In this book, Rabbi Harold Kushner (perhaps best known as the author of 'When Bad Things Happen to Good People') explores the traditions and practices of Judaism with wit and wisdom. 'To Life!' is his celebration of his heritage, and the heritage of his entire community.
'"To Life!" conveys a sense of exuberance, a readiness to enjoy the pleasures of this world. It removes from wine, and from other pleasures, the taint of sin and self-indulgence, and invited us to look at all that God has created and find it good.' Judaism has a long history, longer than most continuing religious traditions in the world today. It is a testament to the foresight in Judaic teaching and wisdom that, despite its ancient origin, much of that wisdom is still relevant today. This may also have to do with the slow nature of change in the basic human nature, as well as the fact that timeless truths and problems are, well, timeless!
This book is a very personal book for Kushner. He states in the first chapter his Rule One about how to answer the question What does Judaism say about...? -- ''The only correct answer will always begin: "Some Jews believe as follows, and other Jews believe something different." The reason fo this is not just that we are a highly individualistic, independent-minded people. The main reason is that we have never found it necessary to spell out exactly what we are supposed to believe.'
A key difference between Judaism and many religions, including Christianity, is that it is an ethnically-based religion, not only in practice but in approach. The Jews were a people before they had a religion. With most every other religion, the converse is true. When Mordecai Kaplan asked Kushner and his rabbinical school fellow students to write down the ten greatest Jews of the twentieth century (the list included Einstein, Freud, Herzl, etc.) and then asked them to write down the synagogue each attended each week, the point was made clearly -- they were not Jews by virtue of religious observance, but through membership in a community.
Kushner proceeds in a classic Jewish style -- to tell stories. The community is built up largely of the stories carried forward from generation to generation, about the community and its collective responsibility to God and to each other, with neither aspect able to be separated from the other. Story-telling is something that the Christian community has learned and taken to heart from this practice, and indeed, in carrying the Hebrew scriptures into the canon of Christian scriptures, tells many of the same stories.
Kushner discusses sacredness and holiness -- he quotes Martin Buber who, in distinction from the thought of much of the world who believe there is the holy and the profane (unholy), believed the proper division exists between the holy and the not-yet-holy. Everything has a potential for holiness, as part of God's creation. 'Everything we do can be transformed into a Sinai experience, an encounter with the sacred. The goal of Judaism is not to teach us how to escape from the profane world to the cleansing presence of God, but to teach us how to bring God into the world, how to take the ordinary and make it holy.'
Throughout the book, in his discussion of the calendar -- from which he discusses holidays and rituals of importance-- to the ways of prayer, the diversity of Jewish belief about God and humanity, and the ideas of the state of Israel and historical and continuing anti-semitism, Kushner approaches each subject with clarity, compassion, wit, and the love only a life-long devotion to Judaism can bring. His final chapter, 'Why You Need to be a Jew', is aimed largely at the assimilationists, those who would forego much of Jewish life in favour of the greater culture. In this chapter, one can find reasons for a reaffirmation of one's own religion, whatever it may be, and find arguments for taking it seriously.
Kushner's book is a blessing to all who read it, of any tradition.