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Judaism: One Religion with Many Flavors

Review of Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn; 2004. 201 pages.

As we try to explain to our children and our families what it means to be a Jew, what can get lost is that there are many ways to be a Jew. Rabbi Cukierkorn addresses that aspect of Judaism in his new book, Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide. Of all the books I've read for an interfaith family about Judaism, this is the only book that distinguishes between the beliefs of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism. That alone makes it a valuable addition to your library.

But Rabbi Cukierkorn also tackles some difficult issues. He believes that "Judaism is depleting itself by not providing the answers the majority of Jews are looking for... many Jews who remain faithful hang on to a defensive idea of Judaism that in its most excessive form is portrayed by the excluding, radical Ultra-Orthodox groups who look with suspicion on anything they can't call their own. Their view is defying the Jewish tradition of dialogue, search for consensus, variety and debate, the very hallmarks that have helped Judaism survive against the odds."

Rabbi Cukierkorn has an ambitious goal--to provide nothing less than the open door he believes that Judaism is failing to provide to many Jews and interfaith families. He wants to describe who we are and how we differ among ourselves. With such a broad mandate, it's inevitable that some of his explanations might be considered overly simplified. The readable charts he includes that attempt to define the differences between branches of Judaism on such critical questions as God, Torah, and interfaith marriage can, by definition, only touch the surface of these issues.

But the limits on what Rabbi Cukierkorn can accomplish in 207 short pages don't render his guide meaningless. As an adjunct to other, deeper explorations of our faith, Accessible Judaism offers a unique opportunity to understand at least some of the differences that make Orthodoxy, for example, so different from the Reform movement. Here's Rabbi Cukierkorn's take on interfaith marriage, as shown in his chart format:

   Orthodox  Conservative  Reform  Reconstructionist
Interfaith Marriage  Prohibited  Prohibited Normally opposed; There are some Rabbis who will officiate; mixed couples welcomed at synagogues. Rabbis participate if the couple participates in the community; some only require that the couple keep a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews; are welcomed at synagogues.

 

Other chapters of Accessible Judaism are similarly ambitious and, perhaps as a result, read as hurried explanations of important topics, including the history of Judaism, Jewish beliefs and values, the Jewish holidays and calendar, and issues in conversion. While each of these sections is highly readable, enhanced by sidebars in bold lettering that sum up the main thought, it's arguable that you cannot do justice to such large topics in such brief chapters. For example, Rabbi Cukierdorn tackles the entire history of the Jewish people in 37 pages. Here, his sidebars can be so general as to be meaningless, as for example this one: "Throughout the ages, Judaism has always embraced change (really?) and thus has safeguarded its core, even when changes were forced by spiritual, philosophical or theological revolutions." (emphasis added).

At times, Accessible Judaism would have benefited from an editor's touch with regard to occasional grammatical and typesetting errors. Yet for those curious about the differences within Judaism; for those seeking concise, if simplified, explanations of the fundamentals of Judaism; and for families who would appreciate Rabbi Cukierkorn's straightforward discussion of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, Accessible Judaism is unique in its approach.

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.

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