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Sex, God, Christmas & Jews: Intimate Emails About Faith and Life Challenges
By Gil Mann
Leo & Sons
When I looked at the first part of this book's title, I thought that no book could deal seriously with so many issues. Then I looked at the smaller print, which turned my attention to the fact that it is based on e-mail discussions (mainly, though not exclusively, by Jews) on 40 subjects. To keep the length down, Gil Mann has limited reactions to no more than 20 e-mails per subject, which includes the author's personal responses or summaries.
In addition to the subjects in the title, his e-mailers aired views on such subjects as body-piercing, organ transplants, the lack of equality between men and women in Judaism and whether Jews by choice are treated as equals to Jews by chance.
A subject that is most embarrassing, and not limited to Jewish clergymen, is the chapter: "My rabbi's in love with me and I'm married."
The subject receiving the most reactions was the challenge to circumcision, with critics arguing that it is a barbaric practice that causes pain to infants and should therefore be abolished.
Defenders cite the health value of this tradition, which has been adopted by many gentiles. However, most of the Jewish responses cite its religious or ethnic value and not primarily its health value. As one participant put it: "The site of the procedure is on the organ through which tremendous joy enters our lives, and is also the place where sperm come out to create new life."
Mann also adds the view of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: "Circumcision is an unavoidable reminder to Jewish men that they have a commitment to behave in holy ways prescribed by God in the Bible. Circumcision prevents Jews from hiding from that duty by posing as ordinary people."
In his introduction, Mann describes himself as an open-minded committed Jew who brooks no compromise when it comes to the brit mila that has been part of our history for nearly 4,000 years.
Perhaps the most poignant reactions in the author's mailbox came as a result of a posting by a woman Mann terms a modern-day Job, who is angry at God for what has been happening to her, with the result that she can no longer pray as she once did. Both Mann and many who read her plaint proceeded to offer their sympathies as well as some practical advice on how to restore at least some of the faith she has lost. Mann also quotes a wise hassidic rebbe: "Whoever said that one must pray with a whole heart? Perhaps it is preferable to pray with a broken heart?"
In addition to the issues listed or mentioned above, there are also subjects of more interest to those who live in the US than in Israel, such as: relations between Jews and Afro-Americans; what to do about a cross in one's room in a Catholic hospital; participating in a prayer service during which Jesus is invoked; the issue of a Christmas tree when one parent is Jewish and the other is not, or when the wife has Christian children.
The subject in this book which least appealed to this reviewer was "Bizarre Jewish Sex" which indeed piqued my curiosity, but turned out to be a discussion of whether it was true that when Orthodox couples have intimate relations they use a sheet with a hole. This query should have been answered in one dismissive sentence, followed by the reaction of Naomi Ragen (whose permission Mann cited so that her view could be included). This subject should never have been found on the pages of a serious book. Alternatively, it would also have been sufficient to quote haredi circles in Jerusalem, who have never heard of such sheets.
Despite the above reservation, Mann must be commended for his persistent efforts to make Judaism more relevant to his peers. This book introduces the reader to Mann's approach - teaching Judaism in the spirit of the Talmud, where we also find differing opinions on almost all subjects, and by his use of the Internet as his classroom.
The writer is the managing editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly.