Life & Culture

Questioning Belief, by Raphael Zarum – review: An essential resource that helps integrate Judaism with modernity

A consummate communicator, Zarum tackles medieval thinkers with a light touch


Rabbinical scholars: Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Louis Jacobs, Joseph Hertz and David Nieto. Far left: Rabbi Dr Zarum’s book

In his book Mateh Dan published in 1714, Rabbi David Nieto of Bevis Marks Synagogue incorporated science to explain Jewish belief. He was the first in a line of prominent British rabbinic scholars, which would include Hertz, Jacobs and Sacks, who have demonstrated that there is no rupture between Judaism and the modern world. Raphael Zarum, the Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, formerly Jews’ College, is now stepping into that line.

Questioning Belief is not a work of apologetics. It does not try to persuade its readers that Judaism was right all along. Rather it responds to the “deep and difficult questions” that Zarum hears as a lecturer and rabbi, questions that come from “an honest desire to better appreciate our religious tradition”. It does so in a personal way: we get the sense throughout that it is the author who is the questioner.

He offers responses rather than answers. There is a difference. Answers are rigid, they fossilise, their relevance changes with the circumstances. The answers to questions raised by the creation chapters in Genesis are not the same today as 200 years ago. Responses remain open, they encourage further discussion, new ways of thinking.

The 12 chapters of the book are divided into three sections, on origins, ethics and belief. Each section contains four chapters, one question per chapter, all structured similarly; the question is explored in depth before responses are offered. There is a biblical symmetry to the book that passes without remark. All that is lacking are paragraphs of 70 words apiece.

The section on origins was probably the easiest to deal with, for alongside his depth of Jewish learning Zarum has a doctorate in theoretical physics. He harnesses evolution, archaeology, astronomy, genetics and more to respond to questions about creation, evolution, the Flood and the Exodus. This sounds heavy but it is not at all. He is a consummate communicator, and tackles medieval thinkers with the same light touch as when he explains why, as a child, he became disillusioned with Superman.

Questions about ethics are more challenging. The Torah’s approval of slavery jars with modern sensibilities. Zarum follows Maimonides in showing that the Torah aims to regulate practices that were widespread throughout the ancient world, pointing out that the overall thrust is to oblige slave owners to exercise compassion. He quotes Sacks that the legislation is part of a process to make people realise that slavery is wrong. But these days we know slavery is wrong; why do we need to read regulations designed to apply in antiquity?

However, and this is the genius of Questioning Belief, we are reading responses, not answers. They lead us down new avenues – to consider for example the evils of modern slavery and to recognise the role we can play in its eradication. The first question he tackles in the belief section is not, as one might imagine: "Is there a God?” It is: “What does it mean to believe in God?” It is a more profound question, focusing on the nature of belief rather than personal conviction. In a sense the framing of this question epitomises the value of the book as a guide for people struggling with serious questions, those not fortunate enough to have experienced an epiphany, or who do not accept everything they are told.

It would have been useful to have had a bibliography or guide for further reading, and an index too. But we can’t have everything. Questioning Belief is an essential book for those on the quest to integrate Judaism with modernity. The quest that links Raphael Zarum with his scholarly British, rabbinic predecessors.

Questioning Belief  by Raphael Zarum, £22.99, Koren Publishers/The Toby Press 

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