Rabbi Daniel Winter
(creator: Joseph Telushkin)

Joseph Telushkin

Young Rabbi Daniel Winter "just escaped being handsome, with black hair that curled untidily and deep blue eyes". His eyes "had a serious, intent expression, the expression of a man who knew what he wanted. Yet in a funny way he looked boyish, with his eager impatience, tousled hair and slightly crumpled shirt". He is also described as "ambitious ... a pain in the arse". His wife had died of cancer three years before we first meet him. He can be self-opiniated, aggressive and impatient, quick to take umbrage, and sometimes angry, but then he admits, "I don't feel good about myself". He may not be too holy, although he takes the teachings of the Torah with the utmost seriousness, but he comes across as a real human being.

He describes himself as "an Orthodox rabbi in a Conservative congregation with Reform laypeople"."Of course he had doubts. A faith without doubts would be the deadest of faiths, the faith of a person who had no expectations from God". When asked to explain suffering, he answers, " What can I say? Only that God gave human beings free will and so He had to limit His own acts in the world. If every time a person raised his hand to hurt another, God stopped him, there would be no free will".

But he can be very shrewd. He much relishes his part-time job as moderator of a weekly radio show called Religion and You. He's also the proud author of The Religious Manifesto. He is much less likeable than Rabbi Small, but more of a contemporary figure. When asked if he's a male chauvinist, he replies, "Probably I am. But sometimes I'm ashamed of it". He's obviously not everyone's favourite Rabbi, but he has built up a considerable congegation.

Rabbi Winter is the creation of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (1948- ), well-known author (of Jewish Literacy, A Code of Jewish Ethics and numerous other such works), and a scholar and public speaker on Jewish affairs. He works for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and is spiritual director of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. He has four children, lives in New York City but lectures throughout the United States. He has published three novels about Rabbi Winter.

The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl (1987)
The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl tells how feminist Rabbi Myrna Wahl is deliberately run over by a car, after appearing on Rabbi Daniel Winter's controversial radio talk show. Rabbi Winter finds himself one of the suspects. He works with, and grows increasingly fond of, Brenda Goldstein, a psychologist who works for the LA Police Dept. As he says: "She definitely sounds more interesting than my sermon". Other people are more of a problem: "He had long since despaired of understanding why a God who loved mankind had made some of them so unattractive".

In the end, after solving the mystery, he's sorely tempted to give up the rabbinate to become a full-time radio talk-show host. "The chance to spread a message, his message, to a congregation of five hundred thousand instead of a thousand. And what a congregation! Without a president (of his synagogue) asking where he'd been when he was out of his office, or why he'd missed a morning service". What a temptation!

There are some interesting explanations of Jewish teaching, as one would expect from this author. When asked why the Bible teaches that homosexuals should be put to death, Winter remembers "what one of his Talmud teachers had explained to him, that the liberal dispensing of death sentences in the Bible, for thirty-six offences in all, was in many cases not to be taken literally, but was only the Bible's way of indicating how abhorrently the act was regarded." It was so as to limit the actual amount of capital punishment that "it insisted that the death sentence be imposed only where witnesses were present, and never on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Consequently, the only one who qualified for a death sentence was one who purposively performed his act in the presence of witnesses, presumably to undermine society". And anyway the Bible's ruling did not apply to lesbianism, because this "entailed no act of genital intercourse".

Rabbi Winter will not drive on the sabbath. "Daniel," Brenda tells him. "That makes no sense to me. The Bible was written thousands of years ago. How could it possibly forbid driving?" "Well, it doesn't mention driving by name, if that's what you mean. But the Bible explicitly forbids igniting a fire, and it would be quite a trick to turn on your ignition without doing that ... Not driving has some pretty positive benefits ... Because religious Jews have to live within walking distance of their synagogues, it means they all live near each other. As a result, their communities stay cohesive."

All this is very informative, but the story does not present such a warm and affectionate picture of life in a Jewish community as is found in the Rabbi Small books - and the plot seems more contrived, as when Winter actually phones up to directly accuse the murderer of the crime. But Winter is not too hidebound. When it comes to the the blessing made by men every morning thanking God they are not women, he explains, "I don't make that blessing ... It was written at a time when a high percentage of women died giving birth ... Today very few women die in childbirth, and without that association all we're left with is a blessing that makes men feel superior and women feel bad." So he emerges as a real if fallible figure, not always entirely sympathetic, but always interesting.

The Final Analysis of Dr Stark (1998)
The Final Analysis of Dr Stark takes place just three months after the murder in the previous book. A successful psychiatrist, and member of the synagogue, whom Rabbi Winter had once himself consulted, is found murdered on his own couch. Rabbi Winter discovers that the victim was very different from the man he thought he knew, and realises that a number of people had very good motives for wanting to get rid of him. As one of the characters in the book says: "Shrinks can't take care of their own lives. Have you ever met a shrink's kid who was normal? Forget kids, have you ever met a psychiatrist who wasn't a screwball?"

The Rabbi is a sincere and determined, if at times rather awkward character, with a firm grasp of the Talmud and a strict sense of his duty. He is in love with Brenda Goldstein, the police psychologist, but won't accept her suggestion that they spend the night together - not until they are married. "A piece of paper's not going to make any difference," Brenda tells him. "This is the twentieth century." "But for me it's also the fifty-eighth," he points out."I live in two centuries." He just isn't prepared to compromise.

He refuses to accept that a well-known gossip writer should be chosen by the synagogue's Sisterhood as Woman of the Year. When told that the presentation ceremony might attract six or seven hundred women who'd never normally come to the synagogue, he replies, "And if we turned the sanctuary into a casino for a night, a thousand people might come to the synagogue."

When it comes to forgiving your enemies, the Rabbi argues at the victim's funeral that "No one has the right to forgive a murder committed against another. No one has a right to forgive a murder at all. When God confronted Cain after the murder of Abel, He didn't forgive him. He shouted, 'Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.' In a sudden motion, Daniel bent forward under the podium, and lifted out the bloodied shirt he had concealed there earlier. Gasps rose from the audience. He held it high. 'This blood cries out too.' His voice rasped in the stunned silence. 'This blood too.' Strong stuff, indeed.

He believes in an afterlife: "The only possible explanation for all the suffering and injustice we see ... is that this world is not the whole picture." And the reason why the Talmud is silent about it is, he says, that the Jews had seen in their time in Egypt "just how destructive an obsession with afterlife could be. .... Maybe the Bible didn't raise the issue of afterlife because it realized that the moment the next world becomes the central issue in religion, it takes people's minds away from the real business of improving this one."

The book offers an interesting picture of holocaust-haunted Jewish life in southern California, although I must admit I found it rather more interesting to meet the suspects and see police Lieutenant Joseph Carezzi, Winter's old friend, in action, than discover who actually "did it". The book ends with an epilogue that briefly summarise what has since happened to all the main characters. A nice idea, this.

An Eye for an Eye (1991)
An Eye for an Eye is very much concerned with ideas of justice and revenge. As Telushkin points out in his opening pages of acknowledgments, "The issues of crime, justice and punishment have long obsessed me," and he explains he was largely motivated to write the book after reading about a real life murder for which the murderer had to spend only three years in prison. That such injustices "occurred in a society in which I am an active participant makes me very angry, very ashamed and very sad."

The author's strong feelings, though, don't always seem to fit too happily into a Daniel Winter story. They sometimes make Winter into a strangely unsympathetic character, When Ron Martin, who has strangled his girlfriend, gets let off with the lightest of sentences, the outraged girl's father, Gerald Braun, kills the young man. Rabbi Winter refuses to condemn him for this, but appeals for his release on bail. When asked on his radio show, whether Ron Martin deserved to die, he replies: "Yes. I would say that his death was more just than three years in prison would have been."

He has little time for Christian teaching on forgiveness. When Pope John Paul II , in his hospital bed, forgave the fanatic who had shot him, "Every Catholic whom Daniel knew thought the pope's action was noble ... Every Jew knew that it was crazy. An unrepentant killer tries to kill you - and is not trying again only because he is in gaol - so what are you forgiving him for? ... Judaism was never obsessed with forgiveness, but with justice - 'Justice, justice you shall pursue,' the Torah commanded - and forgiving murderers is unjust to their victims." But, even so, Daniel admits to himself that "the hardest thing sometimes was not to do what was right, but to know what was right".

But about some matters he has no doubts: "The average American in a large city has a better chance of being murdered than the average American soldier had of being killed in combat during World War II. I'll be more precise. One out of every hundred and thirty-three Americans will end his life murdered." And, as for the Ron Martin case:"It wasn't just Donna Braun whom Ron Martin murdered. What about her unborn children and their descendants?" And he particularly dislikes defense attorney Leonard Goode, because he feels he is helping murderers get away with it. But Telushkin is able to sort Goode out by getting him murdered too.

Winter's views get him into trouble not only with other rabbis but with two leading members of the Board of his synagogue who threaten to withdraw large sums of money unless he is forced out. But then another member offers an even larger sum if he's encouraged to stay. All this in-fighting sounds realistic.

Judaism itself comes across as rather harsher and less attractive than in the Rabbi Small books. When rabbis of different persuasions get together, and start attacking each other, it's Rabbi Winter who tries to calm things down by remindiing them: "Rabbis, as our old friend Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has said, 'I personally don't care which denomination in Judaism you belong to' : - he paused scanning his audience - " 'as long as you're ashamed of it.' The crowd, surprised, burst into delighted laughter." But they were soon quarrelling again. "Only anti-Semites, Daniel thought depairingly, could ever be naive enough to believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Any Jew knew better. Since when could you get Jews to agree on anything?".

At the start of the book Winter has been married to Brenda, the police psychologist, for a little over a year. Even though Brenda can't agree with Daniel's views about this case, they remain a warm and happy couple: "There's still one Shabat law we haven't observed tonight," she tells Daniel. "Daniel frowned, 'What are you talking about, copper?' 'Rabbinic scholars,' Brenda quoted from the Talmud with a suspiciously pious expression, ' are to have relations with their wives on Friday night.' 'Why is it,' he asked, in mock exasperation, 'that of all the Talmudic laws I ever taught you, that's the only one that you can quote?' 'I told you, buster. I adopted what made most sense to me. And that one always made the most sense of all.' She sat up, reached over, loosened his dark red tie, and slipped it slowly off his shirt. 'Don't you agree?' "Maybe we should get a move on upstairs,' he murmured. 'Wouldn't want us to start neglecting any Shabbat laws.' "

The book ends with Winter officiating at a wedding, during which he suddenly realises who had murdered the bride's previous husband. The result is that the celebrations come to an abrupt end in a totally unexpected way. It makes a good ending to a book that I found slightly less interesting than the previous two, as the author is just a little too obviously using it to get across his own views.


Telushkin has his own website.




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