There is an explanation for everything.If there really was an Exodus from Egypt, why don’t we possess any archaeological evidence of this event, in the form of garments or vessels buried in the sands of Sinai?That’s easy. God said to the Israelites: “Your clothing did not wear out… these 40 years” (Ex. 8:4) and “I will rain down food from the sky for you” (Ex. 16: 4). Our ancestors trekking to the Promised Land never discarded their vestments or cooked a single meal! Ergo: no pants or pottery for the archaeologists to dig up.How about that annoying little chronological discrepancy between the 14 billion years it took the universe to emerge according to science and the six days of Creation depicted by the Bible?Come, now: the expansion of the cosmos from the infinitesimal mass-energy point following the Big Bang occurred at lightning speed, and Einstein proved that at such velocities time slows down. Billions of years shrank to exactly six days!I never met a “rational” defense of the truth or value of Judaism that didn’t make me want to laugh like a hyena or take a second look at lunch. I did meet a fellow once who had been raised a strict Maimonidean. He believed that every bit of the theology purveyed, and ordinances prescribed, by the Torah made logical sense. He got into Harvard Medical School, opened up his first cadaver, doffed his yarmulke and left the fold.The writer of these lines, on the other hand, was taught by his parents to love the Jews with a passion as his family. No matter how much nonsense I may descry in aspects of Judeo-classical literature or quotidian Jewish praxis, I’m staying put.
But it can’t all come down to the heart, if for no other reason than that ahavat Yisrael, that visceral affection for, and devotion to, the Jewish people that was imbibed cum lacte by so many previous generations, is no longer a given for millions of Jews in the Diaspora and even in Israel. The Archimedean fulcrum upon which to leverage the continued and – God willing – enhanced loyalty of those segments of our nation that are fast falling away must involve a powerful appeal to the head: a painstaking, empirical, cost-benefit analysis of why identifying and acting as a committed Jew is the most sensible choice for modern members of our tribe.FINALLY, SOMEONE has taken up the gauntlet, and without making me want to snigger or regurgitate. In Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, computer science professor Moshe Koppel does not insult our intelligence; he challenges it, and on a level that requires a cerebrum functioning at maximum capacity. Employing (like a good Jew) complex business models, as well as game theory, futurism studies and a host of other disciplines, Koppel undertakes to demonstrate to the thinking person that he/she has it all wrong. In the book’s introduction he writes:“Between Heidi of Princeton [representing the secular, liberal, cosmopolitan Jew] and Shimen of the Polish shtetl [representing the traditional, observant, insulated Jew], one is narrow and Orthodox and the other is worldly and realistic. I will argue… that most people are confused about which one is which…. Then I’ll explain why every long-lived society that we know about is more like Shimen’s than like Heidi’s.”As theses go, this is one of the more counterintuitive, not to say quixotic. Koppel is asserting that Jewish custom and communalism constitute a more effective and sustainable mode of living than that practiced by today’s unfettered and unaffiliated children of utilitarianism. He pits old-time religion against the purportedly inexorable juggernaut of modern “scientific” existence, the Yiddishkeit of yore against the creeping nihilism, pulverizing individualism and entropic universalism of the contemporary West.Koppel’s eggheaded pugilism is a delight: think Platonic dialogue meets advanced Gemara class meets The Moscow Puzzles – all rendered accessible. The author’s prose is crisp and confident, and laced with subtle and not-so-subtle humor (don’t trust any guy who can go two hundred and fifty pages without cracking a joke). His characters – because, for all its scientific method, this is a book about people – are colorfully drawn and easy to identify with. His insights into the underlying mega-trends transforming contemporary human (not just Jewish) society are not only fascinating; they have the added advantage of being dead-on.Perhaps the book’s only drawback is an occupational hazard. Koppel is a scientist, and his guarded optimism about the trajectory of Judaism in Israel (as opposed to America) gives off a slight whiff of Marxian determinism: things are moving in the direction of an organic, synthetic, national-religious culture that will know how to maintain its vitality and independence while interacting positively with the wider world. From where I’m sitting (in Hod Hasharon – Koppel lives in Efrat) we’re going to need a little more Lenin with our Marx. Those of us who share Koppel’s dream of a strong, cross-denominational, nondoctrinaire and unselfconscious Judaism still have an uphill battle to fight. Judaism Straight Up is the blueprint for where we should be headed. The writer is a professor of Arabic literature and Islamic history and the author of John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage.
JUDAISM STRAIGHT UP WHY REAL RELIGION ENDURES
By Moshe Koppel
161 pages; $24.95