The Choice To Be: A Jew­ish Path to Self and Spirituality

Jere­my Kagan
  • Review
By – June 28, 2012

Rab­bi Jere­my Kagan, prin­ci­pal of Midreshet Tehilla, a post-high school sem­i­nary in Jerusalem, has writ­ten a thought­ful work, based pri­mar­i­ly on Rab­binic pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources, in which he dis­cuss­es the devel­op­ment of the self in its rela­tion­ship to God, the par­al­lels of per­son­al devel­op­ment to the evo­lu­tion of the Jew­ish peo­ple through­out the course of its his­to­ry, and deal­ing con­struc­tive­ly with con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al chal­lenges in light of his expli­ca­tions of our per­son­al and nation­al real­i­ties. Rab­bi Kagan begins by dis­cussing his atyp­i­cal back­ground for an Ortho­dox Jew­ish thinker and edu­ca­tor — attend­ing a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Japan­ese prep school in Hawaii fol­lowed by under­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Yale — as well as a most intrigu­ing premise: A world view is an inte­grat­ed whole; how can any well-adjust­ed person…move beyond the one he is in? This book is in part the prod­uct of my fas­ci­na­tion with this ques­tion. ” R. Kagan pro­ceeds to address his Jew­ish tra­di­tion­al audi­ence with a series of engag­ing, orga­nized, and well-thought out excurs­es intend­ed to seri­ous­ly address and even jus­ti­fy an intel­lec­tu­al individual’s reli­gious jour­ney toward inten­si­fied reli­gious belief and obser­vance.

While the author draws pre­dom­i­nant­ly on Rab­binic sources for the foun­da­tions of his sophis­ti­cat­ed analy­ses of the issues that he rais­es, e.g., Tal­mud, Midrash, RaM­Chal, MaHaR­aL, R. Eliyahu Dessler, R. Yosef Bloch, and R. Moshe Shapiro, his past sec­u­lar learn­ing is rep­re­sent­ed by an intrigu­ing dis­cus­sion of the rela­tion­ship between sci­ence and reli­gion as well as seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tions of aspects of the work of Descartes and Piaget. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est should be his wide-rang­ing pre­sen­ta­tion of the­o­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and philo­soph­i­cal dimen­sions of the issue of man’s free choice, a top­ic that has always con­sti­tut­ed a conun­drum for believ­ers in the Divine. While by the author’s own admis­sion, sec­tions of this work are chal­leng­ing and may require reread­ing, his gen­er­ous pep­per­ing of the text with con­tem­po­rary analo­gies and exam­ples goes far to make the com­plex ideas acces­si­ble. The edu­ca­tor in R. Kagan is very much in evi­dence in the help­ful syn­op­sis and overview of the var­i­ous argu­ments includ­ed in the book that appears at the end of this work. Appen­dices, glos­sary, notes.

Jack Biel­er is Rab­bi of Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD. He was a stu­dent of Rab­bi Riskin at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and fac­ul­ty mem­ber of the Joseph Shapiro Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies. Sub­se­quent­ly, he was Chair­man of the Tal­mud Depart­ment of Yeshi­v­at Ramaz and per­ma­nent Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at Con­gre­ga­tion Kehi­lath Jeshurun.He has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions