June 14, 2024
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Judaism Trumps Contemporary Progressive Society

Reviewing: “Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures,” by Moshe Koppel Ph.D. Maggid Books. 2020. English. Hardcover. 218 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592645572.

Moshe Koppel has written a fascinating, witty, profound book addressed mainly to those who have wrestled with the problem of maintaining deep traditional religious commitments while engaged with a cosmopolitan secular society that often denigrates such commitments. It explores the central differences between traditional religious societies, such as Judaism’s, and progressive, contemporary ones. This book is a must read for those who have left the religious community and for those weak in their commitment.

His argument is compelling: Jewish morality, traditional halacha and beliefs have developed so highly that they work far better than liberal, modern society in terms of advancing fairness, cooperation and freedom. He explains the difference between the secular and the religious mindset, setting out why faith endures and why staying connected to the Jewish community is important.

Throughout the book he uses two fictional characters to prove his point. Heidi, Princeton educated, represents the secular, liberal, cosmopolitan Jew; and Shimen, of the Polish shtetl, represents the traditional, observant, insulated Jew; one is narrow and Orthodox and the other is worldly and realistic. He argues that most people are confused about which one is which. Then he explains why every long-lived, stable, successful society that we know about is more like Shimen’s than like Heidi’s. He posits that traditional Judaism in particular is an enduring and ideal way of life needed in our modern era. Koppel convincingly makes the case that traditional Judaism is both more “worldly and realistic” than most people understand.

As theses go, this is one of the more counterintuitive, not to say idealistic. Koppel is asserting that Jewish custom and communalism—that is, highly localized independent communities, such as Orthodox Jews have—constitute a more effective and sustainable mode of living than that practiced by today’s unrestrained and unaffiliated children who believe that what’s moral, what’s good, is what makes the most people happy. He pits old-time religion against the purportedly powerful influence of modern “scientific” existence; the Yiddishkeit of yore against the creeping nihilism, individualism and free-for-all, disorderly universalism of the contemporary West.

Members of a society, in order to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sustain that society, must genuinely believe that they are part of a meaningful, directed project that will long outlive them. Heidi and her daughter (who is even more progressive) represent a society with dim prospects. Unable to connect with the past and without a sense of purpose for the future, they lack the will to perpetuate themselves. Marriage, family, children, abortion, non-traditional sexual relationships, euthanasia are all options on the table, to be accepted or not. Heidi’s world is doomed!

Is religion necessary? Does it improve people who engage in its practices? Koppel’s informative book is provocative and brilliant. His reasoned and passionate defense of religious life is direly needed in an increasingly fragmented society. Koppel tells us that we can live like those who were given the privilege of wealth and leisure fueled by an exaggerated sense of entitlement, or, what he proposes, refuse to be estranged from those who preceded us with little to pass on to those who follow us, and decide to live purposeful lives in quiet dignity that honor the wisdom of those who came before us and bequeath that wisdom—and perhaps just a bit more—to those who come after us.

What is the right way to live? How do we decide what is right and what is wrong? What is the connection between belief and commitment? Where are we headed? These are the questions this book is concerned with. The answers are important for this world.


Martin Polack is a business analyst involved in adult Jewish education.

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