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Self-denying rabbi

by
24 October 2011

A silence on religious issues mars this book for William Whyte

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Is That All There Is? Thoughts on the meaning of life and leaving a legacy
Julia Neuberger
Rider Books £12.99
(978-1-8460-4261-4)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

But Julia Neuberger is not most writers. Nothing if not indomit-able, she was one of the first female rabbis in Britain, and went on to run the King’s Fund, which seeks to transform health-care provision. She is a Liberal Democrat peer and a well-known campaigner. This is something like her 14th book.

Is That All There Is? sets out to explore the meaning of life. In 11 chapters, it seeks to explore such important questions as how to deal with the death of a loved one, how to cope with ageing, how to leave a legacy, and — above all — how to find a purpose in life. Drawing on her own experience, and an eclectic range of other examples, Baroness Neuberger concludes by stating that “being needed and finding a sense of purpose through our interactions with others are what make us humans tick”.

But Julia Neuberger is not most writers. Nothing if not indomit-able, she was one of the first female rabbis in Britain, and went on to run the King’s Fund, which seeks to transform health-care provision. She is a Liberal Democrat peer and a well-known campaigner. This is something like her 14th book.

Is That All There Is? sets out to explore the meaning of life. In 11 chapters, it seeks to explore such important questions as how to deal with the death of a loved one, how to cope with ageing, how to leave a legacy, and — above all — how to find a purpose in life. Drawing on her own experience, and an eclectic range of other examples, Baroness Neuberger concludes by stating that “being needed and finding a sense of purpose through our interactions with others are what make us humans tick”.

It is a reasonable enough conclusion, but readers might be forgiven for wondering whether we really needed the 270-odd pages of preamble that led us to it. For this is a somewhat puzzling book — and even the author doesn’t seem wholly clear whom or what it is for. Relying heavily on Google and the Sunday newspapers for evidence, Neuberger raises important issues, only to move on before she has satisfactorily dealt with them.

Especially puzzling is her treatment of religion. She writes as a rabbi, and dedicates the book to her former congregation at South London Liberal Synagogue. Yet she makes it quite clear that this is not a religious text; indeed, she writes that it does not tackle the subject from a specific religious standpoint.

This is a terrible shame — and a missed opportunity. By refusing to position herself within any real philosophical or religious tradition, Neuberger fails to grapple seriously with the real issues that she raises. The result is a rather superficial — and often simply banal — set of observations. I can only hope that this is not really all that there is.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History of St John’s College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

JANINE FAIR’s husband died young in 2004, and unexpectedly. She tells the story of her bereavement in Surprised by Grief: A journey into hope. Throughout the deep pain, she was aware of God’s strength and presence; by telling her story, she hopes to help others to understand more about God’s love (IVP, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-1-84474-472-5).

From the same publisher: Carol Cornish, in The Undistracted Widow: Living for God after losing your husband, seeks to help widows think biblically about their experi­ence. There is a recom­mendation from Janine Fair on the back cover (IVP, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-84474-491-6).

JANINE FAIR’s husband died young in 2004, and unexpectedly. She tells the story of her bereavement in Surprised by Grief: A journey into hope. Throughout the deep pain, she was aware of God’s strength and presence; by telling her story, she hopes to help others to understand more about God’s love (IVP, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-1-84474-472-5).

From the same publisher: Carol Cornish, in The Undistracted Widow: Living for God after losing your husband, seeks to help widows think biblically about their experi­ence. There is a recom­mendation from Janine Fair on the back cover (IVP, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-84474-491-6).

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