“Are you ready to be serious?” About halfway through Tough Questions Jews Ask, Rabbi Edward Feinstein tells a story about a man he met at the gym. Asking the Rabbi about how often he was planning on coming to work out, he realized that Feinstein wasn’t really on board with more than once or twice a week and told him to come back when he was willing to “get serious” about getting in shape. It’s a perfect anecdote for Feinstein’s book, which in a very manageable 136 pages hits all of the highlights of how-to Judaism, or perhaps more appropriately, how-to progressive Judaism in the new millennium. For those who are ready to get serious about Judaism, this book is a solid introduction.
Obviously designed for the pseudo-rebellious adolescents in our midst, or perhaps for the Hebrew school superstar seeking to put his doubting classmates in their place, the book does an adequate job of answering some of the challenging zingers frequently tossed around in Hebrew School classrooms. The sound bites are a little predictable — Love Israel! Questioning God is OK! All denominations are great! God is real but doesn’t do what God used to! You can pray anywhere! We don’t really know about death! — but consistent.
Feinstein wants the Facebook generation to know that it’s cool to be Jewish and that we are a religion of cynics, doubters, and yisraelim, God-wrestlers. His answers will parry away the usual challenges, but some of the answers are a little too cute. If the doubting young Jew is looking for proof about God’s existence, he’ll be disappointed with the following: “When God acts in the world, it’s not through thunder-and-lightning miracles from the sky. It’s through the selfless acts of people… who heal and help.” Similarly, Feinstein’s attempt at answering the question about why bad things happen to good people comes up too short for the teenager: “Even in the worst of circumstances, God is present in our ability to share caring and help” and in bringing healing to people in pain. As adults, some of us have gotten there, to the place Feinstein is heading. I might be able to find God in my children, or in the emptiness of the Negev, or identify compassion as being God-like, but for kids, the evidence has to be tangible. They want proof before going all in.
The easy answers in Tough Questions are efficiently delivered, but theology, as for all of us, is where the easy answers just won’t suffice. Feinstein makes sure that his readers know that he isn’t into absolutes, so at a certain point the kids have to be willing to “get serious” about Judaism. Feinstein will get some of them on board; he cajoles, connives, commiserates, and celebrates all through the book. He’s the kind of rabbi that a kid would probably like. But the answers only go so deep. If you really want to get serious, if you really want to wrestle, Feinstein will leave you a little empty and seeking something deeper. I’m sure, though, that he would be absolutely fine with that.
Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life
Rabbi Edward Feinstein
Jewish Lights Publishing
2009 paperback edition (Originally published 2003)