by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell
Jerusalem: Jerusalem Academy Publications, 1991
distributed by Feldheim Publishers, 200 Airport Executive Park, Spring Valley, N. Y. 10977,
phone: (800) 237- 7149), $19.95 hc/ $16.95 pb.
Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph. D.
When I received this book and the cover letter from the publisher stating that it was, "a new book which explores Judaism`s relevance to the environment, commerce, family relationships, and other social issues, with a special focus on how a Torah society protects and elevates the individual human being", I became very excited. Was this finally the book that I had been waiting and hoping for, a book written by a distinguished Israeli rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva (principal) that relates basic Jewish values to the important issues facing the world today?
My enthusiasm continued as I read in the introduction that Jewish ritual related to Sabbath, synagogue, dietary laws, etc. are "merely a small part of what Judaism means." The author`s central thesis is next indicated: "Judaism is a comprehensive scheme which covers all aspects of life; the individual and society, modes of behavior, personal relations, husband and wife, the tax system, ruler and ruled, professional integrity and business ethics, how to run a home, a community, a society, a state. In other words, it embodies the art of living in all its aspects. "My excitement grew as I thumbed through the book and noted the following: "It seems doubtful from all that has been said whether the Torah would sanction "factory farming." which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. This is a matter for decision by halachic authorities."
However, as I delved deeper into the book, my positive attitude changed. While it has many merits, it is doubtful that the author`s approach will result in halachic authorities and others changing their opinions on factory farming or other current societal issues.
First, let us consider the positive features. The book provides a good summary of Jewish values and teachings. It groups 80 chapters into 5 categories: (1) Justice Towards Other People; (2) Justice for the Environment; (3) Love and Concern for Other People; (4) Enrichment of the Environment; (5) The Inner Life.Chapter headings include: "The Just Society", "safety of the Environment", Respecting the Environment", and "Respect for the Feelings and Instincts of Animals", as well as chapters on more ritual matters, such as "Observance of Shabbat", "Living in the Succa", "The Shema", "Tefillin", and "Tzitzit". The book is well written and organized and each chapter is broken down into "bite size" segments and utilizes many stories to illustrate the Torah teachings.
In view of these positive features, why the ultimate disappointment? While the discussion of Jewish values is important, there is very little discussion of current critical problems, such as pollution, hunger, violence, poverty, or, even with the passage about factory farms, how animals are treated today (the word `vegetarianism` is not even in the index). Certainly, as the author indicates, if every person lived by Torah standards, the world would be a far better place. But since there is unfortunately little likelihood of that, some discussion of current problems and some ideas on how to struggle for a more just society would be valuable. What is missing is what the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called "the moral madness" of the Biblical prophets, a sense of outrage at current conditions, a challenge to leaders who continue with business as usual while many people suffer and the environment is increasingly threatened, and a strong admonition to change our ways to avoid the catastrophes that threaten humanity.
The book reinforced my belief in two important views:
1. Judaism has a powerful message on the environment, the treatment of animals, building a just society, etc.
2. We must challenge Jewish leaders to see that they don`t, in effect, hide behind our tradition`s splendid teachings, while failing to apply them to today`s urgent issues.
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