In a scholarly though highly readable manner, Judaism Reclaimed examines a range of theological and philosophical discussions emerging from the Torah. Inspired by the approaches of Rambam, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and other leading Jewish thinkers, the author analyzes both narrative and halachic areas of the Torah’s teachings. Drawing on a wide range of sources, he examines a number of challenges posed to Orthodox Judaism from the halls of academia and addresses them from the perspective of Jewish tradition.
About The Author
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips has spent almost two decades studying in yeshiva and kollel. During this time, he has also completed a law degree from the University of London.
[T]HOROUGH AND SOPHISTICATED … impressive in its
scope and depth … fascinating … sorely needed in this generation.
Rav Zev Leff
Rav, Moshav Matityahu; Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah Matityahu
[A] REMARKABLE NEW philosophical approach to Torah
and Jewish faith, outstanding in its erudition, impressive
in its ability to link ancient, medieval, and modern
approaches … thoroughly engaging …
This is the work of a major new talent in Jewish thought.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Former Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth
Johnny Solomon –
R’ Shmuel Phillips’ ‘Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah’ (Mosaica Press, 2019) is an attractive 632-page book that explores a range of classic and contemporary Jewish philosophical and theological issues – with an extra bonus being that the essays are structured according to the parshiot of the Torah.
Unlike similar books, R’ Phillips does not shy away from complex topics, and also unlike similar books, his readable style is not a compromise for rigorous research or nuanced reasoning. In ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ you will find essays on a broad range of topics such as whether our connection with God should be Intellectual or Experiential (Lech Lecha), the role of Miracles in Jewish faith (Beshalach), Judaism and the Darker Arks (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim), Self-Expression in Judaism (Mattot-Masei) and The concept of Gehinnom (Ha’azinu).
In all of the 70 essays in ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ (nb. there is often more than one essay associated with each parasha) the reader is offered a wealth of information both in the main body of the text and in the lengthy footnotes, and in each, R’ Phillip’s deftly frames the core issues whereby the reader is drawn into the debate and often, having considered a range of perspectives, left to decide their own conclusions for themselves.
In contrast to highly academic works, R’ Phillips cites from a vast range of classic Torah sources, and in contrast to other Jewish books, he cites from a range of academic and historical works. In doing so, this makes ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ both a great collection of essays and a wonderful resource of references for further reading. Yet notwithstanding the broad range of source material cited in, ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ is – as R’ Phillips himself acknowledges – a literary tribute to the Rambam and Rav Hirsch whose brilliance and clarity have clearly been a major inspiration to the author.
However, while ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ impressively tackles a range of topics in Jewish philosophy and theology, there is also a further agenda at play – at times more explicit and at times less obvious – which is that it seeks to challenge certain approaches or literary works whose methods, ideology or conclusions concern R’ Phillips, or he regards as simply being incorrect. This includes two essays critiquing Professor Marc Shapiro’s ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, an essay critiquing R’ Eliezer Berkovits’ ‘Not in Heaven’, an essay critiquing R’ Binyamin Lau’s ‘The Sages’, numerous critiques of Academic Biblical Scholarship, firm challenges directed towards Menachem Kellner and David Weiss-Halivni, and a number of implicit challenges to certain contemporary trends such as his essay on ‘Gender Roles and Women Judges’.
Yet beyond all this, and even beyond its treatment of particular issues in each particular essay, it is clear that ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ was not just written to stimulate the minds of its readers. Instead, it seeks to achieve something greater – which is to significantly enrich contemporary Jewish discourse in matters relating to Jewish thought and Jewish law. In an age where far too many important topics are neither discussed or taught with the depth of understanding that they deserve, ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ is both a wonderful resource for, and a strong defense of, rigorous and thoughtful reflection and analysis.
‘Judaism Reclaimed’ is a bold, refreshing, and highly readable book for those with a limited background, as well as those who are Jewishly well-read, and the fact that most essays span between 6-8 pages means that ‘Judaism Reclaimed’ is likely to become a future favourite for chavruta study, as well as a great gift for any thinking Jew.
R’ Phillips should be praised for his significant achievement, and I very much look forward to reading future works of this thoughtful author who clearly has much to contribute.
Rabbi Gil Student –
Rabbi Ari Kahn –
Torah study is a multi-faceted discipline, ranging from the examination of biblical texts to the study of Mishnah, Talmud, and Kabbalistic literature (and much more). Even the first, most basic element, reading the text of the chumash itself, can be approached from a variety of different angles. One approach focuses on the so-called pshat, which I would translate as the straightforward, contextual understanding of the text, but many more levels of understanding are available. It is told of the famed Gaon of Vilna, a man who singlehandedly authored more commentaries on esoteric Kabbalistic ideas than almost all of his contemporaries combined, that toward the end of his life he returned to the text of the Torah as his main text of study. The Vilna Gaon focused on the most basic Jewish text as the source of the ideas developed in the Mishnah, the Talmud, the midrashim, the Zohar, and the writings of the Rambam, precisely because he saw that all of the wisdom accumulated and extrapolated over centuries of Jewish learning emerge from this text. Law, philosophy and ethics emerge from the text of the Torah, and often “between the lines,” as well.
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips’ recent work rests upon a similar approach as it unlocks the Torah for this generation. His new book, Judaism Reclaimed, facilitates a multi-faceted, multi-disciplined appreciation of Torah ideas for modern readers. The book covers a vast array of topics and an almost-dizzying number of sources. In a sense, Judaism Reclaimed is a wonderful review of – and response to – modern intellectual discourse.
Rabbi Phillips “dusts off” the writings of Maimonides, especially the Guide for the Perplexed, which some modern Jewish scholars have claimed is more suited to medieval intellectual concerns, especially in the sections that address Islamic or Greek philosophy (see, for example, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind). Judaism Reclaimed has the Rambam weigh in on a host of modern issues. Similarly, Rabbi Phillips shines another major light on the issues he tackles by bringing Rav Shimshon R. Hirsch into the discussion. Rav Hirsch’s insights, presented deftly and with great sensitivity and skill by Rabbi Phillips, quite often prove extremely current, even prescient, and extremely forward-thinking. But these are far from isolated examples: Judaism Reclaimed cites a broad-ranging list of thinkers and writers, both ancient and modern, to buttress arguments and illuminate the discussion (including insights from my first published work, Explorations, which has recently been re-published in a much-expanded version titled Explorations Expanded: Bereishit).
If I were to voice any small criticism of Judaism Reclaimed, it would not be with Rabbi Phillips’ enlightening and engaging volume but with the recommendation for it penned by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who implies that Judaism Reclaimed introduces a new philosophical approach. I found quite the opposite to be the case: The strength of the book lies in its strong foundations, as it bases its arguments on – rather than departing from – generations of Jewish and general philosophy. Rather than trailblazing a new path, Judaism Reclaimed revisits, re-examines, clarifies; it makes the old path newly accessible.
My second “criticism” regards tone rather than content, as reflected in the title: The author believes that Judaism needs to be “reclaimed.” Rabbi Phillips implies that evil or ignorant forces have attempted a hostile takeover of Jewish thought. Consequently, at times his tone is strident when pointing out and rejecting the inroads these forces have made.
These small criticisms aside, Judaism Reclaimed is a wonderful introduction (for some, it will be more of a clear-headed review) of major chapters in classical Jewish thought and intellectual episodes of more recent vintage. The work is extremely well-written and well-informed, and I have no doubt that it will serve as a reading companion, a source of ideas, and a springboard for discussion for years to come.