Infidel and Charisma: Two Controversial Books

I scan the NY Times Book Review each week first for any items with Jewish content or by Jewish authors. Then I look for notices that relate to religion in general. This week brings us reviews of two powerful works in that area.

CHARISMA. The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away From Us. By Philip Rieff. 271 pp. Pantheon Books. $26.95.

I've taught the concept of charisma in my classes as a way to understand the sacred power claimed by the rabbis of the Talmud. I'd review the use of the concept in the sociologists such as Weber and Durkheim, then how Peter Brown applied it to his analysis of late antiquity and how others  referred the idea to the history of rabbinic Judaism. I clearly differentiated that academic meaning of the term from the popular notion of charisma assigned to attractive public figures. My favorite example was JFK who was often lauded for his charisma.

I never saw the two uses of the term as a negative indication of cultural change. But Philip Rieff laments the decline of charisma from a "Gift of Grace" to a "quality we attribute to cult leaders and hack politicians." It takes a certain kind of romantic reading of history - like Rieff's - to find that the further we go back in time, the deeper and more meaningful life was.

This was Rieff's last book. As one gets older, the new feels more alien, the old more comfortable. Indeed it is easier to imagine the heroes of the past were "different" from those real people we actually may know and deem to be our own "cult leaders and hack politicians."

The truth is that there are plenty of people claiming the grace of charisma today under a variety of umbrellas. Rabbis contrived the new concept of "Daas Torah" to recycle the notion that they possess divine charisma. Televangelists, new age gurus and many more have evolved ways to employ charisma to their own aims.

I'm not in favor of declaring those modern users of "grace" less worthy than the sages and saints of the past.

First Chapter: ‘Charisma’

INFIDEL. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Illustrated. 353 pp. Free Press. $26.

Infidel, the second noteworthy book today, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is reviewed by Ian Buruma of Bard College. He is not altogether laudatory saying that Ali caricatures modern Western society in a comic book fashion. Nevertheless Ali is a Dutch woman who "describes her rejection of Islam and embrace of the West." She is a hero to many who are attempting to free themselves from bondage in oppressive societies. Her tale may be unique to her own circumstances. But we'd like it to be an inspiration to others.

First Chapter: ‘Infidel’

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