Rabbi Leo Dee
Rabbi Leo DeeTalia Kirshner

It has taken me several weeks from the time I received it to write about the book“Transforming the World. The Jewish Impact on Modernity” (Urim Publications, find Hebrew version here), by Rabbi Leo Dee.

The reason? Well it is true that the war in Gaza and prayers for those fighting or wounded have rightly pushed everything else to the background, it is also true that I am going through an unusually busy period (Full disclosure: grandson just got married Baruch Hashem, have volunteered to translate Israel News Highlights from Hebrew news twice a week and have made volunteering at the OneFamilyTogether.com headquarters a daily wartime routine – and that’s not counting Arutz Sheva!)

The real reason, however, is that I read this book twice, taking a break in between readings to see, upon my second and slower reading, whether I had incorporated its messages into my feelings and attitudes towards a Torah observant life and how I could continue to do so.

This second reading did not happen because it is a difficult book to understand. Quite the contrary. The book is not at all esoteric, but straightforward, organized, most readable and clear. It can be read at one or two long sittings without difficulty. Except that this clarity can be deceptive, because it is also profound, an unusual combination in serious works on any topic.

“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough,” is a saying attributed to Albert Einstein. Rabbi Dee knows and understands what he is talking about and says it simply, masterfully. The book has several graphics he created that clarify his ideas even more: the circle model of feeling God, Maslow and the Priestly Blessing, the parts of tzitzit, are examples, while interesting stories illustrate and enhance some of the topics.

What led to the authorship of this 191-page soft-covered text with its intriguing title? It began as an answer to a young budding scientist’s question at a Yom Kippur Q&A session on Judaism in the London suburb where the rabbi and his wife served, one that had few traditionally observant Jewish residents, but many caring ones: “Rabbi,” he asked, “isn’t the Torah just an ancient text that is out of date and irrelevant in our modern age?”

Rabbi Dee, once a budding Cambridge-educated scientist himself, who worked in strategy consulting for big business and then discovered a whole new world in an Israeli yeshiva (details in the book), realized that others in the audience had probably wanted to ask similar questions – like: what is the purpose of being a Jew in the modern age, why marry only Jews, and really, why is this ancient text relevant? He decided, in response, to write a book that addresses three issues:

  1. -What does Judaism do for me?
  2. -What does it do for the world?
  3. -What is the future for the Jewish people in this world?

Rabbi Dee writes about the walls of his home being filled with books. So are mine, and the overwhelming majority are Judaica. In addition to sefarim basic to every observant home, I have books on coming closer to G-d, various Jewish philosophers, analyses of books of Tanach, books of halakha on specific topics, the land of Israel, on teshuva etc. – but I don’t have a book like this one.

Rabbi Dee takes the question of Jewish relevancy in the modern world somewhere else entirely, never sermonizing, not at all where one would expect it to go.

Talking to the generations raised on the superficial “Don’t worry, be happy” theme and the belief that making money and using it for material pleasures and having a good time are what a happy life is all about, he shows how step by step, topic by topic, observant Judaism’s precepts build a life of real happiness, everyone's goal. Through Torah life prescriptions, he says, Jews have “introduced mankind to many of its greatest sources of personal satisfaction and meaning.”

Judaism’s "happiness levers" include the mitzva of matrimony, the contributions of family and a caring community to wellbeing. the elevation of the idea of study and education, Talmudic yeshivas as precursors of universities – I particularly enjoyed reading about Newton - setting aside “happy days”, encouraging meaningful work and helping others, elevating physical pleasures to spiritual experiences. He shows how all are innovations brought about by the messages, implicit and explicit, in the Torah and how, together, they lead to happiness.

Then Rabbi Dee qualifies the above, saying that happiness must be in a universally moral context. That, however, is exactly the basis of a Torah true life - so that it leads to the "greatest happiness for the greatest number over the greatest period of time." And that statement takes the book from Judaism’s effect on the individual to the Jewish people’s mission to the world.

The Jewish people, he says, are here to create peace, shalom. A look at the prevalence of the words shalom and shalem and Yerushalayim in the siddur and Tanakh shows that this is the Torah value most stressed throughout Judaism. Israel is strategically placed geographically, at the crossroads of continents, always central in history and therefore able to accomplish that mission once it is possible.

"Jews are the change agents" for a world that cannot change itself and the seven Noahide commandments, symbolizing justice, respect and religion are the instrument for doing so. Rabbi Dee explains why it is that Jews observe the same laws but with extra detailed facets, and based on Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch’s analyses, that Jews have another three categories: kindness, rituals, and prayer. Each precept is aimed at the soul, mind and/or body. Surprisingly for me, he posits that prayer is the observant Jew’s first intellectual encounter of the day, contrasting it to the automatic turning to the news to which so many of us are addicted. On second thought, although to me prayer seems to speak to the soul, I decided he is right!

In each category, Rabbi Dee brings fresh ways of looking at the results of keeping the commandments. One of the most interesting parts of the book is the short analyses, in that vein, of each holiday and specific Jewish rituals – make sure to internalize his story illustrating the place of the willow - showing what observing them adds to our lives.

This book is a significant and important read for Jewish young adults, no matter what level of observance they are on – in fact, I plan to pass it on to several young people I know, religious and not, but it is just as suitable for adults, to whom I hope it will be as enlightening as it was for me.

And today? Early on, Rabbi Dee brings a quote on today's DEI world by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam about the place of religion: Religions make Americans into better neighbors and better citizens. Ethnic diversity has the opposite effect...Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to "hunker down" - that is, to pull in like a turtle.

Our greater knowledge of the world today could lead to a better understanding of each other, to a better world, the rabbi writes. He adds that the Maharal says that peace is about creating completeness (shalem means complete) and when we feel complete then we are happy. It is our responsibility as Jews, as well as our delight, two sides of the same coin.

Although he published the book while Israel seemed to be coming closer to some of its enemies, before the October 7th massacre, Rabbi Dee is far from naïve, presciently citing that "it will get worse before it gets better." This is because peace is a long process with ups and downs, he says, and although we live in exciting times when global transformation of society has been rapidly advanced, the moral culture around us is a desert.

Israelis and Jews the world over have learned that lesson well over the past few months, from the horrific events of Simchat Torah 2023, the surge in antisemitism and the world’s immoral hypocrisy vis a vis the hostages and the Swords of Iron war.

One cannot review this book without referring to the tragedy that struck the Dee family when terrorist barbarians murdered Lucy Dee and two of her daughters in cold blood as they were driving to the north for the Pesach holiday.

Its original dedication to the Rabbi’s “beautiful wife Lucy” and “remarkable children” whom he calls “my inspiration” has been changed, as was the Dee family’s life, in the second and revised 2023 edition. The new edition is beautifully dedicated “for Keren, Tali and Yehuda – thank you for proving just how remarkable you are. And for Lucy, Maia and Rina – your memory is a blessing to us all. You all continue to be my inspiration.”

Rabbi Dee’s book is an inspiration to those who read it as well.

Rochel Sylvetsky is Op-ed and Judaism editor at Arutz Sheva as well as senior consultant.