of conformity, but will usually remain silent in the company of someone with whom there is no common language. Similarly the man or woman of "simple faith" will just shut off any channel of discourse that challenges his or her hermetically sealed worldview. Those who happily fit into one or another closed community will have no issues. If they do, they will suppress them to conform. Those who find it oppressive to live in such a world will move on. Either to another Orthodox community or forgo its benefits and leave all together. Genuine, open debate is rarely possible.

    Increasingly, the Western world is predicated on personal choices and these are more often made on the basis of what we call comfort zones rather than Kantian moral choices. Thanks to the internet there are great websites that offer a wide range of sources and alternative perspectives. We no longer need to be bullied into submission unless we choose to. Many Orthodox people in Britain and elsewhere belong to communities despite disagreeing with their official positions, just as many Charedi Jews access the internet despite strictures against it.

    All religions are experiencing the magnetic attractions of poles. But at the same time the freedom of choice is liberating.

    I applaud the author for engaging with these topics. It is a shame he did not expand the book to deal with others such as what we mean by God, truth, belief, soul and life after death. These are the issues that, without clarification or agreement on terms and definitions, debate is simply not possible. Which attests to the fact that genuine theology in the Orthodox world nowadays is rarely the point, conformity is.

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