Book Review: Introducing My Faith and My Community, by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. Jewish Lights Publishing; 2004. 148 pages.
It can be thought provoking and joyful to ponder Jewish spirituality, but sometimes we may need a more practical, down-to-earth discussion of just what Judaism is all about. Why is what we do more important than what we believe? Why is it acceptable for a Jew to have questions about the existence of God? Are Jews a culture or a religion?
For all those questions and more, Introducing My Faith and My Community provides an honest, open discussion, peppered with anecdotes about real interfaith marriages that Rabbi Olitzky has personally witnessed. What is so rare and refreshing about this book is its utter lack of pretension and its open welcome to all.
From the outset, we know we're in for a very direct and frank discussion; the first page describes who should read the book. Rabbi Olitzky tells us that the book is not a how-to of Jewish rites and rituals, but rather a hands-on experience in which non-Jewish readers will gain important insights into the religious and cultural background of someone to whom they are very close, such as a spouse or son-in-law. With the help of Introducing My Faith and My Community, he tells us, interfaith families will be able to communicate "in a common language."
Rabbi Olitzky organizes his discussion around four major aspects of Jewish spirituality: religious beliefs, values, culture and community. For each area, he provides a discussion of the core precepts. For example, in discussing values, he chooses to focus on both those values that have grown out of historical experience and those which come directly from sacred writings. In one of the characteristically warm tones of the book, Rabbi Olitzky explains that the very premise of his book derives from a core Jewish value--that of welcoming the stranger.
Here, he sees himself as playing that role for his readers, welcoming them to a deeper understanding of Judaism. In this chapter, he discusses the importance of study and learning, of tzedakah (the Hebrew word for giving charitably), of doing good deeds, of family, and of the obligation to tikkun olam (to repair the wrongs of the world in which we live). As a Jew, I felt proud reading this and eager to offer it to my non-Jewish friends so that they might understand better the world in which I grew up and live.
For interfaith families, Introducing My Faith and My Community has an important role to fill. This is not an in-depth or textually-based discussion of Jewish philosophy at an advanced level. But what it provides is something just as important--an ability for the non-Jewish members to understand some of the most fundamental and difficult-to-describe aspects of Judaism.