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Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: "The Search Committee," Not Quite "a novel"

Cross-posted on me-ander


When I was at the recent Jerusalem International Book Fair, I was offered books to review by a couple of publishing houses.  UrimPublications.com told me to just take a few from their stand, which I did.  One of them is The Search Committee- a novel, by Marc Angel.  When I took it, I didn't check the copyright date or I would have had discovered that the book is far from recent.  It was published in  2008.

I'll start with the good...
The book is easy and quick reading, and the main topic is thought-provoking.

Now, why have I titled this "Not Quite a novel?"  Honestly, I don't see it as a novel.  Here's the definition of a novel from dictionary.com:
1.
a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.

The book does not have any real scenes, actions, character development etc. And there is certainly no "complexity."

Simply put, Marc Angel,  "Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He is the author and editor of over two dozen books, and this is his first work of fiction," has tried to humanize two extreme trends/ideologies in American Jewish Orthodoxy aka Torah Judaism.  I wouldn't be surprised if he hasn't published a lot about the same exact issue as non-fiction.

In Angel's opinion there's a danger to Orthodox Jewry if the "old style" of yeshiva teaching and life style continues.  I found it most disturbing that the time setting of the book actually takes place a generation, over twenty years before its publication, 1986 versus 2008.

Angel pits two very different rabbis as vying for the position of Rosh Yeshiva of an old world style yeshiva which had been established by a rabbi who had fled Europe in the 1930's.  The two candidates are that rabbi's grandson who, no surprise, wants to preserve the yeshiva exactly as it has been, and a rabbi, a ba'al teshuva (one who became Torah observant as an adult) who is much more innovative and whose wife doesn't even cover her hair.

The book is organized in a series of "chapters, " each of which is the speech by a different character, who never is asked a single question, to the search committee.

The basic structure of the book is like a youth group activity.  The group is required to humanize two opposing opinions and debate them in an informal and participatory setting.   I wonder if Rabbi Angel had developed these characters for some rabbi training or teaching endeavor over the years.

It's very clear that Angel identifies most with the BT innovative rabbi, since that rabbi and wife are much more human and developed as characters than the grandson and his wife.  I think he made a very big halachik (Jewish Law) mistake by having the innovative rabbi's wife as going without haircovering.  I would have liked to be in his favor, but that turned me against the character.  Davka, in the 1980's and even a decade earlier, married women's haircovering began to come back and it is now a fun and creative fashion and halachik statement.  Certainly in Israel, and more recently in other Orthodox/Torah Jewish communities throughout the world, many married women have embraced this mitzvah/halacha as a favorite for fashion and self-expression.

I don't want this review to be a "spoiler," so I won't give you the ending, but I will say that I would have had preferred a "surprise ending."

Well, with all of my complaints about the book, I must admit that Angel succeeds in the aim to make me think (and blog) about the issue.  The topic could be the seed for a very good novel, but I guess Rabbi Angel, like myself, isn't really a fiction writer.  Maybe someone can or has taken the basic premise and make/make a very good and suspenseful novel from it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have heard Rabbi Angel speak several times and his shul is a conservative type shul (don't know whether he considers it orthodox). He is definitely on the liberal side of things. Could not agree on practically anything that he had to say. He reminds me of the type of orthodoxy like the 'open' orthodoxy, as they call it. These are the 'new age' rabbis who think they can make Torah according to their own thinking. It doesn't work that way. Our laws & traditions (observe them or not) are not changeable and that is why we are a Torah nation for over 3000years. There is definitely some agenda going on to water down Torah and Yahadut, and we see it happening in Israel right now.

Batya said...

a, that's the impression I got from the book. There's no sign of passion for Torah, just for "innovation." And considering that he set the book in the 1980's and Orthodoxy of all stripes has grown enormously since then. The threat he wrote of its dying (at the very end of the book) has been proven wrong.