May 12, 2019

Sichot al Ahava v’pachad

‘Conversations on Love and Fear’ by Sharon Shalom.

(Yediot Acharonot, 2018)

Imagine a book, written by a wise, insightful and emotionally intelligent Jewish philosopher with a flair for poetic language, that explores the richness and complexity of Jewish identity, heritage and observance in the modern state of Israel.

Imagine that instead of avoiding some of the most challenging issues facing Israeli society such as faith, race, culture and identity, this book addresses them directly in a refreshing tone that informs and inspires readers.

And imagine that rather than being a series of abstract essays, this book is written in the form of a dialogue between two different people, whose interest in each other leads them to explore the nuanced narrative and perspective of each other.

Until a few weeks ago, I could not have conceived that such a book could exist. Then I received my copy of Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom’s latest book titled ‘Sichot Al Ahava V’Pachad’ (‘Conversations on Love and Fear’) and since opening this fascinating work, I have been utterly inspired by its tone, content and language.

In his first book titled ‘From Sinai to Ethiopia: The Halakhic and Conceptual World of Ethiopian Jewry’, Sharon explained how, upon arriving in Israel from Ethiopia as a 9-year-old child, he experienced an identity crisis. “Who was I? In Ethiopia I was identified as a Jew of Beta Israel. They called me “Israel”. But ironically, here in Israel, I was called “Ethiopian”. To me, it was a jarring experience to discover I was an Ethiopian.”

But, as Sharon observed, his skin colour was not the only contributory factor to this crisis. This is because many of the traditions of Ethiopian Jewry significantly differ from what is often referred to as ‘normative’ Orthodoxy. Consequently, the reuniting of Ethiopian Jews with the rest of the Jewish people in the modern State of Israel has raised a number of fundamental questions concerning identity and tradition, and has directly challenged the oft-claimed assertion that Jewish law is monolithic.

Over the years, there have been calls from a variety of voices in Israeli society for Ethiopian Jews to assimilate and to adopt the customs and traditions of ‘normative’ Orthodoxy. For Sharon, such calls are nothing less than a paternalistic and insulting dismissal of Jewish practices, many of which pre-date those claimed to be ‘normative’. Instead, as he explains there, “From Sinai to Ethiopia was written out of a deep sense of faith in the concept that both sides are the words of the living God, and that there are many channels for worshipping God”.

But as we all know, there is a vast difference between the justification of legal practices and the complex cultural dynamics expressed in communities and societies, and to hear the living God in the words of two or more people, meaningful dialogue is necessary.

While researching for his doctorate, Sharon read ‘Dialoghi d’amore’ (Dialogues of Love), which is an important philosophical work structured as a dialogue between Philo and Sophia and written by the 15th century poet and philosopher Yehuda Abravanel. Inspired by this work, Sharon realized that the many complex issues concerning faith, race, culture and identity in the modern State of Israel can only be expressed through the form of dialogue, precisely because truth – in all its forms – can only be found when we come to understand that each of us are not the lone bearers of truth, and this is why Sharon chose the format of a dialogue as the framework of Sichot Al Ahava V’Pachad.

In this stirring and stimulating book, the reader is taken on an intellectual, cultural, emotional and religious journey through an ongoing dialogue between two people – the daughter of a Rabbi, and the son of a Kess. Each have complex family structures that reflects the reality of modern Israel, and each have commitments and loyalties to their own values, traditions and narratives. Yet it is through these conversations that profound issues are raised concerning zehut (identity) and zihuy (identification), mazal (luck) and amal (effort), hem (them) and anachnu (us), and it is from these conversations that the two protagonists, along with the reader, emerge with greater understanding, empathy and acknowledgement towards cultural difference and diversity within the Jewish people and the wider world.

Naturally one may presume that Sharon sees himself as being represented by the son of the Kess. Yet this would be wrong. Because Sichot Al Ahava V’Pachad is representative of the inner dialogue of this profound Jewish philosopher who is no less comfortable quoting Nietzsche and Soloveitchik as conveying Ethiopian wisdom; who is as good telling jokes in Yiddish as he is in Hebrew.

Sichot Al Ahava V’Pachad is a book of Jewish philosophy, Jewish thought, Jewish history and Jewish life, and it is a stirring a love story about two people towards their heritage, their land, and each other.

To purchase a copy of this book, click here.

Nb. Work has already begun translating this book into English.

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