Book Review: “Judaisms”

Image: Cover, Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper

Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper is a wonderful exploration of the Jewish world as it exists today.

The organization of the book is a radical departure from the average “Intro to Judaism” text. The book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities.

The author arranges Jewish topics into themes such as “Sinais,” “Zions,” “Diasporas,” “Genocides,” and “Futures.” He takes an interdisciplinary approach, consulting theological, sociological, historical and literary resources to examine Jewish life in terms of each theme.

Looking at this book as a rabbi, I am challenged and fascinated. Where I have been trained to look to traditional rabbinic literature for insight (and let’s face it, for rules) Dr. Hahn Tapper gets right at the questions that bother my students most by using a multiplicity of disciplines to examine Jewish reality on the ground. This approach is important because the last 50 years have brought enormous changes to Judaism. The intermarriage rate is nearly 70% in some communities. The status of women has shifted dramatically in liberal Judaism: women serve as rabbis and as rabbinical school professors and deans. LGBTQ Jews are challenging old norms while reexamining traditional texts for new insights.

The title, “Judaisms” may give some pause. Personally I find it refreshing to acknowledge that while we can all say the Shema we may understand it quite differently, and live out those understandings in different ways. We have a common history, with smaller communal side-trips, and both the common history and the local variations are authentic. Too often we frame these differences as a test of authenticity and then use them to bully one another.  We may all observations of difference a game of “I’m Jewier than you,” an ugly little pastime that does not serve our communities well.

I like this book so much that I’m adding it to my list of recommended texts, and considering it as an additional text for my Introduction to Judaism classes next year. It is substantial but not heavy reading, as it was written to be a text for an undergraduate-level college Introduction to Judaism course. The illustrations are beautiful and plentiful. It comes with online resources as well, provided via the University of California Press website.

Dr. Hahn Tapper is  the Mae and Benjamin Swig Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, and the Founder and Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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