With the Jewish High Holy Days beginning a week from today, two books that tell much about contemporary American Judaism leap up from the pile by my treadmill: One's a farce, the other a tragedy.
The marketers for David Plotz's Good Book (Harper-Collins, 2009) are selling it as "what happens when a regular guy" reads through the Old Testament. Some regular guys are awestruck, but Plotz's reaction to God creating everything out of nothing is snarky: "You'd think God would know exactly what He's doing at the Creation. But He doesn't. He's a tinkerer."
And yet, occasionally Plotz's sarcasm fails him, and he reacts in a way that a fellow Jew who took the Bible seriously would probably self-censor. For example, as Plotz works through Hosea he is suddenly astounded: "There's a curious proto-Christian moment midway through the book. . . . Hosea instructs the Israelites to return to the Lord, telling them, 'On the third day He will raise us up, and we shall be whole by His favor.' Am I crazy to think this has overtones of the resurrection of Christ?"
No, you're not, don't abandon this insight. But by the next page it's gone and we're hearing laugh lines like "Our God is a recycling God" and "Dentistry must not have been a divine priority." Plotz plods along in ignorance-"Whatever the reason, Judges has left me bewildered"-and doesn't do the research that might dewilder him. The contrast between lazy authorship and conscientious work is sharp. Norman Podhoretz's well-researched, thoughtful Why Are Jews Liberal? (Random House, 2009) explains that Jewish liberation in Europe from anti-Semitic ordinances owed much to the influence of the Enlightenment in the 18th century (even though Voltaire called the Jewish nation "the most detestable ever to have sullied the earth"). In recent times, American Jews saw Franklin Roosevelt as their champion in the literally life-or-death struggle against Hitler. Both times the left seemed virtuous.
Podhoretz notes, though, that "the historical theory [of why Jews are predominantly liberal] does not explain why, under radically different conditions, they still are." So he looks at sociological factors: First, "One might think that American Jews, being so successful by every measure, would no longer be suffering from a sense of marginality, but it seems that they still do." Second, American Jews disproportionately garner graduate degrees-joke: A Jewish dropout is someone without a Ph.D.-and classes suffused with liberal propaganda often confirm among Jewish students what they have already heard from liberal parents.
Basically, though, the issue is theological: Most American Jews are no longer theistic, so "liberalism has become the religion of American Jews." Podhoretz ends his book with "the hope that the Jews of America will eventually break free of their political delusions."
Washington, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton: four men who made key contributions to the writing of the Constitution and cannot readily be forgotten because their faces appear on U.S. currency. But what about dozens of others? Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, and America's Forgotten Founders, co-edited by Gary L. Gregg II and Mark David Hall (Butler Books, 2008), tells of them.
James Wilson of Pennsylvania leads their list: He was second only to Madison in influencing the Constitution. Second and third are George Mason of Virginia, father of the Bill of Rights, and Gouverneur Morris of New York, credited by Madison with handling most of "the style and arrangement" of the Constitution. Others in the book include John Jay, Roger Sherman, John Marshall, John Dickinson, and John Witherspoon. Two of the top 10 are slightly remembered because of a single sentence they uttered or wrote: Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death," and Thomas Paine's "These are the times that try men's souls."
A brilliant military founder, Nathanael Greene, is also largely forgotten, but Spence Tucker's Rise and Fight Again (ISI Books, 2009) emphasizes Greene's daring tactics that enabled the patriots to recapture Georgia and the Carolinas.