If you were cast away on a desert island with just one Jewish text for company, which would it be?
This week, Rabbi Larry Becker of Sukkat Shalom Reform Synagogue selects: The Beginnings of Jewishness by Shaye J D Cohen
My first thought when asked to write this piece was: How on Earth does one choose a single favourite book when there are so many to choose from?
I first looked to our traditional texts. After all, that is where I spend most of my reading life. But the truth is that the intense intertextuality of our written heritage makes it difficult for me to choose a single text in isolation.
I love poetry and there are individual poems that move me to tears of joy or sorrow, but a book of poetry? I enjoy “hard” science fiction, much of which is a disguised exploration of the Jewish past and present, though set in the future.
But the truth is that my first love is history and there are many old friends in this genre to which I return over and over again. In the end, I decided to choose The Beginnings of Jewishness by Shaye J D Cohen.
I have yet to read a book or article by him that wasn’t well researched, well written and thought-provoking. This particular work speaks to me in that it looks at what may be the key question of our time for our people.
What does it mean to be a Jew? What roles do law, descent, nationality and belief play? How do we see ourselves and how do others see us? What is actually central to our identity and how does this sustain us? How did our views of our own identity come into being and are they truly immutable?
Surely we can learn from how our ancestors of the Greco-Roman world faced these questions. Besides, a book which tells me that at least some Romans thought circumcision makes a man more virile can’t be all bad.