The Jewish God Question is a lovely uncomplicated look at Jewish philosophy over thousands of years. The author, academic Andrew Pessin, has created a treat for anyone who takes seriously not only the Jewish past, but the Jewish future. Philosophers do say that to understand where you are headed you need to understand your history, so this book provides an interesting and quite entertaining roadmap.
Pessin takes 72 of the best know Jewish philosophers from the last 1500 years and breaks them down into manageable portions. Mostly of course, it is an interesting view of God, the Universe, and everything (interesting questions, but quite a different number in the end).
Now why 72 you ask? There has to be many more opinions and philosophers of note than 72, we are after all talking about Jews here, and as Pessin does not shy away from the old mantra, that with two Jews you end up with three opinions, so again, why only 72? It is a significant number, because according to Kabbalah there are 72 names of God and since we are talking about Hashem, it is quite an appropriate number of perspectives with which to begin.
This book starts at the beginning, no not at Genesis , or even with Avraham Aveinu (even though it is argued at the end that this is where the story should have begun), but with a look at the larger world in which the Jewish nation was thrust after the destruction of Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple. The obliteration of the school of Shamai in favor of the school of Hillel. A dispersal into a world that made little sense to the average Jew, who was obligated with the task “our People must survive.”
The reader is treated to an interesting waltz through history, for each philosopher, be they the Rambam, or Martin Buber, are children of their time periods. How they view the world around them, and how their Judaism fits into that world, are serious threads throughout their writings. It is less about who they were, then when they were. But in their writings you do learn to understand the man, and later some women as well.
Honestly, it is a fascinating study of Jewish history. As you read the philosophies of each of the chosen 72 you learn a little bit more about the leaps that the Jewish people took when faced with some of the worst catastrophes in history. Trying to understand, or rationalize, the irrational is not exactly an easy perspective. What I found rather illustrative of the need for the Jewish people to process the world in which they lived, is the combination and inclusion of the ancient greek philosophers like Plato into the discussions about Judaism. Now why is that interesting? Simply because the Jewish people had fought wars in order to avoid these Greek teachings. In fact, these wars are what led to the diaspora in the first place. Perhaps that is why so many in his time period rejected the Rambam’s writings.
Then there are also the most hopeful writings found by those who lived through the enlightenment, and the abundant joy that a new perspective of the greater society held. Here again is the inclusion, acceptance and respect given the enlightenment (nonJewish) philosophers, most of whom were openly antisemitic. These men, with very little respect for Judaism or the Jewish People, were seen as bringing new possibilities into Europe. How to combine this new age with the thousand year old philosophies of Judaism was the challenge for the modern Jewish thinker.
In the meantime, this age that brought all kinds of opportunities, and in the alternative, pressures to bear on the Jewish community. All these Jewish enlightenment philosophers, from Spinoza to Mendelssohn, bring an affluent, questioning and markedly different approach to Judaism than had ever been thought of before. And while you read and assimilate their yearnings, it is also important to remember, that the eventual reality for most of these enlightenment Jewish scholars, is that within three generations their progeny were no longer Jews.
Of course, for the enlightenment scholar, the respect that they tried so hard to engender for the Jewish people within the newly emancipated European world was harshly destroyed by the reality of the Dreyfus Affair, the Kishinev pogroms, and ultimately, the Holocaust. Nineteenth century scholarship overlaps the end of the enlightenment and the beginning of the modern and post modern eras. It the beginning of the realization that the Jewish people, as a People, are separate and distinct nation, and entitled to the rights afforded every other nation on Earth. In other words, we now have the beginnings of modern political Zionism. Many would consider this distinct from the yearnings and prayer for a return to Zion that goes back to the Babylonian exile. Yet Zion was always there within the heart and soul of every philosopher discussed in this book.
And once again, there is the the confluence of history, which has a direct effect upon the religion, and the practical, bringing into play, religious, political, nationalistic and assimilationist realities. There is the discussion of how Judaism as, and is, a religion changed. How the concepts of God himself, or herself, or itself, is nothing more than an anachronisms full of outdated idea, or something to which we hold dear even when he/she/it failed us the most. There is the challenge of our present society replete with new ideas, such as feminism, reform or conservative branches of Judaism, that challenge the very notion of the absoluteness of the laws given at Sinai.
There is the searing painful questions asked after the Holocaust of who, or what, is God? There is even the question of Why is God? Which is a fair question, in my humble opinion, because actually, where was God?
It’s the heart wrenching question as to why were the Jewish People abandoned in their most dire hour?
But then we look at the State of Israel. If the jewish People were not beloved of God, how could the Jews have survived as the People of Israel, the religion of Israel, or the nation of Israel throughout these millenia?
In short this book is an attempt by Jewish scholars to answer the basic questions asked above. Of course, there is never only one right answer, no matter how much we search for simplicity.
This book is an attempt to understand, perhaps what humans have no true capacity to understand. The Jewish God Question is no different really than a general “God Question.” The concept and purpose of God has always been a challenge., and yes it began with the revelations at Sinai.
But sadly, in the end, trying to figure out the answer to the God question, a challenge every religion has tried to answer throughout history, is what has led humanity to destroy what God would have considered his most holy of works, the beauty that is the planet Earth and along the way, Hashem’s beloved children.
This book is available November 15, 2018.