When I mentioned that I finished reading the book presently under review, a friend of mine, who is no intellectual slouch, was surprised that I had managed to get through all of it. I am just as surprised as he is. While I do have a reputation among my peers as a “book-swallower” (in Hebrew: a play-on words of tola’at sefarim – bola’at sefarim), I have never had much success with philosophy books. I have always preferred the concrete to the abstract, the empirical evidence to any discussion of theory. Whenever I got to a theory section in a non-fiction book, I almost always just glazed over until it ended and I could get back to hard reality. Precisely because of this, I am glad I succeeded in making it through this work.
I don’t think I will be exaggerating if I say this book is one of the most important original Orthodox works on the interplay between Western logical thought and Religious Judaism (not just Orthodoxy) to come out in Israel in the past several years. In an age where both Rabbis and scholars consistently reanalyze and rehash ideas of past giants such as Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik and so on, this book is a breath of much-needed fresh air. I would highly recommend it to anyone – atheist, agnostic, or any shade of religiosity – who is interested in understanding both rational and religious thought in an in-depth manner. It will challenge and enrich you, even if you disagree with its conclusions.
This is not to say the book is faultless. First and foremost, this is a book written for people with some grounding in, and understanding of, philosophy. A few of the arguments are very complex and deal with mathematical-formal logic on a level beyond the present reviewer, and I presume most people. Also, and perhaps more importantly, this book is maddeningly overwritten and difficult to read*. Part of this has to do with the fact that Rav Avraham tries to be exceptionally thorough, covering a very large array of philosophers and arguments to cover all his bases. Even allowing for this, however, there is a great deal of repetition and overkill in much of his writing. Points that were sufficiently proven many chapters ago are constantly bludgeoned in unnecessarily, and could very easily have been trimmed or cut out completely, with perhaps a brief footnote to emphasize the point. I would like to see this book translated into English, but it is going to need a particularly diligent and perhaps draconian editor who will succeed in cutting out all the excess verbiage.
Even before we get to the main argument itself, the intellectual breadth of this book is very impressive. Rav Avraham demonstrates true mastery of both the sources of Western philosophical thought and the works of halacha and Jewish thought. Kant, Putnam, Russell and Leibniz star next to Rav Shimon Shkop, the Rambam, Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel and others. Even more refreshing is the degree of intellectual honesty present. The arguments of both sides are brought out, elaborated on and taken seriously; they are not mere window dressing. Neither is anyone immune from criticism; if Rav Avraham believes someone’s argument to be wrong or insufficient, he says so, regardless of whether the origin is Kant or Rambam.
Having said all, you’re probably wondering: what exactly is this book about?
More on that in the next part.