- A Guide to Jewish Practice, volume 1: Everyday Living ed. by David A. Teutsch
This book is the first of three planned volumes. It covers daily practice, including kashrut, prayer, business ethics, and the value and operations of community. It also introduces values-based decision-making, a process for defining standards and reaching consensus preferred by Reconstructionists over traditional rabbinic paskenen. The second volume is slated to cover Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. Volume three will examine life-cycle and personal status. Status issues for lesbian, gay, and transgendered Jews are also covered in the current volume.
The first volume runs 636 pages, excluding biographies and index. Except for 85 pages devoted to decision-making, the main text is written by Rabbi David Teutsch with commentaries at the bottom of each page. Among the 68 commentators, most are rabbis; several educators and lay leaders are included.
This structure beautifully reflects both traditional Jewish methods of inquiry and contemporary Reconstructionist values. The cross-conversation on any given page invites engagement in much the same way as the multi-layered [End Page 124] conversation on a page of Talmud or mikra·ot g’dolot. Here, however, the authors emphasize and privilege individual voices and individual choices. As Teutsch writes, “The Guides’ operating assumption is that each of us weighs and applies values differently so that no two people or communities will necessarily end up following precisely the same practices.”
Juxtapositions between text and comment and among the comments themselves make for interesting reading. Some comments cite Jewish sources that either support or conflict with the main text. Others quote social science research, register personal opinions or experiences, or suggest advice or questions for readers to consider.
A product and reflection of the Reconstructionist movement, this book is meant to have wide appeal. The jacket describes it as “a repository of wisdom and guidance for anyone who is interested in leading a life of integrity, depth, and meaning.” It is dedicated to “those who seek Jewish spiritual insights and contemporary moral guidance that can shape their everyday lives.”
Yet I wonder who will be its true audience. Repeatedly, Teutsch addresses “beginners” to whom he offers advice. Every term is defined, and little or no knowledge is assumed. This in itself is laudable, but the author often goes to extremes, stating what must be obvious to any thinking person mildly acquainted with Western culture and/or the Jewish tradition. Moreover, would a “beginner” actually want to read over 600 pages to learn only part of a typical “Introduction to Judaism” curriculum—and await volumes 2 and 3?
Unfortunately, relatively few lay-people are likely to read a guide to Jewish practice from liberal movement’s perspective. Among those who do, I am not sure that this volume will meet their needs for information and inspiration. However, if this book can help Reconstructionist leaders to clarify their thinking to this point, that is a worthwhile goal in itself.
For rabbis and educators, there is little or no new information about Jewish ethics or practices in this volume, but there are new perspectives. The book contains small gems throughout. For example, Rabbi Barbara Penzner quotes a blessing for board meetings crafted by Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz. It draws on the Y’kum Purkan, as well as the blessing for Torah study to yield: Barukh atta Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-aolam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la·asok b’tzorkhei tzibbur, “Blessed are You our God, Ruler of all worlds, who commands us to engage in the needs of the community.” Another gem is the discussion of finding a name for a non-Jew who participates in Jewish life. “Jew by association” (vs. “Jew by birth” or “Jew by choice”) is an intriguing formulation. The term geir toshav is criticized by one commentator as inaccessible.
Primarily, A Guide to Jewish Practice will be useful to rabbis and educators of all movements as a resource for Adult Education. Sections can be paired with traditional sources drawn on by the authors. In particular...