The ‘truth’ about Judaism?

David Gelernter’s entire visualized audience in this ambitious ‘explanation of Orthodoxy’ is men – preferably married, Orthodox men.

Judaism A Way of Being (photo credit: Courtesy)
Judaism A Way of Being
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The idealized housewife is a rather archaic concept. Indeed, when Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba recently ruled that women should not seek public office and should not even work outside the home, his remarks were greeted with astonished horror by most, even within some Orthodox circles. It was therefore rather surprising for me to read, in a book published in 2010 by no less than Yale University Press, this outmoded image of an idealized housewife.
“Clear the stage again,” writes David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, in Judaism: A Way of Being, attempting dramatic effect. “But let Moses with his veiled luminous face return. Moses is there before you, but his face is covered. Superimpose the image of a housewife lighting Sabbath candles near dusk on Friday evening. The candles are set on a table and she stands behind, facing you.” The idea that the housewife is a symbolic reincarnation of Moses coming down from Sinai would be hilarious if Gelernter weren’t trying to be serious.
But there is an even deeper problem with this passage, a problem consistent throughout the book: Who is “you”? It is clear that Gelernter’s entire visualized audience is men – preferably married, Orthodox men.
The purpose of this book, as laid out by the author, is to present what he believes to be the “truth” about Judaism, or its “essence,” in a series of four “themes” that he hopes will somehow transform Jewish thinking. His grandiose aim is to create a book on the level of “Torah she’bichtav” (Written Law) and “Torah she’b’al peh” (Oral Law), what he calls “Torah she’ba’lev” (“Torah of the Mind and Heart”), that “will appear routinely in every Jewish library” and comprise “Judaism seen whole.”
Unfortunately, the writing lacks nuance, sophistication and diversity. The monolithic question-and-answer style that suggests that there is one correct answer to every question about “why?” is grating – after all, even Rashi offers several possible answers. He says in the Preface that the book “amounts in many ways to an explanation of Orthodoxy,” but even within Orthodoxy multiple rationales coexist.
Moreover, many of Gelernter’s ideas are simplistic and melodramatic and offer strange and convoluted explanations for a myriad of practices. For example, he tries to connect the use of a partition in synagogue with commandments forbidding paganism, he touches on the idea that non-Jews are on a level of animals, he seems to inadvertently advocate extreme notions of separatism and makes the utterly bizarre suggestion that the problem with the Nazis was idol worship.
Perhaps this book would provide some interesting reading for newly Orthodox men struggling to find meaning, although I personally would not recommend it. For those seeking an honest, complex and sophisticated exploration of Judaism, there are much better options out there.
The writer, who has a PhD in education, has been working in Jewish communal life for the past 15 years.