Being Jewish Today: Presenting a vision of Judaism for our time

Affiliation today is primary for today’s Jews, and as a result, they struggle with issues of identity.

REFORM WOMEN wear kippot and prayer shawls at a Western Wall prayer meeting (photo credit: REUTERS)
REFORM WOMEN wear kippot and prayer shawls at a Western Wall prayer meeting
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Being Jewish Today is the product of decades of reflection by a leading Jewish theologian. The author is a past leader of the Reform movement in Great Britain who has dedicated his life to thinking and teaching about Judaism. He is a professor of Jewish Theology at Leo Baeck College, London and has for many years been a leader in interfaith dialog with Muslims and Christians.
Professor Tony Bayfield strives to present a vision of Judaism that is of our time, and engaged with the reality of what he calls our post-modern world. In the preface he points out that any viable theology for today must reckon with the decline of faith among the population and with the calamitous upheaval in values engendered by the catastrophe of the Shoah. This upheaval affects not just the remnant of the Jewish people, but the entire world in which we find ourselves.
To put our present situation in its context, the book begins with an account of Jewish history, described as a journey with multiple stages. These stages are: 
1.The journey from Egypt to the promised land; 
2.The life as a sovereign people in the Land of Israel and the various conquests that followed;
3.The centuries of exile up to the beginning of the modern era; 
4.The modern era from the enlightenment up to the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel;
5.Our present epoch, post-Shoah and the renewal of Jewish life in the land of Israel.
EACH OF these stages ends in an upheaval. Each upheaval forces a redefinition of what it means to be Jewish. Surviving each upheaval requires a new enduring national trait, which today is part of what characterizes what it means to be Jewish. These traits are: 
1.provisionality, as the end of the wilderness journey to the promised land brings war and the life of a settled people; 
2.liminality, as the Roman destruction of Jewish life in the land, and transition to exile, turns the Jewish people into inhabitants of both physical and social margins; 
3.paradox, as the end of the medieval period both liberates the Jews to join the wider world and simultaneously threatens their very existence; 
4.uncertainty, as the catastrophe ending the modern period throws us into a new era in which we must reinvent ourselves, and emerging from the whole journey;
5.pluralism, as the Jews speak with many voices and struggle to remain one people.
Having explored the metaphor of Jewish history as a journey, the author turns to an account of the context in which contemporary Jews must make sense of what it means to be Jewish today. This is an account of the physical and cultural space in which contemporary Jews find themselves and to which their ancestors have contributed over the past 500 years. 
Steeped in Jewish knowledge and a product of four generations of British Jews, the author puts in a word for the Jewish contribution at the roots of Western culture. He also acknowledges the disproportionate role Jews have played in science, politics and academia, since the enlightenment freed them from the medieval ghettos. He sees the factors that made that possible as missing from the post-modern Judaism of our own day. He describes the Judaism found in today’s Britain as divided between those who cling to ritual and those who cling to community, but without the inquiring intellectual tradition that sustained Judaism in the past. 
The book turns to an examination of the challenges of being Jewish in a modern context. For the author, the traditional hierarchy of God, Torah and Israel is today upended. Affiliation today is primary for today’s Jews, and as a result, they struggle with issues of identity. This includes the modern challenges around gender and authority, but also questions related to both conversion and inheritance. It is not only Israel as people, but Israel as land which anchors the Jewish people today. The author gives an excellent historical account of the continuing Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, and a thoughtful argument for the fundamental justice of the Zionist project. At the same time, he acknowledges the painful consequences of ongoing conflict, as well as cultural and political divisions in Israel today.
AFTER ISRAEL, comes a discussion of Torah. For Bayfield, steeped in written and oral Torah as well as modern learning, the issue of the provenance of the Torah is crucial. This is the issue over which modern Jewish denominations have parted company: Torah Mishamayim (Torah directly from God) as traditional Judaism maintains, versus Torah as a human response to an ancient and ongoing encounter with God. For the author, the written Torah contains several “dark texts” which cannot be taken literally as the will of God. These include the binding of Isaac and the wars of annihilation against the Canaanites. But he finds his own fidelity to Torah in the process of Rabbinic interpretation which continuously renews our understanding of what it means, in light of new knowledge and circumstances. Turning a core tenet of Orthodoxy on its head, he asserts that the written Torah is itself commentary, a human response to an ancient encounter with the Divine, interpreted by our forebears who experienced it. For him, all of Torah is commentary from the very beginning to our own day.
There follows a searching examination of the nature of Brit (covenant), drawing on what contemporary scholarship reveals about covenant as practiced in the ancient Near East. For the author, covenant today must come from our individual decision to be bound. The Talmud states that the Jews accepted the covenant at Sinai under duress, but that they voluntarily renewed their fidelity in Persia at the time of Queen Esther. Today, Bayfield tells us we again voluntarily renew our commitment to the covenant, our attachment to the Jewish people and our submission to God’s commandments, in an era in which the individual is sovereign.
A discussion of Jewish ethics looks at Rabbinic versus prophetic sources and continues with a survey of modern and post-modern thinkers who have influenced Bayfield’s ideas. From rabbinic ethics we learn that God is the embodiment of compassionate justice, that human beings are infinitely precious as the image of God. We learn that good behavior is rooted in our duties to God and to one another. Rights exist but arise out of these duties, which are primary. From the rabbis we also get the sometimes paradoxical but absolutely fundamental idea that we have free will.
From the prophets we learn the importance of faith as well as social and economic justice. We learn that we must never give up hope and that peace is a central Jewish value. We learn that God loves all humans, not just the Jews. The author cites some modern thinkers that have influenced his ethical ideas, including Emmanual Levinas, Hans Jonas, and Hannah Arendt. We also learn of some contemporary ethicists that Bayfield regards as important. He comments on contemporary ethical challenges, including finding truth in an era of social media. 
In the final section of the book, Bayfield shares his thoughts about God and about life beyond death. What kind of God is God? How do we experience God and what do we expect of the Divine in the world after the Shoah. One conviction for Bayfield is that God does not intervene directly in the life of the world, not because God is indifferent, but because that is not what God is. Throughout the book we are given glimpses into his own personal dialog with God and we come away understanding that the experience of God is a pervasive part of Bayfield’s life.
This is a book that will reward careful reading and rereading. It has much to offer anyone with an interest in contemporary Judaism or in the challenge of living a Jewish life in today’s world. Whether the reader is Jewish or not, observant or not, whether affiliated with Orthodox Judaism or another denomination, this is a work that will enrich one’s understanding of what it is to be a Jewish believer, fully engaged with the challenges and ideas of today’s world. Being Jewish Today will find its place among the significant Jewish books of our time. 
By Rabbi Tony Bayfield
Bloomsbury Continuum
384 pages; $25