I read Rabbi Ron Isaacs' book, "Ask the Rabbi", cover to cover over the weekend. It was my catharsis from mind-pollution inflicted by the antagonistic tome of a Jewish feminist, purportedly addressing resurgent anti-Semitism. Being a non-Jew, it's beyond my comprehension how she could feel comfortable fabricating odium without any reluctance for her community's rebuke. Surprisingly, "Ask the Rabbi" is my illumination.
"Ask the Rabbi" is a primer specifically for American Jews inactive in Judaism and wishing to discover what they're missing. It's too introspective for non-Jews only wishing familiarity with another religion. Rabbi Ron has collected questions and answers over the years, and has organized them into chapters based on category. Many answers have repetitive elements favoring readers who selectively skip around. By the end, most all transliterated Hebrew terms are explained, but if you start out not knowing your mikvahs from your mitzvahs, "Ask the Rabbi" makes little accommodation. A glossary would be helpful for what I'm sure will be a second volume.
Judaism excites Rabbi Ron. He explains major differences between the four popular movements of Judaism in America. There are adequate explanations of the ceremonies, the rituals, the importance of certain prayers, and even satisfying anecdotes about how melodiously the cantor chants and sings. In my own synagogue visits, I was dumbfounded as the rabbi offered thanks for making us Jewish. Rabbi Ron well-explains that such statements are not to be regarded as insensitive. They are mere positive expressions of the honor bestowed by the Torah. Rabbi Ron's services are conducted in Hebrew, and he gives useful tips for people without language skills. There are also good pointers for keeping a more perfect Shabbat. However, the ceremonies, prayers, and rituals appear focussed on process for its own sake. Inevitably, a question deals with this appearance of process versus purpose, but the answer is redundant.
An indirect question about 'who is a Jew?' needed to appear earlier, because "Jew" is ambiguous. One can be a Jew by descent (Yehudim) as an ancestor of Yehudah, or his brothers Benyimin and Lewi, those who also inhabited the Southern Kingdom and later Roman province of Judea. Or, one can be a Jew by the religion of Judaism. While not universal, the two often coincide. Rabbi Ron's convoluted answer touches on both keeping the commandments and the nation of Israel's contentious Law of Return authorizing the Orthodox Rabbinate. It begs the question, 'What is Judaism?'
"Ask the Rabbi" lacks a clear definition of Judaism. From the time of Mosheh, through Shelomo, and up to the Babylonian Captivity, there was no Judaism. The children of Yisra'el are simply commanded to observe the Torah as their way of life. Judaism, as an organized religion overseen by the rabbi-teacher, began during, and as a response to the Babylonian Captivity. After the Temple's destruction in the pre-Christian first century, messianic-Jews, the Yehudim who believed on Yahushua (different from today's "Messianic Judaism"), were ejected from the synagogues and shunned, because they were pacifists in the revolt against Rome. The artifice of labeling a Jew overtly by membership in Judaism further excluded messianic-Jews. For such questions that continually baffle ordinary Jews (e.g., Avraham was not a Jew), Rabbi Ron appears to safeguard uncertainty, without purposely misstating fact.
"Ask the Rabbi" earns its fourth and fifth stars in the latter third, where through advocacy of liberal causes, it presents a useful illumination into the Jewish-American psyche. I had previously believed that the damage being inflicted on our society by secular-liberalism emanated from misguided elitists and other misfits. Rabbi Ron shows that for a broad spectrum of Jews, the motivation is religion-based. While not alone, American Judaism encourages feminism, homosexuality, abortion, and the funding of stem-cell research. Incongruously, Rabbi Ron perceives that Judaism is threatened in part by intermarriage and a low birth rate.
A lucid appreciation of liberal causes would find them at odds with Torah. However, from answers to questions ranging from eating Chinese food to beard shaving, one understands that Torah-observance is more or less optional in American Judaism. And as the Messiah discovered, Judaism self-righteously pursues other commands to unnatural extremes, e.g., wholly separating dairy from meat, and not misusing the Sacred Name by consciously overlooking it. Running from the Torah and embracing secular causes seems unwittingly self-destructive.
Yet, Rabbi Ron has misplaced anxieties about Christians, believing that missionaries are specifically targeting Jews. He should refer all future questions about Christians to an informed friend. Messianic Scripture expressly forbids door-to-door proselytizing. Out of hundreds of Christian sects, only three violate that stricture: Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh-day Adventists. I doubt whether representatives from these sects have a better command of Hebrew and the Tanak than ordinary Jews. They don't systematically target Jews; they target the unaware. However, there is extra credit for snaring a Jew. Therefore, don't point to the mezuzah cueing the missionaries leave.
The messianic message was predicted to be imminently and utterly corrupted. Thus, we have the living amalgam we call Christianity. Christianity's interpretations will never be acceptable to knowledgeable Jews. So, it amazed me to see that Rabbi Ron quotes the Messiah's commitment to the Torah into the far future. Rabbi Ron justifiably denounces Christianity for misrepresenting the Messiah and His stand on the Law. The Torah is a framework for unsurpassed goodness and freedom. Knowing this truth is what harmonizes the so-called Old and New Testaments. Given his stunning recognition, I was sad to leave Rabbi Ron, knowing that he'd reject further investigation.
Although it's a negative, denying the Messiah seems to be the only constant in Judaism, and its millstone. Because it's the principal motivation, Judaism's misperception of Christianity causes it to waste energy by being reactionary. For no other reason, if Christians are fervent, Judaism is secular; if Christians vote Republican, Judaism supports Democrats. It seems oddly simple, but it's an extremely helpful and worthwhile insight. My blessings and sincere good wishes go out to Rabbi Ron Isaacs and his family!
Since the questions for "Ask the Rabbi" came largely from Hebrew School and Hebrew High students, one would think it to be a children's book. However, the breadth of the topics, the depth of the answers, and the almost conversational style of the answers make the book suitable for readers of all ages. Whether you start at the beginning and read straight through, or as I did, skip around to topics of particular interest, the reading is easy and informative. Rabbi Isaacs makes a point to explain many of the answers from the standpoints of the different branches of Judaism. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about the Jewish religion.