If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?

Rabbi Colin Eimer fromSha’arei Tsedek, North London Reform Synagogue selects Abba Hillel Silver’s Where Judaism Differed

 

Desert Island TextsSome 50 years ago, as a callow youth, I was a ‘regular’ at a pre-Havdalah discussion group run by the, then recently-appointed, rabbi at West London Synagogue, Hugo Gryn.

We discussed a book by Abba Hillel Silver, American Reform rabbi, a key figure in mobilising support for the establishment of the State of Israel. The book was Where Judaism Differed, with the subtitle: An enquiry into the distinctiveness of Judaism.

Silver looks at those basic teachings and ideas which defined Judaism theologically, historically, sociologically. I remember chapters with titles like “On not believing in Original Sin,” “On not awaiting a Second Coming,” “On rejecting fanaticism,” “On focussing on life in the present” and so on.

Most religions, Judaism included, have similar books, extolling the virtues of their religion in a triumphalist way, suggesting their superiority, their possession of The Truth. What Silver did was to look at what made Judaism distinctive, but with as little of that triumphalism as possible. There might have been a chapter “On not believing in Original Sin,” but it focussed on what Judaism taught, in its own right, about good and evil.

It helped me appreciate Jewish distinctiveness without needing to put down other religions. I also learned – from the book and from Hugo’s way of schmoozing about it – about another sort of choice: It was not ‘either/or,’ either Judaism or modern, secular life.

It was ‘this and this.’ Judaism didn’t require me to make a choice between everything implied by the word ‘Torah,’ on the one hand, and all that my secular education taught me, on the other. Both inform each other. I learned that part of the Jewish struggle was to live with both. With the perspective of time I see that it was one of the understandings that led me to the rabbinate.

Interestingly, Silver’s son, Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver, reissued the book under the title his father had wanted: Where Judaism Differs. Present, not past, tense. I like that much better.