To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jew­ish People

  • Review
By – March 12, 2024

There are many ver­sions of the say­ing two Jews, three opin­ions.” So too might there be two Jews, three ideas about what it means to be Jew­ish.” After all, the sto­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple is a sto­ry about a con­stant reimag­in­ing of Jew­ish prac­tice and ideas about inde­pen­dence and assim­i­la­tion, com­mu­ni­ty, and state. In Noah Feldman’s esti­ma­tion, past con­cep­tions of Jew­ish life and ideas — even those just a few decades old — no longer accu­rate­ly reflect what he per­ceives to be the cur­rent land­scape of Jew­ish prac­tice and thought. A lead­ing pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al, the Felix Frank­furter Pro­fes­sor of Law at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, and the found­ing direc­tor of the Julis-Rabi­nowitz Pro­gram on Jew­ish and Israeli Law, Feld­man seeks to cre­ate a new map, which he’s bro­ken into three areas of Jew­ish thought: God, Israel, and com­mu­ni­ty. The result is an impres­sive, insight­ful assess­ment of the com­plex­i­ties of mod­ern Jew­ish existence.

Feld­man doesn’t set out to tell the read­er how to be Jew­ish, or what makes some­one a good” or bad” Jew. In his view, there are no bad Jews; rather, there is great diver­si­ty of Jew­ish prac­tice, as there always has been. Feldman’s intent is to help the read­er chart their own path and under­stand those of the Jews around them. Feld­man him­self also looks back on the Jew­ish jour­ney he’s tak­en thus far.

While much has been writ­ten about Israel and Zion­ism, Feldman’s approach — first explor­ing dif­fer­ent Jew­ish ideas about God, and only after that turn­ing to Jew­ish ideas about Israel and Zion­ism — is dif­fer­ent. He explains that by fig­ur­ing out where you lie on the map of Jew­ish beliefs about God and reli­gion, you will be able to under­stand much more clear­ly where you stand on Israel and Jew­ish peo­ple­hood.” The reverse is also true: the way one thinks about Israel at least in part informs how one might think about com­mu­ni­ty and peo­ple­hood. In an era in which many Jews no longer define their Jew­ish nature by how or what they think about God and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, To Be a Jew Today implores us to con­sid­er the ways in which most Jews’ iden­ti­ties are fun­da­men­tal­i­ty relat­ed to indi­vid­ual ideas about the nature of God — whether they believe in a tra­di­tion­al­ist” view of God, a God of social jus­tice, a God of evolv­ing law in a chang­ing world, or no God at all.

Feld­man argues that a uni­fy­ing the­o­log­i­cal world­view among Jews is best cat­e­go­rized by the bib­li­cal name for Israel, Yis­rael: one who wres­tles or strug­gles with God.” So too, in many ways, do Jews wres­tle with Israel itself. To Be a Jew Today does not pro­vide a his­to­ry of the Jew­ish state. Rather, Feld­man med­i­tates on var­i­ous Jew­ish ideas about and rela­tion­ships with Israel — gen­er­a­tional­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly, and some­times to an extreme — along­side a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing sec­tion on anti-Zion­ism that is not often cov­ered with this lev­el of thought and depth. Although Feld­man intro­duces divi­sive top­ics, he con­sis­tent­ly holds mul­ti­ple truths at once, with an authen­tic com­mit­ment to con­vey­ing the diver­si­ty of the con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish world.

In To Be a Jew Today, Feld­man com­bines his own insight­ful descrip­tions of Jew­ish life with those of many great writ­ers and thinkers through­out Jew­ish his­to­ry. His book isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly for begin­ners, giv­en all the rab­bis and schol­ars he ref­er­ences. But it’s incred­i­bly rel­e­vant in a post – Octo­ber 7 world, and offers an exten­sive notes sec­tion for those want­i­ng to read more. In an homage to Mai­monides, Feld­man describes his pur­suit: to assist oth­ers as they grap­ple with per­plex­i­ty, and to do so in a sub­stan­tial and schol­ar­ly way. 

Joy Get­nick, PhD, is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Hil­lel at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester. She is the author of the Melton School of Adult Jew­ish Learn­ing Beyond Bor­ders: The His­to­ry of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict, has taught his­to­ry at area col­leges, and pre­vi­ous­ly worked in the JCC world and as the direc­tor of a teen Israel trav­el sum­mer program.

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