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Part One of a Four-Part Series Reviewing Books about Judaism for Christians: Explaining Jewish Spirituality to Christians

Book Review: Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. Jewish Lights Publishing; 2001. 103 pages.

I have only one complaint about Rabbi Kushner's thought-provoking, lyrical book about Judaism... it's not just for Christians, as the title implies! Many of us who attended religious school some years ago have forgotten... or never knew... some of the wise, wonderful things about our religion that Rabbi Kushner shares. For example, did you know that the essence of Jewish spirituality is to teach us to open our eyes to the wonders of our everyday lives? I love the way Rabbi Kushner characterizes prayer as a reminder to "pay attention" to those wonders.

Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians is a slim book, yet it manages to contain in its four sections many of the key beliefs of Judaism. Sections labeled Creation, Torah (the five books which together "are the source book of Judaism"), Commandments and God are further subdivided into intriguing subtitles such as Opening Your Eyes and Repairing the World. What is especially miraculous is that in just 103 short pages, Rabbi Kushner conveys a sense of the interconnectedness of all of these aspects of Judaism, through anecdotes, Hasidic tales, Talmudic stories, analogies and explanations.

When Kushner tells us,

Because we each hear the words of Torah in a unique way, Jews routinely argue about their meaning. Such arguments should not be misconstrued as fighting. When Jews disagree or argue about the meaning of Torah, they are actually helping one another to become better Jews.

We can all rejoice at such a clear explanation of our tradition of argument and debate.

In the section subtitled "Repairing the World," Kushner introduces a philosophy that has inspired many modern environmental organizations. As Kushner lucidly explains,

During the Sixteenth Century, in the Galilean village of Tsefat, Rabbi Issac Luria observed that in his world, like ours, many things seemed to be wrong. People suffered from hunger, disease, hatred and war. "How could God allow such terrible things to happen?" wondered Luria. "Perhaps," he suggested, "it is because God needs our help." We can allow things to remain broken or, as Luria urged, we can try to repair the mess. Luria's Hebrew phrase for "repairing the world" is tikkun olam.

Kushner goes on to characterize Jewish spirituality as "eminently practical, even behaviorist:  When you see something that is broken, fix it."

The most difficult thing to describe is, of course, the Jewish view of God. Even here, Kushner provides a thought-provoking description,

One insight of Jewish spirituality is this: The reason we find talking about God so difficult is that we are part of what we are trying to understand. We cannot separate ourselves completely from God, and therefore we can never comprehend the totality. It would be like trying to look at our own eyes without a mirror.

For interfaith families, Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians has an important role to fill. This is not a how-to-be-Jewish guide, except in the broadest philosophical sense. But what it provides is something just as important, especially for those choosing to follow Judaism--an understanding of the fundamental underpinnings for all of the things we do as Jews. It's a "must-have" to help all the members of the immediate and extended family understand Judaism.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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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