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What the Straus Center Is Reading — The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

unbroken thread wisdom chaos

Sohrab Ahmari | Convergent Books | 2021

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In his The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of ChaosSohrab Ahmari argues for the power of substantive ideals. Ahmari, the op-ed editor for the New York Post and a columnist for First Things, is an Iranian immigrant who has found success in his adopted country. But, he argues, "American civilization comes with plenty of procedural ideals, all more or less aimed at maximizing individual rights and ensuring the smooth functioning of a market economy." What it lacks is a set of principles on how to live meaningfully.

The book is framed as a letter from the author to his son, Maximilian. As the author explains, he gave his son that name in memory of the Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe, who offered his own life in exchange for another in Auschwitz. Ahmari's hope is that his son grows up to appreciate the moral and spiritual power of tradition and religious commitment. He holds on to this hope despite the current dominant perspective that "tradition is viewed not only antiquated and inefficient, but as an impediment to achievement."

To this end, Ahmari offers 12 chapters, each dealing with a religious theme through the prism of the story of its salient expositors. Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Catholic, Confucian, and feminist thinkers are each mined for their timeless wisdom.

In the chapter "How to Justify Your Life," Ahmari reviews the biography of the theologian and author C.S. Lewis. Ahmari details Lewis' argument that the modern scientific outlook that leaves no room for what it cannot explain is a "barbarous enterprise," which dismisses subjective knowledge and rejects communion with the past. Lewis warned that "It is in man's power to treat himself as a mere 'natural object' and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will." However, "if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be." The yearning to engineer a more perfect human race, Ahmari notes, has too often led to the inhumane treatment of the vulnerable.

Other chapters include an examination of Thomas Aquinas' articulation of the limits of rational argument when it comes to the depths of faith, Confucius' emphasis on "filial piety" (in Ahmari's words, "We should give high priority to our parents' material and emotional needs, and we should do so with love and joy"), and the story of how the Marxist, secular anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner learned the importance of ritual by studying African tribes, a process that led to their own conversion to Catholicism.

Of particular interest to Jewish readers—though much is to be gained by reading all the chapters—is Ahmari's chapter "Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off?" He profiles Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, author of the seminal work The Sabbath. Rabbi Heschel, as Ahmari notes, thought of Shabbat as "the guarantor of our' inner liberty,' while restless, Sabbath-less societies could too often and too easily descend into tyranny and outright barbarism." (See, for example, the Soviet Union's attempt to institute a five-day week). In our day, as in Rabbi Herschel's, Ahmari writes, "a world without the Sabbath is a world without soul."

Ahmari is a skilled storyteller and profound spiritual thinker. The Unbroken Thread has much to offer those already religiously committed and those in search of time-tested wisdom in our currently confusing age.

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