Stephen Prothero's Jewish Problem

There are a lot of good things to say about Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One. Anyone who follows Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, on Twitter knows of his broad knowledge of the major (and many minor) religions from his brilliant Religion140+- Twitter feature. He brings that comprehensive familiarity with many faiths to his book, which lays out a thesis that more closely resembles an act of journalism than academia.

According to Prothero, the worldview that each religion essentially amounts to a singular path up the same mountain, however appealing and unifying, is a dangerous sham. Religions are indeed quite different, he says, and if we do not sufficiently appreciate those divisions, we run the risk of overlooking potential sources of violence, terrorism, and worse.

But however appealing Prothero's chapters are on Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Daoism, and atheism, he gets so disgracefully sloppy in his chapter on Judaism that he invites the kind of cross-examination that comes so naturally to the cast of Law and Order. If the chapter on Judaism contains so many untruths, whether blatant or inadvertent, what are we to think of the other sections?

In a subsection titled "Life Cycle Rituals," Prothero announces that Jewish mourning rituals include "a seven-day period of sitting shiva in the home followed by burial, Kaddish prayers for the dead, and a one-year-anniversary remembrance called the yahrzeit." Even a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for "Shiva (Judaism)," not to be confused with Shiva the Hindu deity, reveals that shiva is observed after the burial, which must commence as close to the time of death as possible. Further, the remembrance yahrzeit comes not only on the one-year-anniversary but annually.

Some of Prothero's other mistakes are subtler. Contrasting Judaism with moksha, the Hindu notion of spiritual liberation, Prothero says the Jewish view of human purpose is "'to walk humbly with thy God' (Micah 6:8) and in so doing to repair the world (tikkun olam)." The footnote after the italicized phrase refers the reader to The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation, from which Prothero says he has derived the bulk of his quotations from the Tanakh, the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament. The only problem is the concept of tikkun olam, which is a pop-Kabbalistic phrase, has no reference in the Jewish bible. The term, which can be found in the mission statements of most Jewish educational institutions and non-profits, is a very modern concept, which Prothero seems to confuse with the Micah quote, which is quite biblical.

An odd thread that continues throughout much of God Is Not One is the strained introduction of artificial differences to bolster the thesis that religions are very different. One such synthetic divergence is the description of Christianity as a religion of faith, while Judaism is one of action. Or, as Prothero says it, "Judaism differs dramatically from Christianity, where faith is paramount. Whereas Christians strive to keep faith, Jews strive to keep the commandments." How odd that Prothero cannot seem to remember that belief in God is the first of the Ten Commandments. Has he forgotten that Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and medical man, insisted upon Thirteen Principles of Faith, not action? Apparently not. Referring to the "Thirteen Principles" (and truncating "of Faith"), Prothero declares that Maimonides' principles were controversial "and not universally accepted," so "Judaism has always been more about practice than belief." But surely even Jewish practice, according to Prothero, has been hotly debated, so one can hardly call practice an essential part of Judaism according to Prothero's logic.

Judaism is "unusually cacophonous," according to Prothero. "If you ever stumble on a traditional yeshiva, a Jewish school for the study of sacred texts, the first thing you will notice is the noise," he says. "Students study in pairs in a large hall, often with wild gesticulations and hardly ever in hushed tones." Apparently, the students "read aloud from this story or that law, and they argue even louder about the meanings." Having spent 14 years at a yeshiva day school, a year at a yeshiva in Israel, and another three years at Yeshiva University, I can say with assurance that not all of the halls are large, and many of the chavrutot, or learning partnerships, are quite quiet and respectful. I am wholly confident that the rates of wild gesticulation amongst my peers at the yeshivot I attended were consistent with similar rates in gentile communities. The gesticulations make for good fodder for Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, no doubt, but they are the stuff of fiction at best, and perhaps even Orientalism.

Elsewhere, Prothero calls the 16th-century work the Shulchan Aruch (literally, "set table") the "most authoritative collection of halakha (Jewish 'law' or 'way') after the Talmud." One wonders why, if Prothero took this from Wikipedia, he did not quote in full: "Together with its commentaries, it is frequently considered the most authoritative compilation of halacha since the Mishneh Torah or even the Talmud itself." Maimonides' Mishneh Torah might well be more authoritative, and the same could be said for the 19th-century Aruch HaShulchan. Unfortunately, Prothero does not provide any footnote to back up his "authoritative" claim.

Although Prothero allows that the Jewish tales of exile and redemption, "with all due respect to Christian narratives of the Passion of Jesus and Hindu narratives of Rama and Sita," may be "the greatest story ever told" -- and one wonders how Prothero the scholar manages to define "great" in this regard -- he launches into a shopping list of the disproportionate achievements of Jews. Included are Jewish holdings of Supreme Court seats and CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, as well as their achievements in sports (Sandy Koufax), television ("Almost every major Hollywood studio was founded by Jews, as were NBC and CBS"), Broadway (Gershwin, Berlin, Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Mamet, Wasserstein), literature (Ginsberg, Dylan, Philip Roth) and architecture (Kahn, Gehry, Libeskind). The list of Jews in comedy is far too long to quote.

This sort of listing is sure to remind some of the claims of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but one group of Jews is noticeably absent: Jewish fine artists. Prothero could have referred to Rothko, Lee Krasner, Soutine, Chagall, Ardon, Bakst, Lucian Freud, Newman, Weber, Morris Louis, Lissitzky, Liebermann, Levitan, several Soyers, Simeon Solomon, Shahn, Kitaj, Rivers, Kaufmann, Pissarro, Olitski, Oppenheim, Gottlieb (several of them), and Man Ray.

Prothero's omission might be part of a larger misconception. "Unlike Christians, [Jews] insist that God is not to be depicted in human form or worshipped in 'graven images,'" he says. Of course, one can find thousands of representative illustrations and paintings in Jewish sacred books and buildings. In the third-century synagogue at Dura-Europos, the divine hand is clearly visible in the depiction of Ezekiel's vision, and the signs of the Zodiac appear on the floor of the Byzantine Beit Alfa Synagogue.

It's unfortunate that Prothero's mistakes -- like declaring that Orthodox Jewish men won't walk more than four steps without a head covering, when plenty of Orthodox Jews remove their kippot when they are at work -- call his otherwise compelling theory into question. Religions are very different, and perhaps they can continue to play nicely (or at least civilly) at the same sandbox by realizing and embracing their differences in addition to their common ground. But just as it won't do to exaggerate the common ground, Prothero does not help his cause by overstating the differences. Nor is it helpful to approach the different faiths without investing sufficient energy into copyediting and fact-checking. There are more than enough untruths circulating about faith. Prothero had the chance to dispel some of those. Unfortunately, he only made it part way.

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