A Revolutionary Vision

May 1, 2012
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A Revolutionary Vision

Reviewed by Joel A. Alter

The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths That Changed the World by Rabbi Reuven Hammer
(Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vt., 2011, $24.99, 219 pp.)

Reuven Hammer’s The Torah Revolution is compact and useful. In keeping with his training as a Conservative rabbi and scholar, Hammer examines ideas in the Torah in their contemporary context. He draws on biblical scholarship to demonstrate how Israelite religion broke dramatically with the world around it in its theology, conception of humanity, social structure, economic order, and religious life. For example, whereas the gods of the pagan world were subject to fate and physical needs, the God of Israel was beyond nature, physicality, and need. Similarly, while patriarchy was a given in the ancient world, the Torah dramatically improved women’s standing relative to that of women in surrounding societies. The comparative material helps one understand that the Israelites and their Torah were very much of their world while also diverging from it and advancing beyond it.

It is this matter of advancing beyond the beliefs and values of the ancient Near East that drives Hammer’s book past the biblical period through Jewish tradition and into today’s context. In his introduction, Hammer says that the fourteen truths he discusses “paint a picture of the world… that is surprisingly modern and relevant.” (p. 6) In this respect, Hammer’s work doesn’t read like scholarship at all (which is not its intent). Rather, The Torah Revolution is a Jewish argument for the Torah as the seed of a moral and ethical vision of God and God’s world. It is a peirush — a selective interpretation. It uses scholarship to promote quiet admiration for the text’s profound impact. Hammer demonstrates, albeit modestly given the limited scope of this book, that the Torah is the foundation of a humanistic social vision and a morally and spiritually enlightened religious tradition.

The book is organized into three sections: Divinity, Humanity, and Society. Each section briefly explicates several core ideas, or truths, that are identified as revolutionary. The broad groupings help the reader grasp how the theological insights with which the book begins point to the social implications that are Hammer’s primary interest. Truth number two in the “Divinity” section, for example, is “No Divine Power of Evil Exists.” Here, Hammer observes that the Torah offers no comprehensively good explanations for the varieties of evil in the world. Where chance, our own capacity for evil, and God’s combination of justice and inscrutability are the explanations available, we still have a problem reconciling God’s presence with our experience of evil. Like the chapter before it (“God Is Unique”), this chapter becomes an argument for a rational faith that cannot have all the answers. Another example: In the “Humanity” section, Hammer explores the Torah’s truth that “Men and Women Are Equal,” and in the “Society” section, he discusses why “Slavery Must Be Mitigated.”

Hammer’s treatment of the latter two truths raises one of the complicating aspects of this book. Both chapters demonstrate how the Torah’s vision of equality was more comprehensive than that of other societies of that time, while acknowledging that the notion of equality was still only an idealized concept. Through a combination of quotations from biblical scholarship and citations of talmudic, midrashic, and halakhic adjustments to biblical law, Hammer highlights the liberalizing and equalizing trend of Jewish tradition, while granting that in certain respects the Torah is simply bound by the perspectives of its time. His point is not that Judaism is bound to stick with the inequalities of the past. On the contrary, Judaism evolves. But Hammer acknowledges certain limitations in characterizing the Torah as revolutionary. He strives mightily to portray the Torah in its most favorable light — encouraging readers to hold fast to the essential values embedded in it — even when the text, in the end, can disappoint. In these sections, Hammer writes like the rabbi he is, promoting fealty to the text and tradition, and inspiring us to make the Torah more true in its applied interpretation than it is in itself.

The Torah Revolution is a valuable gathering of key texts. It’s an articulate presentation of Jewish understandings on vital and influential ideas based in Torah. This reader is happy for the encouragement and sympathetic to the message. Still, the book’s conclusions feel foreordained; reading it thus feels a little less than revolutionary.

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Rabbi Joel A. Alter is Rav Beit haSefer and assistant head of school at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, a K-8 pluralist school in Watertown, Mass.

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