The Religious Study Of Judaism, by Jacob Neusner
One of the issues with this book, and many like it, is that the author thinks of himself as a sound historian of religion. It is immensely difficult to be a good historian of religion. It is perhaps easiest to be a historian of religion when one is dealing with religions that no one speaks any longer, in the sense that one can have a mastery of traditions that are dead and that do not stir the heart or the imagination or the devotion of anyone now living. This author, of course, did not choose to write about the religious beliefs of the Assyrians or Moabites, but rather about Judaism, and as might be easily imagined his understanding of the historicity of Judaism is immensely lacking. That is not to say that the author gets everything wrong. Indeed, there are at least a few aspects which are well worth taking seriously, although there are some underlying assumptions that the author makes (including the supposed validity of the oral Torah) that are quite mistaken. This is the sort of book that can provide food for thought about the seriousness that one must take religion and the complexity of religious thinking in any age, especially when one is dealing with religious faiths. And if that is your interest then this book is certainly well worth reading.
This book is a relatively short one at less than 200 pages, and it is divided into several parts. After a preface and acknowledgements, the first part of the book provides the reader with the author’s description of Judaism (I), which includes chapters on parsing the rabbinic canon (1), defining the virtues of the inner life in Judaism (2), the symbolism of the art of the ancient synagogue (3), and looking at a contrast between various different strands and approaches to Judaism (4). After that the author conducts an analysis of Judaism (II), with chapters on the importance of the canonical context of writings (5), a comparison of Jewish and Christian death scenes in literature (6), and the argument between Jews and Christians in the first century over their shared symbolism (7). The third and final part of the book contains a chapter about the theological enemies of religious studies (III, 8), after which there is an index.
Personally speaking, I found this book to be better toward the end than toward the beginning. Where the author was discussing his view of the historical pattern of Judaism, there was much that I found of fault. As the book went on the author discusses the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and I thought the author did a much better job here, even though there is certainly plenty to critique about that as well. One of the things I must admit that disappointed me about the book, but which is not really the fault of the author, is that this book was not nearly as much about midrashic interpretation as I had hoped going in. In fact, there is some material about that subject. If you are looking for a book about the midrash, this is not the book I would read, but if one wants to see what contemporary Jewish thinkers believe about the history of Judaism, then this book has a lot to offer as one person’s perspective on it, and a perspective that is generally favorable to Judaism without being hostile to Christianity as is sometimes the case.