By Rabbi Shmuel Waldman
Jerusalem, Revised Edition, 2004
Reviewed by Jack Abramowitz
“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” These words, placed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the mouth of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, sum up the essence of Rabbi Shmuel Waldman’s book, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Sometimes in life we have to make some serious choices. Do we believe in the big bang or in Bereishit? In evolution or in Elokeinu? In Yeshu or in Yiddishkeit? If these options were objectively evaluated, our choices might not end up being those of the popular majority. The apparent “truths” of our society might be eliminated, leaving the emet of Torah.
But if the existence of a Creator and the truth of Torah are so easily proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or even by a preponderance of evidence, why isn’t everybody an observant Jew? To answer this, let us quote—this time, the father of modern horror—Howard Philips Lovecraft: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” In other words, people can turn a blind eye to truths that would seriously inconvenience them. And let’s face it, acknowledging that there’s a God, that He created the world, and that He gave the Torah requires some serious lifestyle modification.
Serious consideration of God and Torah (with the possibility of the attendant lifestyle modification) is hopefully what will occur upon reading this book. Rabbi Waldman has compiled information on a broad spectrum of topics, all focused on a single goal: proving the truths of Judaism. What readers will do once they have this information is up to them. (See chapter 7; it’s all about free will.)
The first two chapters, “Compelling Evidence of a Creator” and “The Divine Origin of the Torah,” tread areas previously visited by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen in Permission to Believe (Jerusalem, 1990) and Permission to Receive (Jerusalem, 1994), respectively. While this inevitably invites comparison, Rabbi Kelemen’s books are fundamentally different than the one currently under review. Each author employs a distinct approach and a singular writing style. Each one also includes unique information, so that the works complement one another, rather than compete.
Rabbi Waldman’s style is casual and chatty, which makes the subject matter approachable. But he occasionally takes it a little too far, undermining the seriousness of the scholarship. For example, while speaking of navigation vis-à-vis bird migration, Waldman makes “cutesy” comments such as: “… to me there’s the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and there’s a plate and there’s a spoon …” and “I’m not even sure what polarized light is….” These self-deprecating remarks are intended to be light-hearted, but they fail. Given the amount of research Waldman has done for the book, he clearly does know what polarized light is, as well as what the Big and Little Dippers are. Mercifully, such cuteness is confined to this topic.
Some of the subsequent chapters, such as “The Seven Wonders of Jewish History,” directly address the “reasonable doubt” of the title. Others, such as “Understanding God’s Foreknowledge and Our Free Will” and “Some More Understanding of the Holocaust and Human Suffering,” tackle pressing questions of Jewish philosophy, rather than the rightness of God and Torah.
The preceding paragraph may have just sent owners of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt searching through their volumes, confused at their inability to find the latter two chapters. This is because there are two editions of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. The original, 267-page hardcover edition (published in 2002) is aimed at those already possessing a Jewish education. The newer edition, a slightly smaller-in-size soft-cover of 313 pages, is clearly labeled, “Special General Readership Edition.” “General Readership” means no previous Jewish education is required.
The differences between the two editions are not huge. Much of them are semantic in nature. For example, chapter two’s “Shimon” is “Dave” in the general readership edition, “the Mashiach” is “the Messiah,” “Devarim” is “Deuteronomy,” et cetera. The author expresses some trepidation in the introduction to the revised edition. He fears that some of his comments may be “a little premature” for new readers since they must read the book “before being able to make any serious decisions regarding [their] spiritual li[ves].” For the most part, his fears are unfounded. Perhaps the only place where he jumps the gun is in the chapter “The World to Come—Eternal Existence” where he takes it for granted that the reader agrees that sending one’s children to yeshivah is a necessary lifestyle choice. This may be a reasonable assumption in the version intended for moderately knowledgeable, observant Jews who may have questions. In a volume for newcomers, it may be too much, too soon. Beyond that single presumption, nothing in the text asks more from the reader than an open mind.
As of this writing, the general readership edition is (ironically) not yet available to the public. It is currently only available to Jewish outreach organizations for their constituents. (I recently ordered over 800 for the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth [NCSY].) I am told that the book will be more accessible soon. Already observant Jews should not balk at picking up the general readership edition. While the language is Anglicized, the ideas are not watered down, and the supplemental material will benefit readers from all educational backgrounds.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a welcome addition to the Jewish outreach library. Despite a few picked nits, it is an overwhelmingly useful book to have. With its broad array of topics and approachable style, it provides a perfect entry-point for many beginners. Either edition is capable of providing new information, an important refresher course or necessary chizuk to the already initiated.
Rabbi Abramowitz is director of national programs for NCSY. He is the author of NCSY’s Torah on One Foot series and the editor of Keeping Posted magazine.