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Amazing Chesed: Living a Grace-Filled Judaism by Rabbi Rami Shapiro (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 65, Number 3, Spring 2014
pp. 101-104 | 10.1353/coj.2014.0006

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“In the teaching of Judaism, grace is often overlooked,” laments Rabbi Rami Shapiro in Amazing Chesed: Living a Grace-Filled Judaism, which purports to provide an intellectually and spiritually compelling approach to grace.

Shapiro tells us at the outset that his book is “not an encyclopedic effort” (p. vii). He feels no obligation to build upon the different biblical terms for grace in order to do justice to the nuances of that concept. He latches on to the term ḥesed, declaring that it means “God’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation” (p. ix). Yet in its biblical context, ḥesed is best translated as “loving loyalty,” a quality of devotion added to a covenantal (and thus conditional) relationship by God or a king or a commoner; and in rabbinic parlance, ḥesed is often repaid (g-m-l).

In Shapiro’s view, “God’s grace is the giving of all to all” (p. xi). Yet the key biblical term for grace, hardly mentioned by Shapiro, is ḥein, a kind of grace that must often be “found” or “shown” by human effort or divine will. And then there is the term that Shapiro doesn’t mention at all, no·am, which, as Joseph Albo suggested, may be another term for divine grace. Shapiro may be on to something when he includes the word tov, “good,” as a possible grace-term, but he does not tell us whether biblical or rabbinic or Spinoza studies prompted his conclusion that “Grace is tov, and tov means ‘complete unto itself’” (p. 71). Biblical parallelism would indicate that tzedek, “righteousness,” when used with tov and/or ḥesed, may be a grace-term as well.

Shapiro does cite the key statement of divine grace found in the biblical narrative, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19), but without pointing out that the root for ḥein is used there instead of the term ḥesed. He declares that unless one wants to affirm a capricious and not-worth-bothering-with God (p. 19), this passage must be taken to mean that God cannot place conditions on God’s unconditional flow of grace (p. 20), because God “creates and sustains us … purely from the necessity of God’s own nature [as] … a choiceless God who acts solely from the nature of what it is to be God” (p. 35). And this God is free because of not having to choose, “for there has to be some criteria—external or internal, logical or emotional—that determines that choice” (p. 17; see pp. 14, 19). Given such divine unconditionality (or perhaps nonconditionality), human grace is more impressive because it is often a choice!

One can—and should—question the logic in such theology. But this book is written in service of that theology in which God is the “is-ing of reality, and grace is what results from that is-ing. Since God is unconditioned, God’s grace is unconditioned” (p. 13).

Every reading of biblical narrative and law, of talmudic passages and of Jewish philosophers medieval and modern, peddles this theology that Shapiro—and his publisher, according to the preface—want to promulgate. God, “being itself, doesn’t reward and punish,” but “simply does,” and what God “does sometimes works in our favor and sometimes doesn’t”; but God “sets out to do neither. God is what is” (p. 8). Shapiro offers no arguments for his theology, as, say, Jay Michaelson does in his recent book, Everything is God, which advocates a similar approach to the Divine. Shapiro hawks his theory by repeating it over and over again.

The most interesting implication of Shapiro’s theology is the notion that the “ultimate grace of God is reality itself, and reality contains both light and dark, both good and evil” (p. 20). Yet Shapiro does not develop this line of thought, preferring only to repeat it (pp. 23, 73, 90).

This book suggests that God’s grace is something greater than God, much like the “realm above the gods” that Yehezkel Kaufmann found in pagan religion. “We are simply an actualization of the infinite grace and possibility of God,” Shapiro declares. “God has...

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