Book Review: Philosophical exploration of Jewish law

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Educating readers is the main purpose of the reviews that appear in this paper, whether it’s informing people about novels and nonfiction they might otherwise never learn about, or giving an overview of scholarly material that people are interested in, but might never read. I have eclectic tastes, meaning I read works in a wide variety of genres. Readers of this column might note, though, that I rarely review works about politics or philosophy.
The reason for this preface is to help explain my reaction to “The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law” by Leon Wiener Dow (Palgrave/Macmillan), which is a 100-page hybrid construction of philosophy, halachah and personal reflection. Parts read as if they were intended for a scholarly journal, for example, each chapter opens with an “abstract” giving details of the chapter and a listing of “keywords.” Wiener Dow, who is a research fellow and on the faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, begins his work with a philosophical look at God, Torah, the world, the word and the community. I have to confess that had I picked this work up at a bookstore, I might have stopped after reading after the first page. However, then I would have missed Wiener Dow’s wonderful meditations on halachah.
“The Going” combines two different streams of thought: one about Jewish philosophy and the other about halachah. Perhaps for philosophers, the two parts would more easily combine. However, I struggled with some sections, often having to look up words (including some Greek terms) to determine their specific philosophical meaning. What is more interesting is Wiener Dow’s discussion of his movement toward observance. He talks about being “commanded,” about wanting to live in a consistent way. He is not concerned about who is doing the commanding, though, but the experience of being commanded. He writes, “I close my eyes and listen hard for the command, to the command. I open them, and then perform a kind of visual squint, eyeing the commandment up and down until my eyes glass over and the commandment blurs and fades away, and again I can shut my eyes and listen to the command, listen for the command, hear the command. I open my eyes to the world once more, seeing it with a new clarity, and behold, it may well be that the command is part of the world, it is at home in the world, it belongs to the world.” 
This sense of being commanded led Wiener Dow to become more ritually observant. However, he does not define his particular practice, although it is clear parts are not strictly Orthodox. For example, he and his wife exchanged rings at their wedding, rather than following the more traditional path of having the groom give a bride a ring and receiving nothing in return. The author believes in an egalitarian halachah and notes that he’s been influenced by the feminist movement. There are times he has difficulty living what he feels is a “life of truth” and observing traditional halachah. He solves this problem by declaring the purpose of his religious practice is to experience “Torah-as-deed,” meaning that action matters more than theology. 
My favorite parts of “The Going” are when Wiener Dow writes about learning and studying Torah. For example, he sees Torah as a way to “testify to the presence of the Divine through our actions by living a commanded life of holiness. Holiness is the path I travel; it is not a destination.” When speaking about the Oral Torah, Wiener Dow notes that the ancient rabbis claimed that Torah has 70 faces, one for each of the 70 nations the rabbis thought existed. He compares this to “a powerful speaker who addresses a room full of listeners, only to have each and every listener experience that the speaker was addressing her. The Divine voice contains the radical potential to address each and every member of the audience as its unique recipient.” 
For Wiener Dow, the magic of Torah study occurs in “the beit midrash, a place where two or more learners gather together to read the text, attack it, be surprised by it, fall in love with it, be outraged by it, identify with it, feel alienated by it, be touched by it: to demand of it, to allow it to demand of them; to bring it into conversation with their lives, to bring their lives into conversation with it. The connection between learned Torah and life is immediate, urgent, and paramount... Accrued life is brought into direct contact with the text...[the learners in the beit midrash] are the mouths of Torah, of the ongoing Oral Torah, as well as the locus of revelation.” That statement is one of the most meaningful and thoughtful I’ve read about what occurs when people truly wrestle with the Torah text.
I found parts of “The Going” extremely difficult, although those with a background in philosophy will find those parts easier. My preference was for the sections about Jewish law, although having some background in halachah is helpful and the author assumes a familiarity with Jewish ideas and concepts. Wiener Dow clearly loves Torah and halachah, and that love shines throughout his book.