Ben Rothke

Book review – Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era

The dictionary definition of blind faith is “belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination”. While perfect faith is a level that might not be attainable by all, blind faith has always been an anathema in Judaism. In Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era (Maggid Book 978-1592644988), author Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University, attempts remove levels of blind faith, and give the reader close to 20/20 vision in which to understand a number of core philosophical issues of Judaism.

In this, the first of a three-volume series on the theological foundations of Jewish faith; Wiederblank has written a brilliant sourcebook around three core areas of Jewish faith: free will, the afterlife, and the messianic era. The primary purpose of the book is to collect and analyze the various traditional sources on these topics. To that, the author has collected a voluminous amount of material and presents these as primary sources for the reader.

Last year, Eitan Gross (while it may have been a sockpuppet, the issue he details is true) caused a lot of soul searching when he blogged in Modern Orthodoxy from a Teenager’s Perspective that modern Orthodox teenagers can tell you who Kobe, Jay Z, or even Shakespeare is, but very few will know who R’ Chaim Kanievsky or R’ Herschel Shachter are. They’ll know the history of America in depth, but won’t know how the State of Israel was established; and will know how to solve complex math equations, but wouldn’t be able to read a simple mishnah.

To that, it’s not just modern Orthodox teenagers that are often oblivious to fundamental issues of faith and theology. Rather it’s many across the entire spectrum of observance. In this book, Wiederblank addresses, and provides in a sophisticated and intellectually honest approach, tangible answers to these fundament questions.

Many people have left observance, when their sincere questions around faith and theology were answered with a scowl and response of “we don’t ask questions like that”. But they did in fact ask questions like that; and sardonic rejoinder like that will only serve to distance them from greater faith and understanding. The book provides no sardonic answers, rather honest answers to essential questions.

If I had to encapsulate this work in a single word, it would be struggle. Wiederblank shows how the greatest of sages have grappled and struggled with these ideas. When it comes to free will for example, it is one of the most vexing questions, which has left many of the greatest Jewish philosophers often scratching their heads. If God is removed from time and truly knows everything, how then can free will exist? How can humans be responsible for anything if God in his infinite and timeless knowledge knows in advance what the outcome will be.

The book quotes references abundantly from some of the greatest Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including Maimonides, Nachmanides, Ibn Ezra, and Yehudah Halevi to Rabbis Zadok haKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin, Eliyahu Dessler, Abraham Isaac Kook to Yitzchok Hutner and more.  As he wants this to be a sourcebook, Wiederblank is careful to quite from primary sources, in the original Hebrew and also translated into English.

The question of how to reconcile divine foreknowledge and free will has baffled some of the greatest minds throughout Jewish history. Wiederblank provides myriad sources to the various aspects of the question. He notes that most prominently Saadia Gaon who observed that God’s foreknowledge does not compel a particular choice. To that, Wiederblank gives the example of big data which can predict what product a person will buy. They are not compelled to make that purchase, albeit that the level of foreknowledge big data predicts does not affect their actual choice.

Part 2 discusses topics such as the Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come), Techiyat Ha-Meitim (resurrection), heaven and hell, and more. Weiderblank again does a good job of providing various sources to what these concepts are. While Judaism is certainly monotheistic, if any, this book shows that it is far from monolithic. In part 2, the author sources the spectrum of Jewish thought as to the wide range of approaches to these topics.

In part 3, the book deals with mashiach, false messiahs, what will the messianic era look like, and much more. The topics are dealt with the same level of depth and sophistication as the rest of the book.

The only thing missing in the book is an index and reference of source. A book of this complexity could really use those to make the most out of the concentration of sources.

In Illuminating Jewish Thought, Wiederblank has written an extraordinary guide to understanding some of the most fundamental and profound concepts in Judaism. The philosophical concepts detailed must be understood to prevent anyone from falling into the intellectual pit of blind faith.

The topics and questions detailed in the book form the bedrock of Jewish faith. There are no easy answers to the many difficult and challenging matters that the book deals with. Wiederblank writes that these topics and the underlying texts demand rigorous study. He suggests that ideally one should read the texts, analyze them attentively, and not to trust his interpretation.

Blind faith with its lack of true understanding offers little to the Jewish soul. The challenge of real faith, as Wiederblank has so astutely written, comes with its challenges of making sense of the many seemingly contradictory ideas we face daily. The author has taken a journey and brings the reader along on his exploration. He offers no easy answers but supplies myriad thought-provoking sources.

In this extraordinarily fascinating and well-researched book, the author deals with some of the most fundamental and essential topics of Jewish philosophy. For those looking for answers to these questions, the book will certainly be an indispensable guide.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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