We live in one of the most complicated theological eras in all of Jewish history. Unlike our premodern ancestors, for us, living in the modern world means being constantly surrounded by doubt, questioning, and even agnosticism. In his new collection of essays, The Dancer and the Dance, Rabbi Michael Wasserman takes on these themes, helping readers better understand how to be Jewish in the modern world and treating skepticism as a tool of religiosity.
Though The Dancer and the Dance is a short book — it contains only eight essays and is barely 100 pages long — Wasserman manages to deal with some of the most enduring questions of religious life. His first essay, entitled “Overlapping Magisteria,” attempts to reconcile the tension between science and religion. Later essays unpack the role of love in interpersonal relationships, the nature of gratitude, and the essence of consciousness.
Perhaps the strongest of all is the title essay, “The Dancer and the Dance.” Wasserman derives his title from a parable about a company of dancers that moves so effortlessly that the dancer and the dance appear one. However, when the dancers notice they are dancing, when they look at their feet, they stumble. Wasserman uses the story to illustrate the different ways that we can overthink our own connection to religion, losing balance in the process. Or, conversely, we may reject modern thought, too afraid to ever look down.
One of the amazing things about this collection is that Wasserman bravely answers many of the questions he raises. He doesn’t just diagnose the many problems of modernity, but shows how one can reconcile modernity with tradition toward healthy and productive ends. He doesn’t just explain the tension between religion and science, but explores how the two influence and support one another. Wasserman’s conclusions are, in a word, thoughtful, whether one agrees with them or not. Weaving together Talmud, poetry, modern Jewish thought, science, and philosophy, Wasserman is a gifted writer whose essays are poetic even as they wrestle with difficult truths.
Many of us will not have heard of Rabbi Michael Wasserman before reading this book, but we will leave with an appreciation for his thinking. Hopefully there are more works to come from the rabbi. He is an important contemporary voice contributing to the Jewish philosophical space.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.