06/08/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2011

John Lennon and the Jews

John Lennon and the Jews (JL&J), a new book by Ze'ev Maghen, is an extremely original and significant piece of writing.

It should be read by every Jew, no matter where you stand on the long spectrum between strict religious observance and determined rejection of the same. Maghen -- an American-born Israeli scholar of Islamic law but also something of a general know-everything-but-not-in-an-arrogant-way sort of guy -- has literally invented a new genre of writing, aptly self-titled the "rampage," which might best be described as the literary equivalent of three parts strong coffee, two parts Red Bull, and one part nuclear fusion. You pick this thing up and it practically supernovas right in your hand. But if you can hold on you are in for a heck of a ride, whoever you are.

In its very high-energy and entertaining way, JL&J basically addresses the question of why, if you're Jewish, you should be Jewish, i.e. make your Jewishness a flourishing part of your identity - despite the fact that stressing your affiliation with an ancient tribe seems, in this 21st century, to be not merely outdated and inconvenient but even downright irrational. Why be Jewish, after all, when there are so many other wonderful things you can be: modern, progressive, scientific, secular, multicultural, an American, a European (etc.), a Citizen of the World, or maybe just an individual devoid of all labels, period? But Maghen is rightly aware that this sort of question cannot be addressed properly without quickly ranging deeply into issues of very general interest and urgency.

Opening scene: at LAX, Maghen is approached by three Hare Krishnas. Except that these Hare Krishnas have an accent which, to his dismay, he instantly recognizes. Sure enough, Shira, Ofer, and Doron are in fact natives of Maghen's own adopted country. "But why," he asks them, "are you here, promoting that book, when you should be, well, home, studying your book?!"

"But we're not choosing one book over another," Shira objects, "or one religion or culture or ethnic group. That would create false barriers between people. To the contrary all human beings are part of a single great unity..." Thus we are presented, in a nutshell, with "universalism": the idea that (ceteris paribus) we should think of and treat all human beings the same way, that no human beings are more deserving of our love and respect and consideration than any other.

"And you, my friend," continues Ofer, "have an antiquated attitude. The Torah and its laws are so much hocus-pocus, archaic stories and ridiculous rules and rituals, there's just no rhyme or reason to any of it!" This in an even smaller nutshell is "rationalism," here best construed as the main obstacle to an intelligent, reasonable person's choosing to make his Jewishness front and center. For Jewish beliefs and practices and rituals are collectively, in a word, irrational.

And finally Doron chimes in, "Get with the program! The distances between societies are diminishing, the borders evaporating. Your commitment to a tribe amounts to anachronistic self-isolation and limitation!" And thus we are presented with the problem of "inertia": meaning, here, that it takes so much damn stress and energy to maintain the whole being Jewish thing that it's just easiest to go do something else.

Thus presented, universalism, rationalism, and inertia are the three key challenges confronting any modern thinking person considering whether or not to be Jewish. JL&J is Maghen's answer to his three compatriot ex-patriots -- and off he goes.

You'll have to read the book for the exhilarating details (as well as to find out why John Lennon is in the title). Suffice to say that Maghen argues most vociferously (and politically incorrectly) against Shira's universalist ideal in favor of the ideal of "preferential love": human beings live for love, and love by its nature means preference, which means preferring some people to other people, and all that is very very good. As for Ofer, well, Maghen concedes, Jewish beliefs and practices are just crazy. But perhaps making sense is not the most important thing: reason may not deserve our highest admiration after all, for nothing truly meaningful ever does ultimately make sense. And as for Doron's challenge, again Maghen agrees: it takes energy to commit yourself to something not only anachronistic and irrational but which also comes along with, you know, inquisitions and pogroms and holocausts. Maghen is brief here because, after all, what can you say? This inertia is not something that can be refuted by argument, exactly. Instead it can only be countered by strong, moving writing, and that, in the end, is what JL&J is -- one long, high energy, very moving piece of writing.

You almost certainly will not agree with everything Maghen says, since it is often provocative and controversial and counterintuitive. But you will certainly be challenged by it; and no matter where you stand on the aforementioned spectrum going in, you will come out of this book more energized about your Jewishness. So read JL&J for the arguments; read it for the humor, the writing, the stories, and the insights; read it for the entirely new genre of writing; but definitely, definitely read it.