Sunday, August 19, 2012

No Debating It

Back in June, in a post entitled Some More Reading List, I mentioned that one of the books I intended to read this summer was Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, noting that it "is an absolute must for anyone interested in moral theology or a dialogical approach to religious experience, and it is near the top of my stack of books."

And while I don't plan on providing book reports for all of my summer reading, I did want to post specifically about this book, in part because it has been a great pleasure and honor to get to know the author personally over the past year.  As I explained in another previous post, Presiding for the Congregation, this summer I also took on the role of president of our small temple, Congregation Adas Emuno, located in Leonia, New Jersey, the part of Bergen County just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.  And the previous summer, Barry Schwartz took on the role our congregation's rabbi, while continuing as director of the Jewish Publication Society, one of the oldest if not the oldest Jewish publishers in the United States.

So, I wrote a review of the book over on Amazon that you can find on the book's page, and here's a nice link to it for your convenience:

But I think you might have guessed that I'd also share what I wrote over there right here with you, or else, what's a blogger for?  And you were right, so here goes:

No Debating the Value of this Book

Rabbi Schwartz's latest book, Judaism's Great Debates, is a well-written and accessible guide to some of the major disputes in Jewish history, and as such, serves as a great introduction to this essential element within the world's oldest monotheistic tradition.

The book presents us with 10 debates in all, stretching all the way from Abraham's argument with God to spare the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the differing views on Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise at the turn of the 20th century. Each debate is presented in a concise form, with emphasis on the dialogue, whether real or virtual, between the disputants. And most importantly, each debate is presented with an eye towards the continuing relevance of the issues under consideration for contemporary life. The debates are a part of a living tradition, and are in their own way reflective of the contradictions inherent in the human condition.

Each of the 10 debates is thought-provoking, and provides an excellent opportunity for discussion and self-examination.  But I do have my favorites.  The 3rd debate, between Moses and the daughters of Zelophehad is remarkable for its relation to women's rights, the fact that it implies flexibility in regard to Mosaic Law, and its connection to the question of intermarriage.  Chapter 4's debate between King David and the prophet Nathan is a sobering case of the abuse of authority and the need to speak truth to power, and the essential ideal that no one is above the law.  The debate between Hillel and Shammai in Chapter 6 is a classic in Jewish tradition, encapsulating the conflict over lenient and strict interpretations of the Law, between liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist.  Chapter 7's dispute between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov similarly speaks to the conflict between head and heart, between intellect and emotion, between study and prayer, and offers two sides of Judaism that are each in their own ways worthy of celebration.  The debate between Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis in Chapter 8 regards in unblinking manner a dark moment in Jewish history, where one of the greatest of modern philosophers, and one of the founders of the Enlightenment movement, was excommunicated for his views--this chapter alone is worth the price of the book!

Barry Schwartz explains that he took part in tournament debate as a high school student, and his love of the form is present throughout the volume.  Despite the sometimes tragic consequences of the conflicts that took place, Rabbi Schwartz makes it clear that "debate is more than a valued intellectual exercise in Judaism.  In echoing the divine process of creation, it is a holy act."  His introduction and overview of the tradition of "arguing for the sake of heaven" would serve as an excellent text for religious studies courses, adult education, and is an absolute must for anyone interested in moral theology or a dialogical approach to religious experience.

I should add that, as a communication scholar, I was quite pleased to discover that this book is informed by a real appreciation of the art of debating, a practice that is covered by my field, along with public speaking and oral interpretation.  And in this political season when what passes for debate is a form of speech that can only be labeled debased, this book serves as a valuable reminder of the potential of debate to uplift, enlighten, and inspire.

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