Great Courses: Great World Religions: Judaism, by Professor Isaiah M. Gafni
As a listener to this set of courses, I felt myself in a somewhat uncomfortable position. Had I been less aware about the history and culture of Judaism , I would have found this book to be quite charming and amusing, although perhaps a bit obscure. Had I been Jewish, of whatever kind, I would likely have found it possible to cheer on the author in his attempts to wrestle bravely with the tension between universalist and particularist tendencies within Judaism itself. Unfortunately, the author and I are somewhat at cross purposes. I know enough about the subject this course is about to be critical of the oral Torah, deeply critical of it, and to see the claims of both contemporary reformers as well as defenders of Orthodoxy as deeply wanting. On the other hand, I am not enough of a Jewish insider to feel fully a part of the community that the author speaks about. Perhaps most of the people who listen to this course will not in the uncanny valley as I am, and perhaps they will be either comfortable insiders or curious outsiders and not wary people caught in the middle as I so often seem to be, though.
In terms of its contents, this audiobook spends it six hours of listening time in a somewhat unusual way. At least it was unexpected for me. The professor begins by asking the obvious question: What is Judaism, and in answering that question that Judaism is difficult to pin down because it is more than a religion and also involves a community and a nation and a people. After this the professor looks at the stages of Jewish history and then spends an entire lecture looking at the books of the Jewish library, a subject near and dear to my own book-loving heart. The professor then turns to a discussion of the emergence of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70AD, a point where I view Judaism as having made some serious mistakes. After this comes an examination of Jewish worship relating to prayer and the synagogue and then lectures on the calendar which includes not only yearly but also ceremonies that mark the change in stages of life in individual believers. The professor then turns his focus to looking at the relationship between God and man in Judaism, which is quite disrespectful to God often, and looks as well at philosophers and mystics, the author being fond of both. The last three lectures look at the legal framework of Judaism–halakha–before looking at the plurality of Judaism that has always existed but which now threatens to dissolve into schism, as well as the relationship between Judaism and “others” like Muslims and Christians.
In listening to this series of courses I found much that dissatisfied me. The professor, to his credit, did appear to be aware of the existence of Christians who were not antinomian, which was something praiseworthy, although he appears to understate the responsibility of Judaism in the breakup of the early modus vivendi between Jews and Christians. Likewise, the author’s citations of the Talmud demonstrated the gulf that exists between someone like me who is seriously interested in the biblical body of law but extremely hostile to the usurpation of the Pharisees and their orthodox successors and in their ungodly human traditions that they view as having the same status as sacred biblical law. Even so, though, it was striking to me at least that the Jewish basis for the so-called Oral Torah enshrined in the Mishnah and its commentaries and commentaries on commentaries bears a striking resemblance to the hadiths of Islam which I also view with intense criticism and also the body of Catholic tradition from the Ante- and Post-Nicene Church Fathers that I also view as invalid. In short, even where this course is irritating, it is at least instructive in placing the point of view of the professor in a context of history that is genuinely informative.
 See, for example: