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The Accidental Zionist
By Rabbi Ian Pear
New Song publishers
296 pages; $19.48
'Know with whom you are speaking" is one of the many lessons Rabbi Ian Pear learned in his younger years, and is one of the primary tactics he employs in his inspiring and down-to-earth new book The Accidental Zionist: What a Priest, a Pornographer and a Wrestler Named Chainsaw Taught Me about Being Jewish, Saving the World and Why Israel Matters to Both.
This may seem like a mouthful, but Pear makes it go down easy as he unabashedly poses and attempts to answer a fundamental question: "Why has Judaism failed?" In a free-spirited but well-structured argument speckled with personal anecdotes, the rabbi of Jerusalem's Orthodox Shir Hadash congregation outlines the purpose of Judaism as the dissemination of ethical monotheism - that is, ethical behavior in the service of God - on a global scale, and the Jewish people as the messengers of this cause. He defines and describes the importance and advantages of this philosophy, and goes on to show how a halachic lifestyle is the ideal method of training Jewish adherents to embody and thus adequately spread this message.
After laying out this premise - that Judaism has not, in fact, successfully rendered the world the ethical society it was meant to be - he argues that the reason for this is the lack of a sufficiently influential nation-state based on Jewish principles. This, he says, is where Israel comes in: It offers the means to affect human ethics in the international arena. Pear calls this idea "universal Zionism" - the power of Zionism, as a Jewish endeavor, to have a universal effect.
Much of what he has to say is not new. In fact, most of it was handed down on Mount Sinai 3,000 years ago and elaborated upon by rabbinical scholars throughout the intervening millennia; at first glance, it looks like a simple reformulation of religious Zionism. However, Pear's innovation lies in his approach - religious Zionism as a form of social activism. As he says in the book's foreword, the old arguments have lost the power to inspire today's generation to support Israel: "Appeals to fear or guilt no longer resonate with young, idealistic Jews committed more to values of universalism than parochialism... [and] 'Support Israel because it will make you a proud Jew' becomes the most laughable of assertions, certainly to those for whom the actions of the Israeli government are more a cause of confusion than [a] source of pride."
Pear manages to present his case for Israel as more than a haven for Jewish spiritual development - it becomes a means of actively changing the world.
For more liberal thinkers accustomed to hearing the traditional claim of Jews as the chosen people, this is indeed a refreshing twist; it spins it in the direction of Jews as the chosen harbingers of global improvement, rather than as a spiritually superior nation. This is one of many insights Pear brings to conventional Jewish ideas, insights often based in classical commentaries, but redirected toward an audience of modern sensibility. His take on several Torah laws lacking logical explanations, for instance - such as the prohibition on mixing wool and linen and the kashrut laws - is that their common denominator is Judaism's insistence on avoiding an intermingling of life (milk, newly sheared sheep) and death (meat, flax - which dies on being harvested). This argument, which comes in the context of Judaism as a religion that focuses on life rather than death, offers a simple but brilliant explanation of frequently misunderstood halachot.
Aside from the thesis itself, Pear's style is sincere and often charming. He does not patronize his readers, but provides multiple levels of interpretation and acknowledges that seasoned Torah students will likely have heard some of them before. In addition, the book's chapters are headed with quotes from sources as varied as Plato, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Woody Allen. These he works into his message in a manner that, is if not always seamless, at least entertaining. Many of the stories he uses to illustrate his points come from his own day-to-day adventures, ranging from the touching to the absurd and goofy and adding a dimension of humble humanity to what might otherwise be a long theological discourse. Of course, since Pear states again and again that it is the Jews' job to ground the theological in the practical, the medium matches the message nicely.
Unfortunately the book appears to share with other products of small publishing houses the difficulty of receiving a thorough editing, and this may be seen to somewhat detract from its rhetorical efficacy. In addition, there is surely fodder for the skeptic to find weak claims (especially among quoted statistics) or apologetics (some of the aforementioned new interpretations, while lovely, seem imposed retroactively rather than reflecting the texts' original motives). However, both of these complaints are outshone by the honesty with which Pear addresses the issues at hand, and particularly by the positive energy that infuses the work. As the publisher's Web site declares as its goal, The Accidental Zionist aims to "celebrate Judaism... uncovering the joy of Jewish life," rather than letting the don'ts discourage Jews from finding the beauty in their heritage.