What Do Jews Believe?: The Spiritual Foundations of Judaism, by David Ariel, is a basic exploration of the broad question posed by its title. Ariel's contention is that "Judaism is not a religion of fixed doctrines or dogmas but a complex system of evolving beliefs." And yet despite its diversity, "no matter how literally or metaphorically we choose to interpret them, ... sacred myths form the framework for the Jew's ongoing search for personal meaning in his or her own life, the life of the Jewish community, and society at large." What Do Jews Believe? describes some essential "sacred myths," such as the existence and nature of God, the meaning of the Torah, the importance of prayer, and the significance of chosenness. Ariel's selection and exploration of these myths is guided by the following questions: Which Jewish beliefs have survived from antiquity to the present day, how have they evolved over time, and what beliefs distinguish Judaism today? As he pursues these questions, Ariel enthusiastically describes Judaism's seminal influence on the rise of humanism, which makes his book especially credible for readers whose sympathies are more secular than his own.
Perhaps the best part of this book is its conclusion, a tzavaah, or ethical will, written as an open letter to his children. In it, he quotes a letter from a mother to her child, written while they were living in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, before they both were murdered by the Nazis. This letter offers an extraordinarily persuasive and poignant summary of what exactly makes a Jew a Jew: "Judaism, my child, is the struggle to bring down God upon earth, a struggle for the sanctification of the human heart. This struggle your people wages not with physical force but with spirit and by constant striving for truth and justice. So, do you understand, my child, how we are distinct from others and wherein lies the secret of our existence on earth?" To these words, Ariel adds a moving piece of advice to his own children, and to his readers: "Remember, your life is like a book. Write in it what you want to be known about you." --Michael Joseph Gross
From Publishers Weekly
Ariel, president of the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, here offers a lucid and accessible study of the central beliefs of Judaism. With grand and sure strokes, the author paints the history of the "sacred myths" of Judaism?God, Torah, human destiny, chosenness, prayer, theodicy, mitzvot and messiah?using the colorful texts of biblical writers, rabbinic scholars and contemporary Jewish leaders. For example, in his remarks on messiah, Ariel moves from the biblical expectation of two messiahs to the fervor of contemporary messianic movements like the Lubavitch Hasidim. In a concluding letter to his children, Ariel argues that the great value of Judaism is its attempt to discover God's image in ourselves. In sum, this is a powerful introduction to the rich history and lively character of Judaism.
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