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Tradition: A Guide to Social Survival in the 21st Century




Heidi and Moshe—two young Princeton University scholars, one secular and cosmopolitan, the other religious and Zionist—are bickering. What's the big surprise? They hold diametrically opposing worldviews. They argue whether Jews should adopt or reject their national identity. "How can you justify your narrow tribal loyalty?" asks Heidi, a student in the faculty of humanities. "Isn't the lesson of the Holocaust that we Jews must never put our parochial interests ahead of others' interests? We should know better than anyone what happens when that lesson isn't learned." Moshe, a young Ph.D. in mathematics, is rendered speechless. He was not prepared for that blow. He sat before her, as he later testifies, "slack-jawed, staring at her uncomprehendingly." Forty years later, as a professor emeritus of computer science at Bar-Ilan University and chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, Moshe Koppel published his detailed response to Heidi in his book Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, also aptly translated to Hebrew by Alon Shalev with the participation of Tsur Erlich as Living Like a Jew: Why Tradition Will Continue to Bury the Prophets of Its Demise.

Koppel’s world is split between tradition and modernity, between Jewish ethnicity and Western cosmopolitanism, between religious faith and scientific research. He is at home in each of these realms, yet they seem to represent "different facets of [his] social, religious, and intellectual experience." The book is intended—though not explicitly described as such—to serve as a guide to the perplexed of this generation. There are those who shut themselves up in a communal ghetto behind religious walls, rejecting modernity, and there are those who, due to this confusion, detach completely from tradition as outdated and meaningless. Koppel seeks a model for a balanced Judaism committed to Jewish law but not afraid of enlightenment.

With an eye-opening and highly entertaining methodical style, Koppel formulates his arguments by means of human figures not quite in dialogue. The book’s protagonist takes the form of an old and grouchy Jew, a Holocaust survivor named Shimen, with whom he prayed at the Gerer Hassidic shtiebel in Manhattan. Shimen and his friends, including Moshe’s grandfather, were "God-fearing Jews, but they felt sufficiently at home with God to take liberties as necessary." The author does not provide the reader with a list of these liberties, but the picture reflected here is of wholly devout,pious Jews who admittedly abandoned the outward appearance of Gerer Hassidim but would not even pour boiling water over a tea bag on Shabbat.

Alongside Shimen is the character of Heidi, an attractive and graceful student, with a good sense of humor and an endearing character. Her parents were active in a Conservative synagogue on Long Island and kept kosher at home but not outside the house. At Princeton, she broadened her horizons, making friends from diverse backgrounds. Orthodox Jews seemed narrow-minded to her, especially in their treatment of Gentiles. She also criticized the inferior status of JewishOrthodox women in public rituals, such as prayer, Torah study, and the marriage ceremony. Shimen's and Heidi’s views are juxtaposed throughout the book, even though they would not likely have interacted had they met in person. It is Princeton's kosher dining room that provides an opportunity for an argument to develop.

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