RJ Spring 2001

Significant Jewish Books

by Bonny V. Fetterman

Our Significant Jewish Books column, inspired by UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's Reform Movement Literacy Initiative, challenges all Reform Jews to read at least four books of Jewish substance a year. In each issue we recommend two or more titles representing the best of Jewish literature, both fiction and nonfiction, selected in cooperation with the UAHC Department of Adult Jewish Growth.

It is our hope that you will read at least one of these selections on your own or with others in a synagogue study or book group. Connect with thousands of other Significant Jewish Books readers by accessing the Adult Jewish Growth website, where you'll find a discussion guide, the criteria and process for the Significant Jewish Books selection, and more.

Finding a Spiritual Home
How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue
by Sidney Schwarz

"Can the American synagogue transform itself to address the spiritual needs and interests of new American Jews? The answer is a resounding yes, but it won't be quick and it won't be easy," writes Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, a Reconstructionist rabbi from Rockville, Maryland.

Rabbi Schwarz is not the first to acknowledge this challenge, but he is the first to write a practical handbook of suggestions to revitalize congregational life. He notes that synagogues are proliferating across North America, but they are failing to attract a large part of the baby-boomer generation. The tragedy is that the boomers are avid spiritual seekers. "Spiritual questions they had aplenty," he writes. "They simply went elsewhere for answers." Even young people who had positive experiences with Jewish life, from summer camps and trips to Israel, havurot and the Jewish Renewal movement, often have a hard time finding a synagogue they want to join. "The generation of Jews who came of age in the sixties and seventies, the baby boomers, was a generation that was ready to dance in the aisles; their synagogues offered them responsive readings."

Perhaps every new generation has to remake its institutions to address its needs. The current stage calls for a new paradigm that Rabbi Schwarz calls "the synagogue-community." He offers examples of what some Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations have done to become such communities, as well as personal testimonies by congregants about the effect of these innovations on their lives as Jews.

Among the qualities that the current generation seeks in its congregations are: inclusiveness for a variety of lifestyles and life situations; a focus on spirituality (as opposed to religion); a commitment to social justice; a sense of belonging and communal support; and most especially, empowerment for learning and making Jewish life their own. "How will you know when you have succeeded?" Rabbi Schwarz asks. "When any Jew, anywhere in the community, can walk into your synagogue and call it home."

Transforming the American synagogue is a challenge that calls for participatory and creative collaboration among rabbis, cantors, and congregants. Here is a brief sampling of what could be done.

The Healer of Shattered Hearts
A Jewish View of God
by David J. Wolpe

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many philosophers argued that we could be moral without God, and some rabbis even asserted that we could be Jewish without God. Humbled by the unthinkable events of this century, today's religious seekers are eager to talk about and draw closer to God. Rabbi David Wolpe's extended meditation on belief acknowledges from the outset our need for God: "We are all, each of us, in exile, and part of the human mission is the desperate search to find a way home."

In taking on the daunting task of defining a Jewish view of God, Rabbi Wolpe has a ready ally in the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, who speak of God in the most intimate, affectionate terms--as a friend, a companion, a parent, and a lover. "A stern and unforgiving Deity or an indifferent God would not be a comfort, could not begin to address the fears we share," he writes. "Far too many are convinced that this is the God of the Jewish tradition. But in Judaism, the true quest is for a God who is close." The goal of a religious tradition is to keep the channels open and allow us to feel that we can communicate with a sympathetic Deity who knows our hearts and witnesses our strivings. The spiritual language of Judaism--ritual, study, questioning, and prayer--prepares us to be receptive to God-consciousness in our everyday lives, and allows us to speak. The foundation of the personal God of Judaism, he asserts, is in relationship.

Perhaps Rabbi Wolpe's best argument for belief in God--besides our need for an absolute source of moral values and a model for human behavior--is that life is too lonely and can easily seem meaningless without it. Why deny the soul its yearning to commune with its Creator? And why cut ourselves off from a relationship that can bring forth and sustain our best selves? This sensitive introduction to Jewish views of God offers encouragement and inspiration.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

Previously Selected Significant Jewish Books

The following books were previously selected as part of the UAHC Significant Jewish Books program:

As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House; also on audio from Jewish Contemporary Classics)

Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, edited by Barry W. Holtz (Simon & Schuster)

The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living, by Joseph Telushkin (Bell Tower)

A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories, by S. Y. Agnon (Schocken Books)

Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves, edited by Rachel S. Mikva (Jewish Lights Publishing)

Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, by Deborah Lipstadt (available from Penguin USA)

Finding God: Ten Jewish Reponses, by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme (UAHC Press)

The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud (available from Penguin USA)

Jewish Meditation, by Aryeh Kaplan (Schocken Books)

The Jewish Moral Virtues, by Eugene Borowitz and Frances Weinman Schwartz (Jewish Publication Society of America)

Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, by J. J. Goldberg (Addison-Wesley)

JEWS: The Essence and Character of a People, by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer (HarperSanFrancisco)

A Journey to the End of the Millennium, by A. B. Yehoshua (Doubleday)

The Last of the Just, by André Schwarz-Bart (Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.)

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (Schocken Books)

Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, by Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky (UAHC Press)

Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains, edited by J. Sanford Rikoon (Indiana University Press)

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant (Picador USA)

The Sabbath, by Abraham J. Heschel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, by Simon Wiesenthal (Schocken Books)

Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America, by Arnold M. Eisen (Indiana University Press)

Turbulent Souls, by Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow & Co.)

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman (Simon & Schuster)

Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot, by Rami M. Shapiro (Bell Tower)


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