Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: “A Conversation on the Way”

“A Conversation on the Way” is, according to the author, meant to introduce frum people to many of the problems in reconciling religion, particularly Orthodox Judaism, with modern science and scholarship. It’s a sort of anti-kiruv book. It doesn’t evangelize for the abandonment of religion, rather, it shows how kiruv arguments fall short and exposes the reader to a wealth of information that makes a traditional fundamentalist Orthodox understanding of Judaism untenable. The book touches on many different topics relating to conflicts between Torah and science/history. It doesn’t go into great detail on any subject, but it provides enough information to whet the appetite of anyone who might find these subjects interesting.

The book is framed as a conversation between two friends on their way to shul Shabbos morning. It captures the feel of a conversation very well. It’s very informal and bounces from topic to topic, touching on each briefly before the conversation drifts to a new subject. Once you get past the introduction, the book is all dialogue, and it’s a little dizzying to read. There’s no “… said,” just a hundred and seventy pages of text inside quotes. It’s easy to lose track of which of the two characters is speaking.

On the one hand, the conversational frame is a good way to touch on a lot of topics without breaking the book up with dozens of headings and sub-headings. On the other hand, it can get a bit confusing. Topics are brought up and abandoned in no particular order, and the topic of conversation often changes while still in the middle of a subject, with a promise to get back to it later. At the end of the book, some of these aborted topics are briefly addressed, but this is not at all a book for quick reference.

Character 1, the author’s avatar in the book, is full of energy, lecturing, discussing, almost bouncing up and down in his eagerness to talk about his favorite subjects. Character 2, who takes the traditional stance on most subjects, while he does occasionally display some personality when bantering with the author character, and every now and then is allowed to score a point for the religious side of the debate, is more of a straight man. He exists to interject at the appropriate points to give the impression of dialogue.  Much of the book is not so much a conversation as it’s conversationally-toned exposition.

Early in the book, Character 2 asserts that, “Life exists because God made it,” to which 1 responds, “I believe that too, but I also believe that God made a natural functioning universe without hocus-pocus, and embedded specific non-God-intervening explanations for everything.” While I share much of the worldview of character 1, I wonder if 2’s isn’t more coherent. He believes that God is the explanation, and it ends there. 1 believes in God despite being certain that there is no proof for His existence – if there are “non-God-intervening explanations for everything” that leaves no room for proof of God. So why does 1 still believe? (From the ending, it seems the answer is, because he wants to.)

The book touches on Creationist arguments, making the point that kiruv books often present one side of an argument as if it’s the last word on the subject. It also touches on the Oomphalous hypothesis, Free Will, God and morality, discusses “evolution is just a theory” and what evolution is actually about, a very little bit of Biblical Criticism, obliquely references the Problem of Evil, and points out that the Chumash never mentions an afterlife. It’s a good, light-read introduction to these topics (and a few more). People who’ve been hanging around the blogosphere for a while won’t find anything new, but it’s a good starting point for someone who doesn’t know much about science/Torah issues and is looking to learn what he should be looking to learn.

As far as I can tell, the book is self-published, and it suffers from the lack of a professional proofreader. There are a number of typos, which I found jarring in a printed work, and several places where the names of historical and contemporary figures are wrong, e.g., Moses Mendelssohn is credited as the author of the Zohar instead of Moses DeLeon.

I think the audience for this book would be a MO or liberal yeshivish guy who’s sitting on the fence. Those a bit further to the right would reject the book outright, even if they were inclined to ask the uncomfortable questions, because of its many pop-culture references, occasional minor expletives, and insufficient reverence towards rabbonim.