Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant

By Dean-Otting, Miriam | Shofar, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant


Dean-Otting, Miriam, Shofar


Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant, edited by Edward Feinstein. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing 2007. 166 pp. $24.99.

Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant is a collection of lectures and conversations that took place over four days in March 2005 in celebration of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis's eightieth birthday. As founder of several innovative synagogue movements that have been influential throughout America and, most recently, creator of Jewish World Watch, an organization that has formulated a Jewish response to the genocide in the Sudan, Rabbi Schulweis has been a central figure in 20th and 21st century Judaism. In this book four prominent Jewish leaders, Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg Rabbi Harold Kushner, and Rabbi David Hartman, together with the honorée, gently debate issues of central concern to the contemporary Jewish community. These rabbis make compelling arguments for the necessary and even healthy diversity of ways to be a Jew in the twenty-first century, all the while pointing toward what is shared over time and across denominations. The reader of this book will feel like the proverbial "fly on the wall" and will be rewarded by some wonderful insights that shed light on how pivotal moments in twentieth-century Jewish experience will continue to inform the direction of Jewish life and thought into the twenty-first.

Because of their prominent positions as Jewish leaders, and, often, common experience, these men know each other personally, and they can readily refer to each other's key ideas. This makes for easy and informed dialogue among them that gives the collection a personal tone. There is a predictable overlap in their upbringing education, and career paths that also lends a friendly ambience to their conversations. Representing three branches of Judaism, all have been pulpit rabbis and thus bring congregational experience to this collection. In addition, all have higher degrees beyond rabbinic ordination, including Ph.D.s from secular institutions, and throughout their careers they have had regular intersection with other religious communities and secular Jews. The result of their coming together is a warm and deferential series of conversations in the context of celebrating the life and work of Rabbi Harold Schulweis.

Part I of Jews and Judaism in the 21" Century is an edited collection of lectures given by each participant on the topic of "How Have You Changed? How Have We Changed?" The book opens with Rabbi Schulweis's address, "Globalism and the Jewish Conscience." Citing an array of Jewish texts, and drawing frequently from Abraham Joshua Heschel, he makes the case that Judaism is from its origins a global religion, concluding that Jews are called upon to sanctify the universe through responsible action toward all humans in partnership with God. Rabbi Ellenson echoes this theme in "Building a World in Which God Would Be Happy to Live," posing two questions he deems inextricably related and, thus, central for contemporary Jews: "How do we treat our own people, and how do we treat others?" (p. 37). In "From Destruction to Redemption," Rabbi Greenberg chooses to focus on two central events of the twentieth century, the Shoah and establishment of the State of Israel. (Indeed, both events are frequently present throughout the book.) In "Covenant of Love" Rabbi Hartman links three eras, biblical, rabbinic and the foundation of Israel, stating that each era represents "three aspects of the covenant" in which "God is the energizing principle for a deep moral and social activism within the community "(p. …

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