Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips
Reviewed by - Rabbi Ari Kahn
Torah study is a multi-faceted discipline, ranging from the examination of biblical texts to the study of Mishnah, Talmud, and Kabbalistic literature (and much more). Even the first, most basic element, reading the text of the chumash itself, can be approached from a variety of different angles. One approach focuses on the so-called pshat, which I would translate as the straightforward, contextual understanding of the text, but many more levels of understanding are available. It is told of the famed Gaon of Vilna, a man who singlehandedly authored more commentaries on esoteric Kabbalistic ideas than almost all of his contemporaries combined, that toward the end of his life he returned to the text of the Torah as his main text of study. The Vilna Gaon focused on the most basic Jewish text as the source of the ideas developed in the Mishnah, the Talmud, the midrashim, the Zohar, and the writings of the Rambam, precisely because he saw that all of the wisdom accumulated and extrapolated over centuries of Jewish learning emerge from this text. Law, philosophy and ethics emerge from the text of the Torah, and often “between the lines,” as well.
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips’ recent work rests upon a similar approach as it unlocks the Torah for this generation. His new book, Judaism Reclaimed, facilitates a multi-faceted, multi-disciplined appreciation of Torah ideas for modern readers. The book covers a vast array of topics and an almost-dizzying number of sources. In a sense, Judaism Reclaimed is a wonderful review of – and response to – modern intellectual discourse.
Rabbi Phillips “dusts off” the writings of Maimonides, especially the Guide for the Perplexed, which some modern Jewish scholars have claimed is more suited to medieval intellectual concerns, especially in the sections that address Islamic or Greek philosophy (see, for example, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind). Judaism Reclaimed has the Rambam weigh in on a host of modern issues. Similarly, Rabbi Phillips shines another major light on the issues he tackles by bringing Rav Shimshon R. Hirsch into the discussion. Rav Hirsch’s insights, presented deftly and with great sensitivity and skill by Rabbi Phillips, quite often prove extremely current, even prescient, and extremely forward-thinking. But these are far from isolated examples: Judaism Reclaimed cites a broad-ranging list of thinkers and writers, both ancient and modern, to buttress arguments and illuminate the discussion (including insights from my first published work, Explorations, which has recently been re-published in a much-expanded version titled Explorations Expanded: Bereishit).
If I were to voice any small criticism of Judaism Reclaimed, it would not be with Rabbi Phillips’ enlightening and engaging volume but with the recommendation for it penned by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who implies that Judaism Reclaimed introduces a new philosophical approach. I found quite the opposite to be the case: The strength of the book lies in its strong foundations, as it bases its arguments on – rather than departing from - generations of Jewish and general philosophy. Rather than trailblazing a new path, Judaism Reclaimed revisits, re-examines, clarifies; it makes the old path newly accessible.
My second “criticism” regards tone rather than content, as reflected in the title: The author believes that Judaism needs to be “reclaimed.” Rabbi Phillips implies that evil or ignorant forces have attempted a hostile takeover of Jewish thought. Consequently, at times his tone is strident when pointing out and rejecting the inroads these forces have made.
These small criticisms aside, Judaism Reclaimed is a wonderful introduction (for some, it will be more of a clear-headed review) of major chapters in classical Jewish thought and intellectual episodes of more recent vintage. The work is extremely well-written and well-informed, and I have no doubt that it will serve as a reading companion, a source of ideas, and a springboard for discussion for years to come.