Book Review: Judaism without Tribalism by Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro never disappoints. His latest opus, Judaism without Tribalism, (Monkfish Book Publishing, 2022), witty and radical, contains enough handout material for six or seven adult ed courses. Chapter 14, for example, Manifesto, is the syllabus for a course in Jewish values and ethics. Appendix I is the text for a course on Israel/US relations. Appendix II, Jew Hatred, contains some genuinely original thoughts on how to combat the hatred of Jews and Israel, such as “cultivating a love of words and word smithing” so as to counter the effects of “uncritical believing.”

Despite its light and accessible style, Shapiro’s latest tackles the thorniest Jewish question of all: Can Judaism grow beyond its tribalistic and cultic focus and become, instead, a beacon of cosmopolitanism and universal ethical principles? Can it become, in Shapiro’s terms, a “good religion” (emphasizing compassion and justice for all) instead of a bad religion (emphasizing obedience and distrust of “others”)? Can it be, as the Torah enjoins, a beam of insight to all the nations of the world? Can Judaism break its attachment to the tribal God of the Torah narrative and turn to a God that is the perpetually “happening” source of all reality and being.

“Turning” is one of the two pillars of Judaism without tribalism: Teshuva. In Shapiro’s model, teshuva is a very deep dive into the nature of the universal (not tribal) God and an exploration of how that God is manifest in each of us. The other pillar is Tikkun, the obligation to be a light for the world, an advocate/activist for justice and compassion. In this way, the Jew may become a “blessing for all the families of the world.” Further, Shapiro argues that if Jews cannot fulfill this mission, we are “irrelevant.” (Note, though, that in his section on advice for congregational rabbis, my favorite chapter, he urges them not to try to be relevant.)

The circumstance that creates the need for such a book is that, at present, tribalistic Judaism tends to overwhelm non-tribalistic Judaism. Our leaders generally believe that the Torah story is an actual history, that the impulsive and murderous tribal god of the Bible is our real God. And that “chosenness” means Jews are separate from and better than the rest of the world. Thus, those with a liberal temperament, those who see tribalism as the source of much of the suffering of the world throughout history…such people will feel alienated from Judaism.

And here is the most ingenious part of the book. Rabbi Shapiro demonstrates how nearly every aspect of Judaism—every key idea, every holiday, every life-cycle event—can be reinterpreted (with textual references) to reject tribalistic thinking and, instead, enhance the concepts of Teshuva and Tikkun. For example, the brit milah (circumcision) as a ritual in which a boy rejects masculine aggression and domination. The Tallith (prayer shawl) allows you to shift your perspective from “what is around you to what is within you.” And, moreover, Shapiro urges us to reject, without apology, any element that is inconsistent with Teshuva or Tikkun.

So, Judaism without tribalism is a good religion and tribalistic Judaism is a bad religion. Among the many attributes of good religions is the pursuit of the Truth. And here we must pause and question. Is religion, by its nature, a truth-seeking enterprise?

Spinoza said NO. “Between faith or theology, and philosophy, there is no connection nor affinity. I think no one will dispute the fact who has knowledge of the aims and foundations of the two subjects, for they are as wide apart as the poles. Philosophy has no end in view save truth: faith, as we have abundantly proved, looks for nothing but obedience and piety.”

Shapiro is not the first to try to make Judaism less parochial. The Biblical prophets believed in a less tribal God. Early Christianity dropped the commandments so as to make Judaism more accessible to a larger group. Maimonides’ no-attribute God in the Guide for the Perplexed scarcely resembles the volcanic God of Exodus. Spinoza gave us a non-supernatural God entirely accessible through non-sectarian contemplation. The builders of Reform Judaism looked for wisdom in the writings of Kant, removing God altogether from Jewish ethics. Reform Judaism begat a non-theistic Ethical Culture movement. Mordechai Kaplan called God the “imputed personality of the cosmos” and wrote about a Judaism without the supernatural.

In Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, she asserts that nearly all religions start out aspiring to universality and inclusion, but soon devolve into tribalistic ritual and disdain for non-members. Apparently, not enough people want to belong to a club that accepts everyone. And Shapiro even goes so far to say that anyone who says he or she is a Jew IS a Jew.

My own bias, following Spinoza, is that studying Torah and other texts is helpful and stimulating in the contemplation of God and the forming of ethical principles (as well-demonstrated in this work), but neither necessary nor sufficient. The quickest paths away from tribalism and toward truth are still, I suspect, philosophy and science.

Rabbi Edmond H Weiss, Ph.D.

August 2, 2022

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Edmond for your thoughtful analysis. It’s nice to see Rabbi Rami’s book is finally published, especially after his visit with us earlier in the year.

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