Conversations on Being Jewish in Today’s World

This book is the product of a life-long crystallization of what it means to be a Jew and how to transmit that awareness to others. 

By Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Shaar Press, 1994

302 pages

Reviewed by Sara E. Freifeld, Ph.D.

“Is that all there is?” is the question at the core of a spiritual search of a young American Jew in Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s new book, On Judaism.  The book is a dialogue between the young attorney, David, and the rabbi who will be his mentor. David is a typical product of contemporary American Jewry; he is in a “rut,” needs to explore the meaning of his life and the emptiness that he feels.  Using dialogue for the exposition of his ideas, Rabbi Feldman has written  an exciting and penetrating book.  David, as a modern Jew in search of religious answers, asks difficult and complex questions.  I can think of no better teacher and exponent of Torah for the modern secular Jew than Rabbi Feldman, whose rabbinic experience and Torah wisdom are evident throughout the book.  Indeed, his presentation of ideas and the excitement of the debate makes this book an unexpected page-turner.

Rabbi Feldman’s work in the Atlanta Jewish community, which he helped build over his 35-year tenure, undoubtedly exposed him to many Davids.  He knows what their major concerns are and he has fine-tuned his responses.  Every religious Jew has met someone who is bright, hungry for a deeper life and who is lost in the secular American world.  The problem with such an encounter is that usually the religious Jew is not a kiruv expert and lacks articulate and well thought out responses.  On Judaism is a must for anyone who comes into contact with these searching, non-observant Jews.  The book is a primer from which we can model a dialogue with fellow Jews in language that is true to Torah and that bridges the secular with the religious orientation. It is a book that we can offer with pride to a secular Jew.  Indeed, this book can serve as a text from which to form a learning partnership with such a Jew.

On Judaism is divided into twelve sections, addressing the basic themes of Teshuvah, God, Prayer, Torah, Holiness, Mitzvah, Shabbat, Yom Tov, Kashruth, Interpersonal Relationships, Jews and Non-Jews and Learning.  Each chapter explores the problems faced by a secular Jew and presents a Torah perspective.  Rabbi Feldman always expresses himself with passion and eloquence.  The book is a mirror of his own deep soul and a revelation of how he enters a dialogue with his Creator.  It is a pleasure to spend time with a man of such great faith.  He is a master teacher and rebbe.  Here, for example, is his definition of teshuvah:

When you really get down to it, teshuvah today is a kind of death and rebirth: a demise of the past and a birth of a new life and a new creature.  There is a severing with the previous “me” and the creation of a new “me” who has a new awareness, a new sensitivity, new ambitions and dreams and longings.  Somehow, the connections to the new life become very powerful, and at the end of the trail, the rewards are enormous: a sense of having returned home and of being part of our majestic tradition, a sense of the grandeur and beauty and warmth of it all, the awareness of God’s presence in one’s daily life, the feeling of meaning and purpose that permeates one’s self.  Life becomes coherent and whole again. (p.30)

The religious reader of Rabbi Feldman’s book cannot help but compare his or her own faith to that of the author.  Thus, in reading him each of us, too, becomes his student, another David seeking for the expression of our spiritual experience.  He puts into words the life we live.  He inspires us to think deeper, to take a step further into the holiness that he so beautifully describes.  From him, a reader can learn how a Jew feels, thinks and approaches His Creator.  There is a mystic awe to the religious life that he presents.  Such personal revelation is not usual in English-language books.  We are generally offered tame, colorless portraits of religious experience.  Few speak so openly of the surrender of the self before the Creator, or of the need for submission and dependence that we must experience in order to accept ol malchut shamayim, “the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This book is the product of a life-long crystallization of what it means to be a Jew and how to transmit that awareness to others. 

Rabbi Feldman writes of how to pray, of how to open oneself to God’s presence, even what words to say.  He has the courage to reveal and model for us the life of kedushah [holiness]. To be a great teacher, one must be willing to bare one’s soul, to have one’s students get a glimpse of one’s inner life. One must let the beginners hear us speak, so that they take courage to open their own souls.  So he shows us how to begin the dialogue with the Divine:

I am here, God, I am open to You, I await Your subtle, hidden, unfelt but profound influence on how I live my day.  Affect me, touch me, allow me to make the decisions that are right  and best for me, for my loved ones, for my community, for the world, for the Jewish people, for You. (p. 85)

In another beautiful passage, Rabbi Feldman allows us to share his awe at the wonder and beauty of creation, as we view the world through his eyes.  Here, again, he teaches by example.  The reader is prompted to think “I, too, should see the world with such reverence and ecstasy.”

Take a fresh look at the vastness of the universe and all that it contains, its regularity and its creativity and its reproductive capacities; the panoply of living creatures, from man down to the tiniest flea; the exquisite beauty and dazzling singularity of a snow flake; the life-giving rains; the whiteness of clouds on a summer day, and the blackness of clouds before a storm, our human intelligence, our ability to create and imagine and think and build…(p. 37)

Rabbi Feldman’s ability to translate and extrapolate from the everyday to the spiritual is one of the most effective and intriguing aspects of the book.  He likens, for example, the cessation of work on the Shabbat and the rupture with everyday reality to that which is necessary for a surgeon or an athlete as he enters the operating room or the playing field.  In both cases, the focus of attention is shifted, everything else ceases to exist. The parameters of the sacred are delineated with similar precision and detail.  He explains that the “turn of the key” in the lock of one’s office or business on Friday afternoon is not a prosaic act, but a statement of “noble and majestic faith” that affects not only the person and his family, but the community.  He bridges the sacred and the profane by comparing the spiritual sanctuary that is built on Shabbat to the blank spaces in a painting and to the stops and pauses in music, in speech and in writing.

In speaking of the chosenness of the Jewish people, Rabbi Feldman is neither apologetic nor falsely humble.  With pride, he asserts his belief that the Jews are, indeed, a chosen people due to our superior spiritual talents.  Talent is a reality and the awareness of those abilities is part of reality:  The Jewish genius lies in its appreciation and yearning for God, its stubborn tenacity in maintaining that yearning and contact, its perception that religion and God-consciousness are not merely one compartment of life, but are in fact the summation and totality of all of life, and its willingness to give up everything in order to remain the instrument of God and spread that teaching and that sanctity to the rest of mankind.  (p.269)

This book is the product of a life-long crystallization of what it means to be a Jew and how to transmit that awareness to others.  It opens the door to the experience of Torah and holiness and it does so through the teachings of a great mentor.  One would hope that Rabbi Feldman would write a second volume.  There are issues that have remained untouched in this comprehensive work of spirituality and commitment.  One would like to hear Rabbi Feldman’s wise words on topics such as the family, the home, marriage, children, education, Israel and the Holocaust.  We look forward to many more contributions by Rabbi Feldman to the dialogue between the spiritually initiated and those embarking upon their spiritual adventure.

Dr. Freifeld is Dean of the Women’s Division of Touro College.  Her article “Pirkei Avos: How Does It Guide Us Towards Growth?” appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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