Monday, 10 September 2012

A Conversation on the Way

I was asked to do a review on the book A Conversation on the Way by Martin Bodek. 

The book is essentially a long dialogue that takes place between two Yidden (Jews) on their way to shul.

The one Yid is a fairly well (presumably self-)educated guy who loves to learn new things and loves to indulge in theological and philosophical Jewish questions. Despite his claims that he believes in God, Judaism, etc. he evinces characteristics of a typical Jewish skeptic, who has read more than the prescribed Yeshiva reading list and knows that evolution is true, the world isn't 5773 years old and lo and behold Chazal didn't get it all right. Despite his skepticism he seems very (almost overly) enthusiastic about pursuing these issues and does not seem bothered by the threats that these things pose to Jewish faith. He reminds me a lot of the blogger DovBear, pretty much adopting every skeptical approach possible, but then saying at the end "But I still believe because of my upbringing and that's perfectly ok!"

The other Yid, who has a  lot less to say, seems to be some sort of yeshivish Yeshiva guy. His favorite answer to Yid1's various challenges are answers like "God can do anything", "God can make it look 1 million years old" etc. Although many of his responses are typical of the average Yeshiva guy, with little education beyond the pages of a Talmud, he nevertheless is unique for a Yeshiva bochur in that he doesn't run away from Yid1 who is spouting tons of what the Yeshiva world considers Kefira. Yid2 is fairly confident that while Yid1 is a clever guy he's got it all wrong and he's not gonna convince him otherwise.

Anyways Yid1 and Yid2 walk to shul and basically discuss everything that Jewish skeptics and believers have been  talking about for years. The book doesn't get into academic depth, but it is a rather realistic portrayal of a real conversation an average skeptic and an average (yeshivish) believer would have. They broach on dozens of topics at a dizzying pace discussing the age of the world, questions of morality, what constitutes a miracle, whether Genesis makes sense (they discuss Genesis 1-7 at great length), what Science and religion have to do with each other, the DH and everything in between.

I particularly liked Yid1's argument against the 5770 year old word and the "God-can-do-anything-even-trick-us-with-fake-bones defense". Technically one can always assert this and say "Well we can't trust our senses and maybe God's testing us and God can put bones in the ground etc. etc." However what Yid1 did was to show HOW MUCH we have to mistrust the world around us in order to assert that the world is only 5770 years old. Its not just dinosaur fossils and the Mabul can't explain it all and the Yeshivish position leaves one with a world that is more misleading than the Matrix.

In general Yid1 doesn't defeat Yid2 in arguments (in real life no one wins arguments). He just takes them ad absurdum and says "so basically if you believe abc and d then you would HAVE to believe efg and H!"

Too which Yid2 usually answers triumphantly "Yup!"

I think this book is the type of thing a Yeshivish guy entrenched in his dogmatism should read. It's sort of a introduction, or a "cliff's notes" (to quote Yid1) of the questions of skepticism, and is a good way to begin to approach a critical understanding of religion as opposed to traditional acceptance of everything. To the skeptic it is an interesting presentation of skeptic-believer arguments. I thought of it as a sort of compilation of the arguments raging between believers and non-believers on the skeptical-jewish blogosphere over the past 8 years.

I wish the book would have been more of a dialogue. Yid2 was not the most educated fella in the world and due to ignorance of just about everything he was fair game for Yid1. Although Yid2's ignorance and types of responses accurately reflect the average philosophical position of most Yeshiva people, it reduced the book to very one sided conversation.

P.S. After writing this review I realized that the Yids have names which get mentioned once at the beginning of the book Zachary and Joe (which I assume is Zecharia and Yehoshua!)


Gene Bodzin said...

And if Bodek is the name of the author, my name is Ken A Nahora.

Mordy Ovits said...

Bodek is my friend and co-editor of, and that's definitely his real name. You can easily verify it with Google or a phone book.

Martin Bodek said...

I am the author of this book, and could not be more pleased with this review, the second of my fledgling writing career. You clearly understood what I was trying to convey and liked how I did it. You found fault with the one-sidedness of the book; a deserving rebuke, as I admittedly could have done better. Being compared to DovBear is an honor. If any bloggers in the right margin of
this page would like to review it as well, I would be delighted to offer
complimentary copies. If any readers would like to enjoy my book, I will gladly
offer it at deep discount. Profit is not my motive, rather I seek validation
through others enjoying my work. Thank you to all for your interest.

Martin Bodek said...

Pleased to meet you, Ken.

Martin Bodek said...

Or you may address me directly.

Gene Bodzin said...

I'm glad to meet you too. At times my name truly happens to be Ken A Nahora. I have a web site (The Flaky Curmudgeon) where I use that name.

G*3 said...

I’d love to review the book. How can I turn down the offer
of a free book?

You can email me at

I’m curious, who’s the intended audience?

Martin Bodek said...

E-mailing you now! The intended audience is (are?) those on the fence, close to the fence, far away from the fence, scared of the fence, or embracing the fence who would like a primer on the issues straddling the fence.

Prag said...

Read the book and I agree (mostly) with the review. The conversation style was a big plus for me.

Martin Bodek said...

I appreciate this feedback. Thank you.

G*3 said...

I never got the email. You could try again, or if you could give me your email, I'll email you.

Martin Bodek said...

I actually e-mailed you twice. Perhaps I'm in your SPAM folder? I'll try once more. If unsuccessful, please find me on Facebook or google me for contact information. I would be reluctant to place my e-mail address in a public sphere.

Chatzkaleh Kofer said...

Hi Martin,

I read your ebook and I was pleased at it's price. So I can't complain.

Please correct the author of the Zohar to be Moses de Leon and not Moses Mendelsohn. That was lame :P

I liked most of your arguments (although I am not charmed about the style, being European) but the end did not satisfy me. So you believe a lot is bunk but the reason why you are a frum Jew still was a bit mystifying Kinda like 'I know it's not rational, but...'.

Which greatly diminishes your credibility.

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