Jeffrey Radon’s easy to read book “Reconciling A contradictory Abraham” introduces readers to an orthoprax view of Judaism, an approach held by many ancient Jewish sages. Orthopraxy is not a water-downed Judaism; Radon is a practicing Jew.
Orthoprax Judaism stresses that the Torah contains no philosophy, no system of beliefs, and no requirement to have faith; it teaches people to behave properly, to be moral. Orthoprax is a Greek-Latin word meaning “correct conduct.” In contrast, the term orthodox, Greek-Latin for “correct beliefs,” stresses that its adherents accept and act in accordance with certain prescribed beliefs. While the terms orthodox and orthoprax are used very often today, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that they are recent terms, first used in 1851.
Radon recognizes that the term emunah in the Bible does not have the meaning “faith,” or “belief,” the definition given to the word in Modern Hebrew – and though he is not a biblical scholar and presents himself in his book not as a scholar but teacher, he recognizes that the widespread translation of the biblical word in English as “faith” or “belief” is actually a mistranslation. The term emunah means “holding firm, steadfast, being loyal.” It is not a theological term but a behavioral one. He calls it a “moral-psychological trait of character.” Thus, for example, when Genesis 15:6 states about Abraham v’he’e’min, that is often erroneously translated “and he believed in God,” the true meaning is he was loyal to God; the verse does not address his theology but his character and behavior.
The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible, Radon writes, is not monotheism, but that God demands that people act with proper behavior. The biblical prophet Micah summarized this in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord demands of you, but to do justice, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The sages Hillel and Rabbi Akiva gave the same idea without mentioning God: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others” (Hillel), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Rabbi Akiva).
While many Jews today think that the Torah requires orthodoxy, the term orthodoxy implies theological faith, which Radon argues is not in the Torah or required by it, and is a Christian-based notion. The Torah stresses good deeds primarily in a moral rather than ritual sense, and contains mitzvot, “commands,” referring to the biblical commands on how to act. According to orthopraxy, Jews can believe what they want as long as they are moral and do not harm others. This is similar to the US Supreme Court definition of the “Free Exercise Clause” of the US Constitution, that does not restrict any religious belief as long as there is no compelling reason to restrict it, meaning harm to others.
Jeffrey Radon discusses orthopraxy from various perspectives. He shows, among much else, that while orthodoxy tends to disparage and delegitimize fellow Jews who do not accept their beliefs and causes hurt feelings and schisms, orthopraxy encourages and facilitates harmony and good relationships.
Among the many of Radon’s many examinations, he analyses the seeming contradictions between two episodes involving the patriarch Abraham. In the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18), Abraham pleads with God, questioning the morality of God’s decision, “Shall the judge of all the earth sweep away righteous [people] with the wicked.” Yet, when God told him to bring his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), he remained silent. Soren Kierkegaard famously used the chapter 22 episode to teach fellow Christians that they must set aside their own thinking and accept the will of God, as a leap of faith. But, asks Jeffrey Radon, why didn’t Abraham take this leap in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah? And, Radon goes on to offer his solution and uses his interpretation as a springboard to show the orthoprax nature of the Bible.
This, of course, raises the question: Didn’t the famed philosopher and codifier Maimonides (1138-1204) make a list of thirteen principles of Judaism? One needs to understand, as Radon correctly explains, Maimonides wrote in the introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed that he writes for two audiences, for the common people and for intellectuals. Many scholars have asserted that he composed the thirteen principles for the average Jew who needed such a set since they were faced and confused by sets of beliefs by Muslims and Christians. In any event, Maimonides was the first Jew to develop such a list, and beliefs, as previously stated, are not required by the Torah.
This book is the first of five books in Jeffrey Radon’s orthoprax Judaism study series. It is filled with eye-opening and challenging ideas that readers will undoubtedly enjoy and learn from, even if they do not accept every detail that he presents.