Title: Ask Rabbi Jack
Author: Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Publisher: Kodesh Press
While Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is perhaps best known for his work with the Orthodox Union, he is also educational correspondent for Jew in the City, a website designed largely for kiruv but also popular with frum Jews. He is recognized as a master explainer who has the ability to tackle the most complex of ideas and to present them straightforwardly, in everyday language, with well-crafted metaphors and a touch of humor. This breezy approach is no more evident than in his latest book, Ask Rabbi Jack from Kodesh Press.
Most of the questions in Ask Rabbi Jack are taken from correspondence with Jew in the City readers, supplemented by several that appear in print for the first time. Some of the questions reveal a correspondent’s discomfort with some aspect of Torah: Did Rivka really marry at the age of three? How can one be expected to honor abusive parents? Does the Torah permit treating non-Jews inequitably in business? Abramowitz hits hot-button issues like korbanos, the sotah, the eved k’naani and the yifas toar, and addresses each of these deftly, demonstrating that things are not always the way we think they are. The surface level of education that many of us received, whether in the early grades of Jewish day school or in reading the chumash on our own, doesn’t reveal the full complexities of these topics.
One question is about Marie Kondo’s cleaning philosophy. Her approach to helping people declutter has become mainstream in many parts of the country, but she is also an animist – someone who believes that “even inanimate objects have spiritual essences.” Does the animism that underlies Kondo’s philosophy invalidate her overall method? Abramowitz answers, “There’s a line to be drawn somewhere but everyone’s line may be in a different place. Practices based in other religions’ philosophies are problematic and extricating practices from their philosophies of origin may be tricky (if it can be done at all!). It’s for exactly this kind of thing that one should have a good religious figure to whom to turn for guidance.” This balanced tone, which makes Abramowitz such an appealing teacher, is carried throughout the book.
The questions addressed in Ask Rabbi Jack cover an impressive scope of topics, from the basic tenets of Judaism like free will to Jewish perspectives on contemporary issues. There’s an entire section devoted to questions about moshiach, as well as another devoted to questions inspired by sci-fi and fantasy like whether Judaism believes in the possibility of life on other planets and whether it’s permissible to read the Harry Potter books. There’s even a separate section about the current coronavirus pandemic.
Many of these questions were posed by Jews who are less observant, and by necessity the replies have something of a kiruv flavor. Still, there is plenty here for a more learned audience, and even a person with a more advanced background can glean much from these essays. And even a seasoned educator will benefit from reading Abramowitz’s formulations.
Given the author’s stated purpose – to answer specific questions for specific questioners – Abramowitz does not offer a comprehensive survey of the halachic literature. Rather, he tends to favor a single approach, though he does acknowledge that other approaches may exist and he is not the final word on the subject. For example, in response to a follow-up question on secular music, Abramowitz writes, “What’s appropriate for someone raised in an observant home may not necessarily be obligatory for a baal teshuvah to embrace.”
No matter one’s level of education, everyone has questions. That’s part of what it means to be a Jew. The good news is that people like Abramowitz exist, and for over two decades “Rabbi Jack,” as he prefers to be known, has been tackling difficult questions from all areas of Jewish interest. This book is a window into the heart and mind of the Jewish community, since all of the questions are printed word-for-word exactly as they were posed to the author. But it is more than that. It is also a blueprint of how to answer questions, how to begin to resolve thorny issues, or at least a guide for where to look next. Some of these questions are timeless and some are more contemporary, but every Jew has questions, and this book is a remarkable tool to help us answer the questions that others ask of us and that we ask to ourselves.