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Books of Interest

Welcome to Books of Interest, featuring the latest news from the Hebrew and English publishing world. Our short reviews will highlight new (and occasionally older) publications of interest to Tradition readers, detailing basic content and approach.
These reviews are exclusively informative, and do not represent an endorsement of the work, author, or publisher by Tradition or the RCA.
For more information, please contact Shlomo Brody, online editor at TraditionOnline@rabbis.org

Jul 27, 2010
Books on Maimonides
Moshe Halbertal’s Hebrew biography, Rambam (Merkaz Zalman Shazar), is characteristically brilliant. Although the first and longest chapter, nearly 70 pages, chronicles the Rambam’s life and his role as a communal leader, the book is primarily an intellectual biography, based on Rambam’s major works. Each chapter is sharp and probing, providing thoughtful insights into the Rambam’s ideas, goals, and accomplishments. I would hesitate, however, to recommend this book as an introduction to Rambam’s thought, as it strikes me as too sophisticated for the lay reader. Those with a basic appreciation for the Rambam’s writings and ideas, however, will certainl enjoy this compelling biography.

Menachem Kellner’s Science in the Bet Midrash: Studies in Maimonides (Academic Studies Press) is a collection of previously published English essays, organized around 4 major themes: Approaches to the Study of Maimonides; Religious Faith and Dogma; Science and Torah; and Universalism. Fans of Kellner’s writings, including myself, will surely recognize that these themes (particulary dogma and universalism) were also the subject of some of his acclaimed (and sometimes controversial) books. Those who have read those books may find some of the articles superfluous (sometimes they reflect earlier drafts, other times slight amendments or clarifications), but they remain probing and stimulating. The articles are intended for the scholarly or sophisticated lay reader.

The Jewish Publication Society has republished two important works by David Hartman on Rambam: Torah and Philsophical Quest and Epistles of Maimonides: Crisis and Leadership (with Abraham Halkin). They remain important works, and the former remains a classic work regarding how Rambam reconciled his philosophical and halakhic commitments.

Prof. Yaakov (Gerald) Blidstein, Israel Prize laureate and member of Tradition’s editorial board, published a collection of his Hebrew articles, Studies in Halakhic and Aggadic Thought (Mossad Bialik), which include many imporant studies on Rambam. Blidstein, who might be the most important scholar on Mishneh Torah in his generation, includes several seminal studies, including the Rambam’s eschatolgoical vision of universal political dominion, his understanding of the Oral Law, the status of Islam, living in Eretz Yisrael, and many other important topics. The collection, however, also highlights his expertise in other areas of rabbinic literature, including articles on rabbinic autonomy and collective punishment.

More recently, Blidstein’s students, colleagues, and admirers published a festchrift in his honor, By the Well: Studies in Jewish Philosophy and Halakhic Thought Presented to Gerald J. Blidstein, ed. Uri Ehrlich, Howard Kreisel, and Daniel J. Lasker, (Mossad Bialik), including over 30 Hebrew studies related to his broad interests. Highlight articles include:

Alon Goshen-Gottstein: Other Gods in Ramban’s Thought (including implications for contemporary interfaith dialogue); David Henschke: Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot and its role in Rambam’s legal thought; Daniel Lasker: Ahavat Hashem and Kiddush Hashem according to R’ Yehuda Halevi and Rambam; Enat Navot: Rav Herzog’s Perspective on Testimony by Sabbath desecrators; Menachem Kellner: Rambam in the eyes of Rav Aharon Kotler; and many other interesting studies.

The work also includes a bibliography of Blidstein’s many publications, including a few in Tradition. The work is a fitting tribute to this important scholar.

Since we are discussing Mossad Bialik, we should note that they have been publishing a series of medieval works of Jewish philosophy, prepared and edited by members of the Jewish philosophy department at Ben-Gurion University. Two recent works include: Levi Ben Avraham’s Livyat Hen: The Quality Prophecy and the Secrets of the Torah, ed. Howard Kreisel, and The Writings of R. Moshe Ibn Tibbon, ed. Howard Kreisel, Colette Sirat, and Avraham Israel.

The Eight Chapters of the Rambam is an English translation by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman of Shemoneh Perakim. Additionally, the footnotes include reflections on how the Rambam’s teachings can improve our own behavior.
 
Jul 26, 2010
Rav Soloveitchik Kinot and Other Books about Prayer
The hottest new publication in the Orthodox book world (I admit we’re not exactly talking about a NYTimes best seller, but nonetheless…) is clearly the Koren Mesorat Ha-Rav Kinot published by Koren and OU Press and edited by Rabbi Simon Posner. It features a running commentary of the kinot based on the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, as well as a new English translation by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb and a basic halakha section prepared by Rabbi Gil Student. It is also includes the English translation of the siddur by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the English translation of Eikha found in the Koren Bible.

The commentary from Rabbi Soloveitchik is largely based on material previously published in The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways: Reflections on the Tish’ah be-Av Kinot (2006), edited by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, where it was presented thematically and conceptually. The challenge (and novelty) of this work was to find a way to present the insights in a consise and simple enough manner to make it user-friendly for siddur readers, without diluting the sophisticated material. To make this work, the page must be aesthetically pleasing without the commentary cluttering the flow of the texts, especially if one wants to preserve the poetic nature of the text in both the original and the translation. (After all, not everyone is going to read the Rav’s comments everytime, especially as they recite the kinot in shul). However, the commentary cannot be so detached from the kinah that one cannot match the text with the comments.

To a certain extent, the editors of this work were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nonethless, the final result is rather impressive, even as a preference was given to making this a user-friendly kinah for the casual user. Each kinah is presented without commentary, giving the page a clean feel that makes it easy to follow the translation on the opposite side (as with the Koren Siddur, the Hebrew page is on the left side) as well as to recite the prayer. At the end of each kinah, the reader is then directed to the page number of the next kinah, as the Rav’s commentary (which can include several pages) is included after each kinah. I found it occasionally difficult to find the text to which the commentary was referring (and then of course one has to flip back and forth between the text and the commentary), but overall I prefered having the material remain substantive and coherent.

The kinot also feature a Reshimot section which includes halakhic and philosophical insights related to Tisha Be’Av that are not directly connected to the kinot. This section is a very successful consise presentation of some of the Rav’s central themes about the day and its meaning, even as I miss the drama, eloquence, and development of the oral shiurim that have been transcribed in Rabbi Schacter’s volume and elsewhere.

The volume was dedicated in honor of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who included an interesting introductory essay that recalled a 1968 shiur by the Rav explaining why we still commemorate this day after the Six-Day War.

I like the fact that they included kinot related to the Holocaust, even as the Rav objected to them (as noted in the introduction), as their recitation has become standard in most shuls. In addition to the kinot composed by Rabbi Shimon Schwab and the Bobover Rebbe (known from their inclusion in the Artscroll kinot), the editors also included “Eli, Eli” by Yehuda Leib Bailer and a kinah written by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld (whose own kinot are distributed by Soncino Press).

I did not have the opporuntity to thoroughly examine the accuracy of Rabbi Weinreb’s translation (nor do I see myself as qualified to pass judgment). I will note, however, that whatever its accuracy (which is incredibly difficult, given the poetic nature of the original), the text flows and reads nicely, and will be enjoyed by those who read the text primarily in English.

Overall, this work is a significant accomplishment, and the editors and publishers should be saluted for this contribution to our community and the legacy of the Rav.

Other books of interest about prayer: By now, most people have seen the Koren Siddur with the translation and commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Since I reviewed the contribution of Rabbi Sacks when the British version of the siddur was published, I won’t repeat what I said there, except to reitterate that the introduction to the siddur remains, in my mind, the best (concise) introduction to Jewish prayer currently available.

In case you missed it, Koren/OU also published a Hebrew-only siddur (“Talpiot“) with English instructions and halakha section. I enjoy using it on a daily basis – the print is clean and sharp, it is light and compact, and the halakha section is done well.

Coming Soon: The Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur and the Revised RCA Artscroll Siddur (no, it will not say Sefer Zichron Ploni on it!). Once these two volumes are published, the current revolution of modern Orthodox Hebrew-English siddurim will be complete. I hope that this will begin a new stage in modern Orthodox, My suggestion for the next project: A new Chumash for shul use.

Also of Interest: Siddur ha-Tefillah: Philosophy, Poetry, and Mystery [Hebrew] (Yediot Sefarim). Prof. Eliezer Schweid, an Israel Prize Laureate and long-time professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University, has written a commentary to the siddur, with additional thoughts on prayer as a whole.

Yud Gimel Midot Shel Rachamim by Rabbi Ezra Bick. A thorough analysis and interpretation of each midat rachamim. I hope to discuss this book further in Elul, but you should order ahead in time for Selichot.

A Time To Speak: Controversial Essays that Can Change Your Life by Martin Stern (Devorah Publishing). (Despite its subtitle, the bulk of the book is a commentary to the siddur and synagogue life).
 
May 19, 2010
Festchrifts for Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and Rabbi Bernard Lander
Rav Chesed: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein, ed. Rafael Medoff, Ktav Publishing, 2009 (2 volumes).

Turim: Studies in Jewish History and Literature Presented to Dr. Bernard Lander, ed. Michael A. Shmidman, Touro College Press / Ktav, 2008 (2 volumes).

Two recent two-volume festchrifts were recently released in honor of two important Jewish communal leaders, Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein and Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander z”l (the latter unfortunately passed away a couple of months ago).

The volumes have a very different tenor to them. Turim, in honor of Dr. Lander, is a collection of scholarly articles on a range of topics with a definitively academic tone to them (appropriate for a university president, even as his life accomplishments extended beyond the university). Rav Chesed, on the other hand, includes a variety of different types of articles, reflecting the different realms of activism and activities in which Rabbi Lookstein has engaged in over 50 years of rabbinic service.

Highlight Articles:

Turim:

Judith Bleich, “The Circumcision Controversy in Classical Reform in Historical Context”

Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Returning to the Jewish Community in Medieval Ashkenaz: History and Halakhah”

David Shatz, “A Framework for Reading Ish ha-Halakhah”

Moshe Miller, “R. Jacob Emden’s Attitude Toward Christianity”

Rav Chesed

Aharon Lichtenstein, “Talmud and Ma’aseh in Pirkei Avot”

Adam Mintz, “Is Coca-Cola Kosher? Rabbi Tobias Geffen and the History of American Orthodoxy”

Jacob J. Schacter, “Tikkun Olam: Defining the Jewish Obligation”

Avivah Zornberg, “Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth”

Mark Dratch, “I Do? Consent and Coercion in Sexual Relations”

and a 150-page biography of Rabbi Lookstein written by the book’s editor, Rafael Medoff

- Shlomo Brody
 
Mar 23, 2010
Pesach Related Books
Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Royal Table: A Passover Haggadah, ed. Joel B. Wolowelsky, OU Press, 2010.

The Commentators' Bible: The JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot (Exodus and Leviticus), ed. Michael Carasik, Jewish Publication Society, 2009.

Kenneth Chelst, Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery, Urim Publications, 2009.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, אחריך נרוצה, Yediot Aharonot Press [Hebrew].

OU Press has released an enjoyable haggadah culled from the writings of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, long-time leader of Yeshiva University and founding editor of Tradition. Yeshiva University recently created a website dedicated to Rabbi Lamm's heritage, including the compilation of many years of drashot given as the rabbi of the Jewish Center. Based on these drashot, Dr. Joel Wolowelsky (associate editor of Tradition) pieced together, in a fully coherent fashion, a running commentary to the haggadah. Since the original remarks were delivered for a popular audience, the comments are extremely accessible, running for a few paragraphs, and giving enough space to deliver a clear message without getting lost in overly technical or scholarly discussion.

As drashot, the remarks frequently include some form of homiletical message. Some include familiar themes from Rabbi Lamm's other writings, now applied to the haggadah. Others include novel insights into the story or message of Passover, which readers will enjoy transmitting as divrei torah at their own seder. The volume also concludes with a few lengthy drashot delivered on themes in Shir Ha-Shirim. All in all, this is an enjoyable commentary and is a welcome contribution to library of haggadot and modern Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst has written a book of great interest comparing the story of the Exodus with African-American slavery. As is well know, abolitionists and civil rights advocates regularly recalled the Bible in their struggle for equality. Chelst, however, tries to show that our understanding of the Biblical story is greatly enhanced if we compare to the more recent (and better documented) story of black slavery. The book is very well researched, and offers numerous examples of fascinating comparisons.

There have been many versions of Mikra'ot Gedolot (books including multiple Biblical commentators) created, and multiple translations written of the famous Biblical commentators. Prof. Michael Carasik, however, has attempted to make available, for the first time, the Mikra'ot Gedolot experience in English. I admit that I was quite skeptical at first when I opened the book; however, I was pleasantly surprised at how well Carasik has edited the relevant commentaries to make them accessible yet substantive to the English reader.

Carasik appropriately focuses on 4 major medieval commentators - Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam - as these four probably represent the commentaries that have had the greatest long-term impact. To make the work accessible to English readers, he has omitted extended discussions regarding grammar (if people can't learn the original Hebrew, the detailed grammatical notes will not excite them) as well as positions already stated by other figures. Additionally, he tries to relate the interpretations of these commentators to the two English translations of the Biblical text, the New JPS translation (1985) and the Old JPS translation (1917). He also provides additional notes where he sprinkles in comments from other important medieval commentators, including Seforno, Radak, Ralbag, and others. [See here for a sample page, and here for his FAQ regarding his methodology.] I used the Vayikra volume this past shabbat, and found that the anthology successfully trasmitted the major points of the commentaries. While any abridged version can never fully re-create the richness of the original text, this work will certainly make possible a meaningful learning experience for the English reader, and those looking to explore the Exodus story in-depth will find the Shemot volume as a valuable resource.

Also of Interest: Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshivat Hesder in Petah Tikvah, has penned a commentary to Shir Ha-Shirim, relating to both pshat and drash interpretations, as well as contemporary implications of its message.

- Shlomo Brody

From the Books of Interest Archives:

Joseph Tabory, JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 2008. 154 pages.

Rabbi Prof. Joseph Tabory of Bar Ilan University has written a number of significant essays and books on Passover rituals, including his Pesach Le-Dorot (1996) on the history of the Paschal sacrifice. JPS thus wisely chose him to compose this scholarly yet accessible haggadah, which will surely be enjoyed by both laymen and scholars alike.

Over the past several years, several historical-critical analyses of the Haggadah have been written, the most significant of which is the Haggadah of the Sages (Hebrew, 1998) by Shmuel and Ze'ev Safrai (which has now been translated into English). Tabory has taken this reserach, added his own insights and opinions, and penned a consise yet thorough 69-page historical introduction to the Haggadah. While Tabory is historically thorough, he does not elaborate with textual proofs and argumentation. This makes his text more understandable and enjoyable to read, although those looking for textual discussion would best look elsewhere.

As a seder night haggadah, the layout is crisp and the translation is sharp. The actual commentary to the Haggadah is consise but at times sparse, making it less thorough, yet at the same time, more usable for quick Seder night reading.
As with most historical-critical commentaries, there is very little homiletical or philosophical reflection, but for those looking for a great explanation of the history of the Haggadah, this is a wonderful choice.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Nov 17, 2009
New Writings on Halakha
Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl, The Marriage Covenant: A Guide to Jewish Marriage and A Guide to Marital Relations From a Torah Perpsective, Ein Tzurim: Yeshivat Kibbutz Ha-Dati, 2008. 297 pages + 57 pages pamphlet. [Translation of 2002 Hebrew edition.]

Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, Shu"t Siach Nachum, Maaleh Adumim: Machon Ma'aliyot, 2008. 405 pages + index. [Hebrew]

Jeffrey I. Roth, Inheriting the Crown in Jewish Law: The Struggle for Rabbinic Compensation, Tenure, and Inheritance Rights, University of South Carolina Press, 2006. 154 pages + index and bibliography.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Responsa Releasing the Agunot of 'Dakar' Submarine, annotated by David Brukner, Reuben Mass Publishers, 2008. 112 pages. [Hebrew]

Rabbi Menachem Kasdan, Yesodei Ha-Tzedakah, 5769. 595 pages + indices. [Hebrew]

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, Urim Publications, 2008. 141 pages.

Rabbi Danny Wolf, Minhah Tehora and Minhah Le-Aharon, Yeshivat Har Etzion. [Hebrew]

Kuntress Ha-Teshuvot He-Hadash: A Bibliographic Thesaurus of Responsa Literature published from ca. 1470-2000, ed. Shmuel Glick, Vol. 3 (Resh - Tav), Bar Ilan University and Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2009.



Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl's The Marriage Covenant represents a milestone in books on Hilchot Niddah and the Jewish view of marriage. The first 60 page section, "Beloved Friends," includes both religious perspectives on marriage and sounds practical advice toward building a successful relationship. Section two, which represents the bulk of the book, is a thorough yet accessible presentation of Hilchot Niddah. The text, lightly but sufficiently footnoted for further reference, is both clear and accurate, giving the range of acceptable halakhic practice that is normally observed within our communities. Rav Knohl is not afraid of presenting more mekil positions to be used in times of need, but does so in a cautious and responsible manner. (The halakhic sections were reviewed by Rav Yaakov Ariel and Rav Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, amongst others). Since this book is also partly written as a guidebook for newly-engaged couples, it includes a 3rd section that explains the laws and customs of weddings and sheva brachot.
The separate pamphlet includes a frank discussion about sexuality, discussing not only the various halakhot relating to sexual relations, but also hashkafic, psychological, and physiological perspectives on marital intimacy as a whole. Written in consultation with experts like Dr Anna C. Woloski-Wruble, Rav Menachem Borstein, and Dr. David Ribner, it remains both explicit and tasteful, and will surely be appreciated by newlywed couples.
The book includes the haskamot of Rabbis Yaakov Ariel, Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, and Aharon Lichtenstein.
This is a phenomenal contribution, and should become the standard reference book for all engaged couples.

Rabbi Rabinovitch, well-known as Rosh Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma'aleh Adumim and author of a commentary to the Rambam's Mishne Torah, has now published what appears to be the first of a series of volumes of responsa. The 117 responsa, of various lengths, reflect Rav Rabinovitch's great erudition, as well as deep sensitivity to modern life. The topics cover a full range of topics, and include important statements regarding the use electricity on Shabbat, organ donation (in favor), and women's issues. This work will certainly be appreciated by the community of Talmudic scholars and modern Orthodox society as a whole. Interested readers will also enjoy Rav Rabinovitch's important work on contemporary hashkafa, Darkah Shel Torah.

As the subtitle indicates, Jeffrey Roth's work details the historical development of rabbinic compensation, tenure, and succession as reflected in halakhic sources. Prof. Roth, a law professor at Touro College's law school in Huntington, NY, successfully collects the major texts on these topics. The writing in this short monograph is lucid and clear, and I found it to be an insightful, resourceful work. For a brief discussion of some of the relevant sources discussed in this book, see my Ask the Rabbi column on rabbinic compensation.

In 1968, the Israeli Navy submarine "Dakar," sailing from England to Israel, vanished at sea, with its wreckage only to be found in 1999. Rabbi Shlomo Goren was asked to rule on the halakhic status of missing soldiers and their wives, who remained potential agunot. His lengthy responsum on the topic, published in Meshiv Davar volume 3, has been slightly abridged and annotated by David Brukner, making this seminal teshuva accessible to a wider audience. Brukner's historical and halakhic introduction is particularly helpful. This volume is a part of a larger series called ReShu"t that seeks to publish and explicate classic responsa related to modern questions. Additional volumes include Rav Moshe Feinstein's responsum on Chalav Aku'm and Rav Yitzchak Herzog's writings on the treatment of minorities in the State of Israel.

Rabbi Menachem Kasdan's Yesodei Tzedakah is a combination of parshanut, lomdanut, philosophy, and halakhic analysis related to the mitzvah of tzedakah. Rabbi Kasdan explores a range of questions trying to understand the nature of the mitzvah, discussing both the obligation to raise the person's spirits and also to give him physical support. Scholars will particularly appreciate the excursuses at the end of the book, including topics such as, "A Poor Person's Obligation to Work as a Condition for Receiving Charity" (#1); "Should A Person Give Tzedakah Out of A Sense of Compassion or Entirely From Devotion to God's Commandment?" (#4); and Takanat Usha"(#16).

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin's Understanding Tzniut is contains a series of insightful essays regarding the laws of tznuit and their application in contemporary times. A selection of these essays were originally published in Tradition, including the article, "Contemporary Tzniut" (37:3), which includes serious criticisms of some of the rulings found in contemporary halakha handbooks on tzniut. While not everyone will agree with his positions, they are cogently argued, and represent an important contribution to the literature on this significant topic. Recommended for both scholarly and lay readers alike.

Rabbi Danny Wolf, longtime Ram in Yeshivat Har Etzion, has done the world of talmidei chachamim a great service in producing two works of both depth and clarity. Minhah Tehora introduces readers into the world of Taharot, giving iyyun analysis into central concepts such as avot ha-tumah, tumat ohel, etc… He also provides two interesting le-ma'aseh essays, one relating to the controversy of airplanes flying over cemeteries, and the other discussing Kohanim visiting concentration camps and mass graves in Poland (with detailed psakim regarding central sites). This book makes accessible the world of tahorot in a way not previously available. The 2nd book, Minhah Le-Aharon (dedicated to the memory of his father) focuses on central topics in Nashim. While this area of study is more accessible from other works, the essays remain elucidating and clear, and will certainly be enjoyed by those looking to study central sugyot in this realm.

Shmuel Glick has published the third volume of his important series. As I wrote last year regarding the first two volumes, "This new set is an incredibly valuable resource that thoroughly documents extant responsa literature published from 1470 to modern times. Each entry includes the responsa's name, author, list of editions, sources of information about the book, and perhaps most importantly, bibliographical comments describing the content of the book. As such, the reader gets a good sense of the topics covered within the responsa. The entries also frequently provide a bibliography of relevant articles on the authors or topics covered within the collection. The entries also include material from the original Kuntress Ha-Teshuvot, written by Boaz Cohen in 1930."


- Shlomo Brody

(For hyperlinks to the websites of the various books, please visit this post on Text & Texture.
 
Oct 11, 2009
New Writings on the Torah
Joshua A. Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Oxford University Press, 2008. 222 pages + bibliography & indeces.

Yitzchak B. Gottlieb, Order in the Bible (Yesh Seder La-Mikra): The Arrangement of the Torah in Rabbinic and Medieval Jewish Commentary, Bar Ilan University Press & Magnes Press, 2009. 423 pages + biblioraphy and indeces. [Hebrew]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: Genesis - The Book of Beginnings, Magid Press & The Orthodox Union, 2009. 356 pages.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Torah Lights: Bereshit - Confronting Life, Love, & Family, Magid Press, 2009. 327 pages.

JPS Illustrated Children's Bible, retold by Ellen Frankel, Illustrated by Avi Katz. Jewish Publication Society, 2009. 240 pages.

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: Pocket Edition



Created Equal, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, presents a fascinating read of the social and political consequences of Biblical theology. Rabbi Berman's fundamental thesis claims that the theological and economic structure of the Torah presented a radically different socio-political understanding of man that offered equality to greater numbers of people. The book proves this historical point by detailing the economic and political structures of other societies in antiquity and the theological frameworks that justified these systems. Berman, a professor at Bar Ilan university and fellow at the Shalem Center, employs socio-critical theories which are somewhat complex, but his lucid and well-structured writing make this insightful and thought-provoking work accessible to scholars and lay readers alike. This is a welcome addition to the growing literature of Biblical scholarship that addresses the socio-political implications of the Bible's teachings. ((We hope to have a guest post next week from Rabbi Berman, based on this book, about Parshat Breishit and the story of creation.))

Yitzchak Gottlieb's book is a very impressive systematic presentation of the concept of ein mukdam u-meuchar ba-torah as found in Chazal, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban. Gottlieb analyzes each figure on their own terms, explaining their perspectives on the schematic order and conjunction of the Torah's laws and narrative. Additionally, Gottlieb separately lists and briefly explains each time these figures employ this concept. This book is a valuable resource toward helping us understand this central question of Biblical interpretation.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of divrei Torah on the Torah portion written for newspapers or email distribution. Two of modern Orthodoxy's finest writers have now collected their respective essays into books.

Covenant & Conversation is a compilation of 4 short essays on each parasha from Chief Rabbi Sacks. Frquently philosophical, yet almost ending with a homiletical message, the essays draw on classical Jewish sources as well as contemporary religious thinking. As with all literature of this nature, I found some essays more insightful than others, but overall the work is deep and inspiring. Concise yet profound, these frequently poetic ruminations make for perfect reading for the lay person or scholar who wants something deeper out of his weekly supplemental parasha reading.

Torah Lights is a collection of Rabbi Riskin's weekly parasha columns that have regularly appeared in The Jerusalem Post and other Jewish newspapers. Rabbi Riskin employs a number of different interpretative strategies, yet always finds a way to deliver a timely message that appeals to a broad audience.

Also of Interest: The JPS Illustrated Children's Bible is a noble attempt to summarize for children major Biblical stories, from creation until Daniel. Frankel includes an interesting short essay discussing the difficulties of "translating" Biblical stories for children.

JPS has also recently reissued their beautfiully designed Hebrew-English Tanakh, the most frequently cited English translation in academic literature, in a "pocket edition" convenient to carry in a backpack or briefcase, with a series of options for cover colors.

- Shlomo Brody

 
Aug 30, 2009
New Books by Rabbi Mordechai Breuer
Mordechai Breuer, Pirqe Miqraot, Tvunot Press – Herzog College, Alon Shvut, 2009. 362 pages. [Hebrew]

The ‘Aspects Theory’ of Rav Mordechai Breuer: Articles and Responses ed. Yosef Ofer, Tvunot Press – Herzog College, Alon Shvut, 2005. 369 pages. [Hebrew]

Megadim 50 (Tamuz 5769), 268 pages.

In 1999, Tradition (33:3) published an essay by Rabbi Meir Eckstein about the innovative (and controversial) approach toward Tanach interpretation and Bible criticism advocated by Rabbi Mordechai Breuer z”l, who passed away in 2007. The piece, which is currently our featured article from our archives and can be accessed for free here, focused on Rav Breuer’s Pirqe Moadot (p. 1986), essays on the Bible’s presentation of the holidays. Subsequently, Rav Breuer published Pirqe Breishit (1998) on the Book of Genesis.

These most recent volumes significantly contribute toward our understanding of Rav Breuer’s novel approach to Torah study. The first volume, Pirqe Mikra’ot, covers various aspects of the last 4 books of the Torah that were not covered in Pirqe Mo’adot. Although it has been published posthumously, Rav Breuer himself wrote and edited the articles, with his son bringing the project to completion. As always, there are a number of thought-provoking essays in this volume, which will surely raise interest from admirers and critics alike.

The 2nd volume includes a collection of essays (spanning several decades) written by Rav Breuer to explicate and defend his methodology, as well as several responses to his approach (and others like it) written by a number of distinguished Tanach teachers, including Professors Uriel Simon, Shmuel Hugo Bergman, and Amos Chacham as well as Rabbis Yoel Bin-Nun, Shalom Carmy, and Mosheh Lichtenstein. This collection is an extremely important statement on the differing approaches taken by Orthodox thinkers who take both the study of Tanach and the challenges of Bible criticism seriously. Particularly enlightening is an interview conducted with Rav Breuer in his later years in which he describes the reaction that his shiurim and methodology initially received, including from distinguished rabbis like Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Rabbi Eliezer M Schach, and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Melzer. He further contends that he never had a “crisis of faith” when responding to Bible criticism. He explains,

“No man, even as great as Moshe, is capable of writing as great and monumental of a book as this [the Bible]. In this the Bible critics are correct. The entire problem is whether you believe that God can write a book. If you believe so, then he can write the Torah anyway he likes, even if the Torah appears as if it was written by many different people in different eras.” (p. 355, loose translation).

Read the book and his critics, and decide whether you find his approach intellectually or theologically compelling.

As Rav Breuer laments toward the end of that interview, even many of his closest students have not adopted his approach, even as they have utilized other tools from the world of academic Bible study. The 3rd book, a special volume in honor of Megadim’s 50th issue, provides several examples of the “literary-theological” approach adopted by several of Rav Breuer’s students, as well as a thorough index of the first 50 volumes of Megadim. To read more about this approach, see Hayyim Angel’s article in Tradition 40:3, available here as well. Yaakov Beasley’s review of two recent English works that adopt similar approaches can be found in the current edition of Tradition.

For more information on these works, click here for the website of Tvunot Press.

- Shlomo Brody

 
Aug 30, 2009
Books of Interest on the Text & Texture Blog
Tradition is pleased to introduce our new blog, Text & Texture

In addition to new essays and Tradition features, the blog will include periodic pieces about Books of Interest, which will also be placed on this part of our website.

Please sign up for the blog's RSS feed or subscribe to TOL e-updates to keep up-to-date with our newest features.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jul 19, 2009
Alei Etzion Vol 16 - Rav Aharon Lichtenstein
The latest volume of Alei Etzion features a special issue in honor of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. The volume includes several essays and lectures, and most significantly, features a complete bibliography of Rav Lichtenstein's published writings and sichot. The web version of the bibliography is also hyperlinked, where possible, to the articles.

Click here for the full issue

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jul 10, 2009
Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust
Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust, ed. Steven T. Katz with Shlomo Biderman and Gershon Greenberg, Oxford University Press, 2007. 689 pages.

This phenomenal anthology is a tremendous accomplishment and a necessary resource for those interested in studying and teaching theological responses to the Holocaust. The work's three sections cover 3 distinct sources of theological responses: Ultra-Orthodox (selected by Greenberg), Israeli (selected by Biderman), and European & American (selected by Katz). The first section is a particularly novel addition, since academics have (relatively speaking) neglected research in this important literature, and much of this material has never been collected or translated into English.

The anthology includes well-known writers (Prof. Fackenheim, R' Elchanan Wasserman, R' Eliezer Berkovits, etc...) and less-known writers, as well as less-known selections from otherwise famous thinkers. Each author is introduced with a brief biography, bibliography, and description of their selection.

This book will make a lasting contribution to scholarly research on the Holocaust scholarship and, more importantly, the community's continued dialogue on the meaning and significance of the Shoah.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jul 7, 2009
Divine Footsteps by Daniel Z Feldman
Daniel Z Feldman, Divine Footprints: Chesed and the Jewish Soul, Yeshiva University Press, 2008. 317 pages.

Rabbi Feldman has penned 10 extremely learned but very accesible essays on important issues related to chesed and bein adam le-chavero mitzvot. Like his earlier work, The Right and The Good (Yashar Books, 2005), this follow-up volume relates to core issues of chesed. Three major topics are covered:
1) sickness and death (bikkur cholim, nichuem aveilim, and escorting the dead),
2) money matters (lending money & objects; Gabbai Tzeddakh; and Priorities in Charity
3) hachnasat orchim and hachnasat kallah

A couple of the chapters also discuss the important question of balancing different needs and goals. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about priorities in charity and chesed.

Rabbi Feldman is already a well-respected scholar and teacher, and this newest book will only add to his fine reputation amongst rabbinic and lay readers alike.

- Shlomo Brody

 
Jun 17, 2009
Recent Works by Rav Yehuda Brandes
Yehuda Brandes, Mada Toratecha: Masekhet Ketubot, Machon Ha-Yisraeli Le-Pirsumim Talmudi'im, Jerusalem, 5768. 2 volumes. [Hebrew]

Yehuda Brandes, Aggadah Le-Ma'aseh, Beit Morasha/ Jewish Agency - Eliner Library, 2005. 284 pages. [Hebrew]

Yehuda Brandes, Torat Imecha, Beit Morasha/Magid Books, 2008. 2 volumes. [Hebrew]

Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes, head of the beit midrash at Beit Morasha in Jerusalem, has published a number of interesting books in the past couple of years that have further enhanced his reputation as a leading scholar and educator.

The least well known of the books, but probably the most significant, is Mada Toratecha, a series of 32 shiurim on Masekhet Ketubot. Rav Brandes favors a more wholistic approach to learning Talmudic tractates, focusing on larger themes of central sugyot, as opposed to tangential topics that come up in passing. This is particularly novel for learning Masekhet Ketubot, otherwise known as "Shas Katan" for its inclusion of many central topics found throughout the gemara. Rav Brandes' students study 3-4 pages of gemara per week, with him focusing on a central topic from those pages. (A list of sources for each shiur are given in the back of the volumes). A graduate of Yeshivat Hakotel with a doctorate in Talmud from the Hebrew University, Brandes employs a unique combination of academic and yeshiva training, adding as well a sensitivity for the sociological implications of the sugya.

Aggada Le-Ma'aseh is a thoughtful attempt to show how aggadic portions of the Talmud supplement legal discussions in the Talmud with philosophical or ideological ideas that are not fully reflected in the formal halakha. The sefer focuses on topics related to relationships (with God, parents, children, and spouses), and also tries to show the relevancy of these Aggadic insights to contemporary issues.

Torat Imecha, the most recent publication, is a 2-volume collection of Rav Brandes' thoughts on the parasha that were originally published in Ha-Tzofeh newspaper and the Beit Morasha and Maariv/NRG websites. These are short and enjoyable thoughtful ruminations on the parasha.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jun 17, 2009
Jewish Philosophical Polemics Against Christianity in the Middle Ages
Daniel Lasker, Jewish Philosophical Polemics Against Christianity in the Middle Ages, Littman Library, 2007. 2nd edition with new introduction.


Littman Library has republished Prof. Lasker's important study of the role of philosophy in Jewish polemical arguments against Christianity. As opposed to trying to determine who won these debates or made the most coherent arguments, Lasker focuses on the logic and strategies employed by the Jewish polemicists and how this impacted their understanding of Judaism. The work is organized by topic, with each chapter detailing Jewish arguments against specific Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity, Transubstantiation, etc... In particular, I enjoyed the discussion of the Trinity and the sources cited which question whether this belief was so unacceptable to Judaism, particulary after the doctrine of the Sefirot became spread by medieval Kabbalah.

The book, with its detailed philosophical arguments, is clearly intended for scholars, but its coherent presentation makes it accessible to lay readers as well.

- Shlomo Brody
 
May 11, 2009
Different Readings of the Aggada
Michael Gross, Yair Barkai, and Yossi Melamed, Different Readings of the Aggada, Machon Mofet, 2008. 272 pages + indeces. [Hebrew].


This book is an attempt to present a schematic presentation of differnet ways in which Talmudic commentators have interpreted aggadic sections of the Talmud over the centuries. The work is organized both chronologically and thematically, analyzing both historical developments as well as different general approaches (literal, philosophical, allegorical, mystical, etc...).

Overall, the book is full of good sources that help give the reader a sense of the general manner in which the chosen interpreter operates. I found, however, some of the sub-chapters to be too short and sparse to provide substantive analysis. Moreover, the book, written by teachers of pedagogy, repeatedly included "exercises" that ask basic questions on the previous section, which can be tedious and interruptive. The treatments of Maharsha and Maharal, however, are lengthier and more substantive, although a more thorough treatment could still be written. Nonetheless, the book is a good first step at presenting a systematic history of interpretations of Aggada.


Readers interested in Aggada interpretations will also find Rabbi Yehuda Brandes' Applied Aggada: Studies on Family, Society, and Worship to be creative and stimulating.


- Shlomo Brody
 
May 7, 2009
New Works on Rashi by Prof. Avraham Grossman
Avraham Grossman, Rashi, Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2006. 311 pages. [Hebrew]

Avraham Grossman, Rashi: Religious Beliefs and Social Views, Tvunot Press - Herzog College, 5768. 413 pages. [Hebrew]

Rashi: The Man and His Work, eds. Avraham Grossman and Sara Japhet, Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2008. Volume 1: Rashi's Bible Commentaries Volume 2: Rashi's Sources and His Influence, 485 combined pages. [Hebrew]

Prof. Avraham Grossman, distinguished historian of medieval rabbinic literature and Israel Prize laureate, has recently published 3 important works that greatly contribute to our understanding of Rashi's life and his worldview.

The first work, Rashi, is a very accessible biography of Rashi's life and his accomplishments. After surveying the general cultural background and the intellectual school of study that Rashi spawned, Grossman separately highlights major themes of his literary work: His Torah, Nach, and Talmud commentaries, as well as his halakha writings and religious poetry. His sketch of Rashi's accomplishments successfully delineate his unique contribution. In the final 3 chapters, Grossman describes 15 different topics within Rashi's thought.

This last element, Rashi's worldview and philosophy, is the primary subject of the second work, Rashi: Religious Beliefs and Social Views. Grossman adds 5 new topics to his analysis, as well as developing further thoughts on the first 15 topics discussed in the first book. Grossman grapples with the difficulty of extracting a worldview from Rashi's commentaries, which, by their nature, did not include systematic discourses. In particular, he discusses Rashi's method of selection from Chazal's sources, and how Rashi's commentary reflects a homiletical/pedagogical agenda as well as a hermeneutic one. He also highlights a number of passages which, explicitly or implicitly, had polemical goals against his Christian neighbors.
While Grossman's writing can at times be a little dry, one definitely gets a sense of the worldview Rashi attempted (and to a large extent, succeeded) to instill in his readers.

The 3rd book is a 2-volume collection of academic essays co-edited with Sara Japhet. Feature articles include:

Sara Japhet on Rashi's peshat commentary to Shir Ha-Shirim and its influence on later writers; Aviad Ha-Cohen on Rashi's responsa; Rafael Posen on Rashi's Attitude towards Targum Onkelos; Ephraim Kanarfogel on Ashkenazic messianic calculations from Rashi to Tosafot; and Michael Signer on "Rashi's Commentaries as Textual Communities."

- Shlomo Brody





 
May 7, 2009
Religous Zionism by Dov Schwartz
Dov Schwartz, Religious Zionism: History and Ideology, trans. by Batya Stein, Academic Studies Press, 2008. 123 pages + bibliography and index.

Prof. Dov Schwartz of Bar Ilan University is one of Israel's leading Jewish philosophers. A prolific writer, his studies from the intricacies of medieval astrology to contemporary ideologies.

This small book is a concise yet successful introduction into the history and worldview of religious Zionism. Schwartz begins his story in 1902, with the founding of the Mizrahi movement and its revolutionary "activism of pioneering and political variety foreign to the existing Torah world." The majority of the work is dedicated to the movement before 1948 and Israel's early years. When Schwartz does discuss more recent phenomenon, he tries to highlight how these represent shifts from classic religious Zionist belief. The chapters are short and accessible, and will serve lay readers well to get a valuable introduction into early religious Zionism. Those looking for more thorough or detailed studies, however, would be better served by more classic academic works by Schwartz and others.
This is a valuable contribution to the growing literature in English on religious Zionism.


The publisher, Academic Studies Press, is a relatively new publishing house with some interesting new titles (many of which are translations of well-received Hebrew works).
Two significant recent works include:
The Boldness of an Halakhist, an analysis of the Arukh Hashulchan by Simcha Fishbane, and The Reasons for the Commandments in Jewish Thought, a two-volume translation of Isaac Heinemann's classic work on ta'amei ha-mitzvot.


- Shlomo Brody
 
Apr 2, 2009
JPS Commentary on the Haggadah by Joseph Tabory
Joseph Tabory, JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 2008. 154 pages.

Rabbi Prof. Joseph Tabory of Bar Ilan University has written a number of significant essays and books on Passover rituals, including his Pesach Le-Dorot (1996) on the history of the Paschal sacrifice. JPS thus wisely chose him to compose this scholarly yet accessible haggadah, which will surely be enjoyed by both laymen and scholars alike.

Over the past several years, several historical-critical analyses of the Haggadah have been written, the most significant of which is the Haggadah of the Sages (Hebrew, 1998) by Shmuel and Ze'ev Safrai (which has now been translated into English). Tabory has taken this reserach, added his own insights and opinions, and penned a consise yet thorough 69-page historical introduction to the Haggadah. While Tabory is historically thorough, he does not elaborate with textual proofs and argumentation. This makes his text more understandable and enjoyable to read, although those looking for textual discussion would best look elsewhere.

As a seder night haggadah, the layout is crisp and the translation is sharp. The actual commentary to the Haggadah is consise but at times sparse, making it less thorough, yet at the same time, more usable for quick Seder night reading.
As with most historical-critical commentaries, there is very little homiletical or philosophical reflection, but for those looking for a great explanation of the history of the Haggadah, this is a wonderful choice.

For more information, click here.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Mar 30, 2009
3 New Works on Philosophy of Halakha by Avinoam Rosenak
Avinoam Rosenak, The Prophetic Halakhah: Rabbi A.I.H. Kook's Philosophy of Halakhah, Magnes Press, 2007. 459 pages. [Hebrew]

New Streams in Philosophy of Halakhah ed. Avinoam Rosenak and Aviezer Ravitzky, Magnes Press, 2008. 522 pages. [Hebrew]

Avinoam Rosenak, Halakha as an Agent of Change: Critical Studies in Philosophy of Halakhah, Magnes Press, 2009. 285 pages. [Hebrew]


Over the past couple of years, Dr. Avinoam Rosenak of the Hebrew University has published 3 important works in the growing field of philosophy of halakhah.

The first work, on the judicial philosophy of Rav Kook, follows a more traditional model of philosophy of halakha (if one can speak of "traditional" in regard to a relatively new area of study) by exploring the writings of a specific posek - in this case, Rav Kook. Rav Kook's halakhic writings have been explored by a number of rabbis and academics, including most notably, Rabbi Dr. Neriah Gutel. Gutel's book focused on the role of judicial principles and "extra-halakhic" factors in the responsa of Rav Kook.

Rosenak, however, believes that this is too narrow of a perspective, and thinks that the responsa must be understood in light of R' Kook's general philosophy ("Aggadah") and vision for the future. The book thus delves into many different areas of R' Kook's general thought, and goes well beyond an analysis of his halakhic writings.

The 2nd work, co-edited with Aviezer Ravitsky (Rosenak's teacher at the Hebrew University), consists of a series of essays relating to the general field of philosophy of halakha. As a whole, the articles try to define and explore different ways in which philosophy of halakha can help us understand the halakhic process. The book contains a number of very significant articles by leading Jewish philosophers.

The 3rd and most recent work explores the role of educational goals in psak halakhah. Rosenak argues that that one must understand the educational agenda of the psak and its role in creating social change, and that moreover, perceiving this frequently subtle agenda is central in understanding the halakhic opinion. Rosenak thus employs a number of different theories in philosophy of education to generate a larger thesis on the proper analysis of psak halakha.

All 3 works are worthy of serious study, and together, clearly establish Rosenak as a major contributor to this significant field of study.

Of related interest: Rosenak's 2006 biography of Rav Kook in the Merkaz Zalman Shazar series of great Jewish intellectual and religious figures.


- Shlomo Brody

 
Mar 10, 2009
In The Footsteps of the Kuzari by Shalom Rosenberg
Shalom Rosenberg, In the Footsteps of the Kuzari: An Introduction to Jewish Philosophy, ed. by Joel Linsider from a translation of Gila Weinberg, ATID/Yashar Books, 2008. 2 Volumes.


The subtitle of this book best describes its content and goals: an introduction to Jewish philosophy. Rosenberg, a distinguished philosopher for many years at the Hebrew University and many Religious-Zionist institutions, uses the Kuzari as a springboard for reflecting on classic questions of Jewish philosophy. Using a dazzling array of philosophers - Jewish and non-Jewish, ancient and recent - Rosenberg delves into topics like particularism and universalism, science and religion, & reward and punishment.

Overall, the essays are both insightful and accessible, although occasionally they meander off topic and get a little dense for the average reader. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful book, and a welcome contribution to an all-too-small library of sophisticated works of Jewish philosophy that remain insightful to scholars and accessible to laypeople.

For more information, click here.

Other Recent ATID publications:

Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Yehuda Brandes

Teaching Toward Tomorrow: Setting an Agenda for Modern Orthodox Educationed. Yoel Finkelman

- Shlomo Brody



 
Mar 2, 2009
The Book in the Jewish World: 1700-1900 by Zeev Gries
Zeev Gries, The Book in the Jewish World: 1700-1900, Littman Library, 2007. 251 pages.

This recent work, a slightly updated translation of the 2002 Hebrew original, sheds fascinating light on the world of Jewish literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. Gries, a professor at Ben Gurion University, seeks to document who was publishing - and reading - the growing Jewish literature in Europe. Beyond providing mere statistics, the book depicts how changes in the Jewish community created a revolution in publishing, and also how the world of books impacted the community itself. Focus is placed on highlighting different genres (Halakhic works, ethical literature, kabbalistic literature, book reviews) and different intended audiences (religious, Haskalah, women, educated and uneducated). The book also includes a number of interesting sidepoints and nuggets of information (Who was the most prolific writer of haskamot in the 19th century? Gries answer: R' Joseph Saul Nathanson, author of Responsa Shoel U-Meshiv, who was also called the sar ha-maskim.)

This work is a good example of the value of Jewish bibliographical study.
For more information, click here.

Other Recent Publications from Littman Library:

How Jewish is Jewish History? By Moshe Rosman. An exploration of the challenge of studying Jewish history in the era of post-modernism.

On Justice: An Essay in Jewish Philosophyby Lenn Goodman.

Jewish Preaching in Times of War: 1800-2001 by Marc Saperstein

- Shlomo Brody


 
Feb 26, 2009
Involuntary Marginals by Ephraim Shoham-Steiner and Other Works from Merkaz Zalman Shazar Publishers
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, Involuntary Marginals: Marginal Individuals in Medieval Northern European Jewish Society, Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2008. 299 pages. [Hebrew]

Prof. Shoham-Steiner has written a fascinating work about an often neglected subject, the treatment of marginal figures. The book focuses on three particular cases within medieval Ashkenaz: lepers, madmen, and the physically impaired. Particular focus is given to the perceived causes of these phenomena and how that impacted social attitudes. Prof. Shoham-Steiner, lecturer at Ben-Gurion University, also effectively places these attitudes within the larger cultural context of Christian society. I particularly enjoyed the sections on the role of these "marginal figures" within the synagogue.
This is a probing study that deserves careful study.

For more information, click here.

Other Recent Works from Merkaz Zalman Shazar:
Merkaz Zalman Shazar has continued its publication of scholarly yet accessible biographies of great cultural figures.
Particularly noteworthy are works on Rashi (Avraham Grossman), Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Chasid (Joseph Dan), and Rebbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi (Aharon Oppenheimer).

To see the whole collection, click here.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Feb 26, 2009
The Jewish Life Cycle by Daniel Sperber
Daniel Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle: Custom, Lore, and Iconography - Jewish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, Bar Ilan University Press and Oxford University Press, 2008. 676 pages.


Prof. Sperber, distinguished historian and Talmudist at Bar Ilan University, composed over the course of 20 years eight imporant volumes documenting the development and nature of Jewish customs. While these Hebrew volumes serve as tremendous resources, they lack, with a couple of exceptions, systematic organization. Moreover, later volumes included additional notes or addendum on articles from previous issues, leaving it sometimes difficult to find relevant material.

In this large volume, Prof. Sperber has translated and organized these articles around the theme of "cradle to death," focusing on customs relating to birth, marriage, and death. The systematic organization and fascinating subject material make it a pleasure to peruse and study. Sperber's bibliography is characteristically breath-taking as he employs the complete annals of literature and all forms of art to tell his story. Where else can you find material like this on topics as diverse as "Women mohalot," "Throwing a Shoe at a Wedding," and "The Direction of Graves"?

Readers, however, should note that this is not intended to be a systematic depiction of all customs relating to these life cycle events. The footnotes can sometimes take up the majority of the page, and the reading is sometimes a little dense.
Nonetheless, this remains an accessible book for laymen, and an important contribution to scholarly literature.

To order, click here.

- Shlomo Brody


Also of note from Bar Ilan University Press:
Studies in Jewish Law: Judge and Judgment, ed. Ya'akov Habba and Amihai Redziner, 2007. 352 pages. [Hebrew]

Also of note from Oxford University Press:
Arie Morgenstern, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of The Land of Israel, 2006. 284 pages.
 
Jan 25, 2009
New Orthodox Forum - Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God
Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God, ed. Marc D. Stern, Yeshiva University Press / Ktav Publishing House, 2008. 402 pages.

In the introduction to this 17th volume of the Orthodox Forum series, Marc Stern notes how the vast majority of previous volumes addressed the engagement of Orthodoxy with some external phenomena, such as egalitarianism or non-Orthodox Jews. This volume, however, focuses on historical understandings and contemporary applications of the concept of yirat shamayim. This is a welcome contribution that highlights the necessity of the community to emphasize classic concepts of Judaism while explicating modern meanings and manifestations.

The first section is dedicated to a historical understanding of the term yirat shamayim. Prof. Warren Zev Harvey of Hebrew University presents a historical delineation of the term. He significantly notes that the contemporary Orthodox use
of the term to refer to external, strict physical observance of the commandments is not well attested in the classical and medieval sources.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein poetically describes two central impediments to contemporary yirat shamayim: the rise of science and the humanistic emphasis on man, not God, to moral discourse. Rabbi Shalom Carmy importantly moves the discussion to a different plane by inquiring as to why people would want to fear God, as opposed to why people no longer fear Him.

Other important papers discuss Yirat Shamayim and contemporary Tanakh study (R' Nathaniel Helfgot and R' Mosheh Lichtenstein); religion and the public square (R' Meir Soloveichik and Marc Stern); and difficulties toward building a community of yirei Hashem in schools and shuls.

For more information, click here.

- Shlomo Brody


 
Jan 20, 2009
Sacrificing Life, Ends that Justify the Means by Nahum Rakover
Nahum Rakover, Ends That Justify the Means, The Jewish Legal Heritage Society, 2000. 471 pages + xxiii English summary. [Hebrew]

Nahum Rakover, Sacrificing Life: Giving Up One to Save the Many, The Jewish Legal Heritage Society, 2000. 301 pages + xxxi English summary [Hebrew].


Prof. Nahum Rakover, former Deputy Attorney General of Israel, has been one of the primary figures to bring halakha into Israeli law discourse. He has composed a number of monographs on central legal topics and edited a series of works that attempt to directly translate halakha into contemporary legal terms. In these two works, however, Rakover focuses on more theoretical themes.

In the first work, Rakover examines under what situations a sin or another negative action might be justified by its desired end. While coventional wisdom holds that Judaism does not believe that the "ends justify the means," Rakover details a number of situations in which certain transgressions are justified or tolerated for the sake of some greater value. Topics include "averah lishmah", violating Shabbat to prevent conversion, and justifying certain marriages to prevent prostitution and licentiousness.

In the second work, Rakover discusses whether halakha tolerates, in one form or another, the sacrifice of certain individuals for another life or group of lives. Are some lives valued over others? Can one divert an arrow or grenade from several people toward the direction of an individual or smaller group? How does the obligation to participate in war affect this discussion?

These are well-organized, insightful, and learned books, which, like other works of Prof. Rakover, should be readily consulted.

To order or more information, see here.

- Shlomo Brody



 
Jan 20, 2009
Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics
Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics: Jewish Authority, Dissent, and Heresy in Medieval and Early Modern Times, edited by Daniel Frank and Matt Goldish, Wayne State University Press, 2008. 480 pages.


This fine compilation studies challenges to medieval and early modern rabbinic culture. While many think of Jewish sectarianism as unique features antiquity and modernity, this book highlight how different forms of sectarianism and dissent played an important role in shaping the Jewish community in both the medieval and early modern eras as well. Some of the dissent came from alternative sects, such as Karaism, while at other times it stemmed from internal criticism.

I found the section on boundaries within medieval Judaism to be particularly interesting. Adena Tannenbaum focuses on satire and other forms of Spanish Jewish literature critical of religious hypocrisy and parochialism. Ephraim Kanarfogel details medieval Ashkenazic views regarding anthropomorphism, while Joseph Davis discusses different views of heresy in medieval Ashkenaz. Two interesting articles also highlight the divisions between the Karaite and Rabbinite communities.
Within the modern era, Matt Goldish re-examines the link between Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, and heresy, while Sid Leiman continues his series of essays on the Emden-Eibeschuetz controversy, this time focusing on the stance of Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk.

The volume contains a number of eye-opening and thought-provoking essays that are worthy of further study.

To order, click here.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Dec 7, 2008
Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? by Shaye J.D. Cohen
Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism, University of California Press, 2005. 317 pages.

As Cohen immediately explains, this book does not suggest that Judaism ever advocated (or should ever advocate) abhorent female genital circumsion. (Chapter 2 discusses the cultures that did and do advocate such practices). Rather, his question relates to a more fundamental question: "What does the absence of circumcision from Jewish women tell us about the meaning of circumcision and the meaning of Jewishness?" Cohen's focus is on the absence of a parallel mark or rite for women of their inclusion in the covenant.
The book, which was awarded a 2006 National Jewish Book Award, contains many fascinating answers that take many different directions - a number of them are highlighted in my recent Ask The Rabbi Column for the Jerusalem Post.

I did not, however, find compelling Cohen's argument (Chapter 5) that the rabbinic sages simply found women to be secondary members of the covenant. For one thing, Cohen, currently a professor at Harvard, overemphasizes certain sources which indicate such a perspective, and gives secondary importance to other sources which contradict or moderate that thesis. Moreover, he does not sufficiently highlight the significance of the Talmudic position that women are already considered to be circumcised (by birth).

These shortcomings notwithstanding, the book is well-researched and offers fascinating perspectives on the historical understanding of circumcision.

For more information, click here.

- Shlomo Brody


 
Dec 7, 2008
New Books on Suicide, Cemeteries by Yechezkel Lichtenstein
Yechezkel Shrage Lichtenstein, Suicide: Halakhic, Historical, and Theological Aspects, , 2008, Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, 2008. 487 pages. [Hebrew]

Yechezkel Shrage Lichtenstein, Consecrating the Profane: Rituals Performed and Prayers Recited at Cemeteries and Burial Sites of the Pious, Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, 2007. 495 pages. [Hebrew]


Rabbi Dr. Lichtenstein, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, has produced two wonderfully interesting works. The first work, on suicide, focuses on the prohibition of commiting suicide and the rabbinic disussion of how to address the many (unfortunate) circumstances in Jewish history when Jews felt compelled to kill themselves. The range of subjects extends from King Shaul to the medieval crusades to the contemporary IDF. One regretful omission is a thorough discussion of how new conceptions of psychology and mental illness have impacted this topic in the modern era. Nonetheless, this is fascinating (if not depressing) historical and legal analysis of a complex and emotional topic.

The second work address the fascinating question of how cemeteries, seemingly the greatest collection of tumah, took on a sanctified and holy role within Jewish law and lore. The book is divided into two parts. The first addresses the fulfillment of mitzvot and the presence of holy objects within cemeteries and around the deceased (e.g. learning Torah, wearing tzizzit out). The second half of the book addresses the reasoning and propriety of visiting the graves of Tzaddikim (including by kohanim). A particularly interesting chapter is the history and logic of prostrating oneself on the graves of the righteous.

For better and for worse, missing from both of these works is the critical aparatus of anthropology and sociology so popular in today's academic circles.

These are fascinating works which will be enjoyed by scholar and laymen alike.

For more information, see the website of Kibbutz Hameuchad.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Oct 25, 2008
New Books on Sefer Breishit
Chaim Navon, Genesis and Jewish Thought, Ktav Publishers, 2008. 379 pages.

The gem of the new books on Breishit is Rabbi Chaim Navon's series of profound yet accessible philosophical reflections on Sefer Breishit. Navon, who serves as a rabbi in Modi'in and teaches at a number of yeshivot in Israel, uses Breishit as a springboard for philosophical discussions on major topics such as Man's place in the world, Guilt and Shame, The Road to Faith, and The Image of God. Navon uses the full range of Jewish and secular sources, ranging from midrashim to Rav Soloveitchik, Plato to Spinoza. The essays, originally published for a series in the Virtual Beit Midrash, are long enough to provide nuance and profundity, yet are quick reads and remain comprehensible to scholars and laypeople alike. This is a highly recommended work which will be enjoyed as both a reading companion to Breishit and an accessible entry into the world of Jewish thought.

To order, click here.

Yitzchak Etshalom, Between the Lines of the Bible, Yashar Books, 2006. 288 pages.

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom's first book is a very effective English introduction into the world of peshat-oriented Biblical interpretation that has emerged within the last 20-30 years in the religious-Zionist community. Organized by theme and method, rather than by parasha, Etshalom seeks to delineate central tools that contemporary writers use to explain Sefer Breishit, such as chiastic structures, intra-Biblical parshanut, and historical background. Etshalom also dedicates a number of chapters to showing how literary readings of the Torah can create effective responses to Bible critics. The chapters are clear and informative, and while more advanced scholars might find some of the chapters rudimentary, the book serves as an excellent introduction to modern literary Biblical interpretation and a stimulating companion to Sefer Breishit.
For more information, click here.


Rabbi Francis Nataf, Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis, Urim Publications, 2006. 125 pages.

As the title indicates, Rabbi Francis Nataf's Redeeming Relevance seeks to provide meaningful new interpretations relevant to the contemporary cultural context. Nataf believes that recent generations have become fearful of new interpretations to the Torah, abandoning a long tradition of Torah commentary that addresses, explicitly or implicitly, current issues. The 6 essays in this work use a combination of traditional commentaries and literary awareness to give a reverential yet human depiction of the Biblical characters, and then conclude with a homiletical lesson. These are serious yet accessible essays with thoughtful and timely messages. The book includes a short yet telling introductory letter from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, praising Nataf for avoiding the excesses of "eye-level Tanakh study" and "fus[ing] reverence for our greatest with awareness of their humanity."
For more information, click here.

Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, Urim Publications, 2006. 182 pages.

A work that utilizes more nuanced and sophisticated literary technique to explore character development is Shmuel Klitsner's Wrestling Jacob. Longtime teacher of Tanach at Jerusalem's Midreshet Lindenbaum, Klitsner focuses on the 2nd half of Sefer Breishit and the story of Jacob. Klitsner uses unique word choices and parallels to argue that difficult literary passages should not be "resolved," but should rather be understood as delivering a deeper subtext or meaning. Klitsner's uses these literary nuances to analyze Jacob's moral development and his struggle with his family relationships and his own role within the divine covenant.
As he writes, "It would seem that the real drama of the biblical text lay precisely in the thorny complexity of intensely human (and at times tragically faulted) heroes functioning in the arena of morally ambiguous interaction with friends, family, and foes and simultaneously in the orbit of divine covenant."
This is an innovative and scholarly work that deserves careful study.

Click here for more information.

Also new from Urim: Moshe Sokolow, Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz, Urim Publications, 2008. 285 pages.


- Shlomo Brody

 
Oct 14, 2008
JPS Bible Commentary: Kohelet by Michael V. Fox
Michael V. Fox, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes - Kohelet,, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2004. 87 pages + 38 page introduction.

As with the other recent contributors to this series, Fox focuses in his commentary on literary and thematic issues. A professor at the University of Wisconsin with a PhD from the Hebrew University, Fox also addresses linguistic issues, using traditional and modern commentators alike, and to a lesser extent, discusses historical-critical questions. From an Orthodox standpoint, the historical-critical remarks should be read with caution, especially with regard to issues of textual emendations and authorship of the entire book. Despite this fact, Fox's commentary presents clear, concise, and articulate insights into the sefer, and is a valuable resource. The introduction is particularly helpful, with an overview of the book's structure and unity, key words, and the narrative's relationship to philosophy.

Fox neatly summarizes his take on this enigmatic sefer in the following paragraph: "It is important to read Ecclesiastes as a narrative, not simply as a collection of proverbs and epigrams each one of which can be understood in itself and it intended to be independently valid... Koheleth's discourse is reflexive. He looks at himself and reports what he planned, did, experienced, and thought. Some of his feelings and thoughts may be temporary and transitional, left behind at a more mature stage in Koheleth's development... He bares his soul in all its twistings and turnings, ups and downs, taking his readers with him on a sometimes arduous journey to knowledge - a knowledge that turns out to be very incomplete. Thus his readers are not only to absorb Koheleth's teachings, they are also to observe him as he walks a rocky and winding path toward understanding and acceptance of life's frustrations and uncertainties. The journey itself is important" (p. xiii).

For more information, see the JPS website.


- Shlomo Brody
 
Oct 4, 2008
Festival Joy in Tannaitic Discourse by David Henshke
David Henshke, Festival Joy in Tannaitic Discourse, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 2007. 457 pages. [Hebrew]

This work explores key facets of the halakhic concept of simcha on the festivals. Long-time professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan Univesity, Henshke aims to explore the connection between simcha and the Korban Hagiga, as well as the uniqueness of simcha on Sukkot in comparison to the other festivals. The book also discusses the mitzvah of aliyah le-regel and the relationship between Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret. An additional excursus anaylzes the mitzvah of eating in the Sukkah.

As with his work on the laws of shomerim (3rd and 8th chapters of Bava Metzia), Prof. Henshke seeks to show the development of these concepts by first identifying historical layers entrenched within Talmudic passages. Henshke's methodology, which has drawn admiration and criticism from his colleagues, attempts to prove different stages of interpretation within these historical layers. This work will engage readers with regard to his claims about the Sukkot holiday as well as his broader methodology.

This is a highly sophisticated work that will be enjoyed by those who appreciate the critical-historical approach to Talmud practiced in academic settings, but not necessarily by those who exclusively favor classic yeshiva-style learning.

To order, see the Magnes Press website

Another recent release from Magnes Press:

Ishay Rosen-Zvi, The Rite that Was Not: Temple, Midrash, and Gender in Tractate Sotah, 2008. 316 pages [Hebrew].

An analysis of the Sotah ritual with emphasis on Hazal's creativitiy and method of interpretation.
See here for more details.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Sep 23, 2008
On Repentance and Redemption edited by Dov Schwartz and Ariel Gross
On Repentane and Redemption: Presented to Binyamin Gross, ed. Dov Schwartz and Ariel Gross, Bar Ilan University Press, 2008. 192 pages in Hebrew and 78 pages in French.

This festchrift in honor of Prof. Gross, longtime professor of philosophy at Bar Ilan University, focused on two major themes of Gross' research: Repentance and Redemption.

The first section has a number of particularly interesting articles on the nature of teshuva. Michael Wygoda discusses the role of remorse (charata) in Rambam's Hilchot Teshuva, while Dror Ehrlich discusses the role of repentance and heresy in the writings of R. Yosef Albo. Adiel Kadari (who wrote his doctorate on Rambam's Hilchot Teshuvah) discusses the historical interpretations of the well-known rabbinic dictum, "The place where repentants stand, complete tzadikkim do not stand." Other articles employ the tools of contemporary psyschology to better understand the nature of teshuva. The section overall successfully adds to our understanding of the role and nature of repentance in Jewish thought.

Other noteworthy articles in the book include: Ronen Achituv's "Redemption by Torah Study: The Theology of the Study of Torah in the Mishna and the Talmud" and Shaul Regev's "Rabbi Moshe Di Trani (Ha-Mabit)'s Messianic Perception." A couple of the essays analyze the thought of Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), whose writings have recently become popular in Israeli circles.

For more information on the book, see the BIU Press Website

- Shlomo Brody
 
Sep 20, 2008
New Books on the Yamim Noraim
Noraos HaRav: Drashos on Teshuva and Yomim Noraim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l, ed. B. David Schreiber, 2008. 154 pages.

Bryna Jocheved Levy, Waiting for Rain Reflections at the Turning of the Year, Jewish Publication Society, 2008. 252 pages.


David Schreiber has just released the 16th volume of the Noraos HaRav series, with the latest volume containing 3 drashos relating to teshuva and Yom Kippur. The drashot, originally delivered in 1965, 1966, and 1972, have been transcribed and sub-divided into small sections with chapter headings. Schreiber also includes important footnotes citing other places where the Rav discussed similar themes, as well as alternative perpsectives found in different achronim. The three drashot relate to: "Teshuva and Bechirah"; "Teshuva and Torah"; and "Yom Kippur and Creation."


For the last several years, Dr. Bryna Levy of Jerusalem has delivered a series of lectures at Matan on various themes of the Tishrei holidays. This book collects 11 of those lectures, 8 of which focus on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with the other 3 addressing Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret. A longtime teacher of Tanach, Levy's lectures usually focus on different Tanach passages that relate to a theme of the holiday. While she thanks in the beginning of the book her teacher Prof. Nechama Leibowitz zt"l for her inspiration, Levy's writing style more resembles that of Dr. Avivah Zornberg, as she lyrically weaves together classic commentators and midrashim with contemporary storytellers and philosophers in her original analyses. Her accessible essays will be enjoyed by scholars and lay readers alike.

For more information, click here.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Sep 9, 2008
Kuntress Ha-Teshuvot He-Hadash: Bibliographic Thesaurus of Responsa Literature
Kuntress Ha-Teshuvot He-Hadash: A Bibliographic Thesaurus of Responsa Literature published from ca. 1470-2000, ed. Shmuel Glick, Vol. 1 (Aleph-Lamed) & Vol 2 (Mem-Kuf), Bar Ilan University and Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2006-2007.


This new set is an incredibly valuable resource that thoroughly documents extant responsa literature published from 1470 to modern times. Each entry includes the responsa's name, author, list of editions, sources of information about the book, and perhaps most importantly, bibliographical comments describing the content of the book. As such, the reader gets a good sense of the topics covered within the responsa. The entries also frequently provide a bibliography of relevant articles on the authors or topics covered within the collection.
The entries also include material from the original Kuntress Ha-Teshuvot, written by Boaz Cohen in 1930.

Volume 1 also includes a helpful overview of responsa literature, addressing a wide variety of topics such as writing styles, polemics against responsa, and the authority of the writer. The introduction also includes a thorough bibliography of other articles on responsa literature.

The first volumes document books that are properly titled as responsa, since they are primarily comprised of questions and answers. A forthcoming volume will also document responsa that appear within larger works of different genres, such as Talmudic commentaries.

In the Tradition Seforim Blog, Dan Rabinowitz has noted that the work includes certain inconsistencies in detail and scope. Nonetheless, once completed,
this series will represent a tremendous accomplishment and will be used for many decades to come.


- Shlomo Brody
 
Sep 7, 2008
Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber on the Halakhic Process
Daniel Sperber, The Path of Halakha: Women Reading the Torah - A Case of Pesika Policy, ed. Yoav Sorek, Reuven Mass Publishers, 2007. 255 pages. [Hebrew]

Daniel Sperber, Ways of Pesika: Methods and Attitudes for Accurate Halakhic Decisions, ed. Yoav Sorek, Reuven Mass Publishers, 2007. 207 pages. [Hebrew]


Much has been written - and will continue to be written - about the halakhic propriety of women receiving aliyot. The first book noted here, The Path of Halakha, represents an important contribution to this ongoing discussion. In this limited space, I will not attempt to give a critical review or make a judgment of the material - one can see 2 different posts on the Tradition Seforim Blog for different opinions, one by Dan Rabinowitz and the other by Aryeh Frimer. (See also the review of the 2nd book by Eliezer Brodt).

I would like to add, however, a note on how to properly read these books, which I think has been overlooked by many readers. In reading the critiques of Rabbi Sperber's position, many have focused on his technical discussion of the sources, noting that many sources might lead one to a different conclusion.

Sperber, it would seem, would dismiss this critique because it misses the entire thrust of these 2 books. Sperber's responsum on women's aliyot, which encompasses only 40 pages of the first book, is unique in its explicit use of academic and historical sources. It is driven, moreover, by a desire to fulfill an ethical mission which Sperber believes is inherent to the halakhic process.

Thus Sperber follows his responsum with a few hundred pages (the rest of the 1st book and the entire 2nd book) detailing the role of sensitivity and compassion in psak halakha as well as the importance of a historically-accurate understanding of halakhic sources. Sperber does not seem to be looking for a knockout punch to show the legitimacy of women's aliyot. Instead, he seems to argue that his halakhic thesis is viable (even if not irrefutable), and if you understand the nature of the halakhic process (e.g. the importance of compassion and historical research), you will agree that this responsum is a halakhically-legimitate response to the needs of contemporary society.

Thus, in my opinion, the most significant contribution of these works is not his opinion on women's aliyot, but his analysis of the halakhic system. Indeed, whether one fully agrees or passionately disagrees with his conclusion regarding aliyot, one will still gain much from his discussion about the halakhic process. Rabbi Sperber's books are extremely important contributions to scholarship on the halakhic system, and one hopes that interest in these books will generate more literature on this central topic.


- Shlomo Brody
 
Aug 2, 2008
Sefer Malki Bakodesh by Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn
Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn, Malki Bakodesh: Responsa, Part One, new edition edited by David Zohar, Jerusalem, 2006. Joint Publication of: Bar Ilan University, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and The Shalom Hartman Institute. 234 pages + 56 page introduction. [Hebrew]

In recent years, the nearly forgotten works of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn (1857 Safed - 1935 Hoboken, New Jersey) have been revived by the efforts of a few determined academics who believe that R. Hirschensohn was ahead of his times in addressing major issues of contemporary concern. While Eliezer Schweid's early study focused on R. Hirschensohn's writings on democracy and Judaism, more recent articles by David Zohar, Yossi Turner, and others have focused on his approach to halakha, approach to secular Jews, and response to Biblical criticism, amongst other topics.

Zohar has now done the scholarly community a great service in republishing the first part of R. Hirchensohn's magnum opus, Malki Bakodesh. Here R. Hirschensohn's addresses major questions relating to democracy, entry to the Temple Mount, establishing a Jewish army, and a court of appeals. R. Hirschensohn also briefly discusses here (but further develops in a later section) his belief that a future Temple will not include korbanot, for which he was severely chastised by Rav Kook.

Of tangential interest is R. Hirschensohn's protest against the overuse of the term "gaon" to describe contemporary rabbis (p.140-141).

Zohar also includes a biographical introduction to the volume, an essay on R. Hirschensohn's halakhic thought, and helpful footnotes to explain the textual references and historical context of the treatise.

This is a welcome addition to the library of 20th century American rabbinic writings, and we look forward to the forthcoming publication of future volumes of R. Hirschensohn's works.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jul 21, 2008
New Works by or about Rav Soloveitchik zt"l
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham's Journey: Reflections of the Life of the Founding Patriarch, ed. David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, Toras HaRav Foundation with Ktav Publishing House, 2008. 224 pages.

Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Zev Eleff, Ktav Publishing House, 2008. 349 pages.


The first book is the 9th in the continuing series of posthumously published writings of the Rav, this time focusing on the life of Avraham. While the work contains many classic themes of the Rav's writings, it adds new ideas and provides nuances to more familiar topics. The work is also an important example of Rav Soloveitchik's hermeneutics. We look forward to seeing more additions from the important series. While a welcome contribution to the growing literature on Rav Soloveitchik's life, a thorough biography remains a scholarly desideratum.

The 2nd book is a collection of a series of recollections that first appeared in YU's student newspaper, The Commentator. While I was at first skeptical about the value of an additional work of memories on the Rav's life, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the different submissions of a wide range of writers. The work is organized by decade, beginning with reflections from the Rav's activities in the 30s and ending with the 80's, the Rav's last years of public leadership. Amongst the many interesting pieces, I enjoyed David Luchins' comparison of the Rav to his brother Rav Ahron Soloveichik and Lawrence Kaplan's important records of the Rav's notes to Kaplan's translation of Ish ha-Halakhah.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jul 15, 2008
Moreh Nevukhim: New Hebrew Translation by Michael Schwarz
Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed: Hebrew Translation from the Arabic with annotations, appendices, and indices by Michael Schwarz, Tel Aviv University Press, 2002. 842 pages, 2 volumes. [Hebrew]

This recent translation of Rambam's Guide, the 4th to appear in Hebrew, has quickly become the standard Hebrew translation of this classic work. Schwarz's translation has succeeded because of its consistency in translation, its articulate modern Hebrew, and his use of the contemporary terms that connote medieval philosophical jargon. While Ibn Tibbon's translation remains central as the text that the Rambam himself directed, and that was used throughout the centuries, Schwarz's work will clearly make this text more accessible to modern readers. The copious footnotes also include explanations of his translations and comparisons with earlier works.

More importantly, Schwarz footnotes secondary sources (before 1997) that discuss the given passage in the Rambam. Along with the indices and appendices, the footnotes serve as incredible bibliographical resources that every scholar will surely use. A must buy for all students of the Rambam!

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jul 12, 2008
A Time of Inquiry, A Time for Reflection by Jacob Katz
Jacob Katz, A Time for Inquiry, A Time for Reflection: A Historical Essay on Israel Through the Ages, Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2007. 197 pages. [Hebrew]


Professor Jacob Katz (d. 1998) was unquestionably one of the 20th century's most important Jewish historians. His works on Jewish-Christian relations, Orthodoxy, social history, and halakha continue to greatly impact the world of Jewish studies. In his last book, recently republished, Katz abandoned his role as a dispassionate historian to compose a fiery treatise against Israel's "new historians" and significant elements of the Orthodox leadership in modern Israel.

He criticizes the "new historians" for having little political sense, contending that their critiques of the use of force during the War of Independence are unrealistic and display a lack of moral responsibility for the fate of the nation. He lambasts the state for supporting a Haredi education system that teaches its students to disrespect the hand that feeds them. He similarly criticizes post-1967 governments for allowing a Messianic religious-Zionist ideology to influence its haphazard and non-strategic building of settlements throughout the newly-controlled territories. In both of these cases, Katz believes, the state failed in displaying its sovereignty over the nation.

Most significantly, Katz draws upon his groundbreaking studies on the history of halakha to launch a blistering critique of the strong notion of "da'at torah" and a "halakhic state." Earlier sages, he contends, granted authority to governing institutions, like the kehilla, that were not based on halakha (see, for example, the well-known writings of the Ran). The unprecedented involvement of poskim in political affairs, he believes, is a non-judicious extension of rabbinic authority.

This is a thought-provoking work that deserves greater attention with its re-publication.

To order, click here.
- Shlomo Brody
 
Jun 18, 2008
Sages: Volumes 1-2 by Rabbi Binyamin Lau
Binyamin Lau, Sages: Volume 1 - The Second Temple Period, Beit Morasha Press/Jewish Agency, 2006. 304 pages. [Hebrew]

Binyanim Lau, Sages: Volume 2 - From Yavne to the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, Yediot Ahronoth Books/Beit Morasha/Jewish Agency, 2007. 383 pages. [Hebrew]


These are the first two volumes of a special series which can most succintly be described as "academic drashot." As Rabbi Dr. Lau, a fine talmid chocham with a doctorate in Talmud from Bar Ilan University, writes in the beginning of the first volume, his goal is to understand the lasting philosophical message of Chazal within their historical context. As such, he employs all research tools, including those of the academic world, to understand the unique contribution of each generation. Lau, moreover, regularly raises the contemporary implications of these messages, particularly in the second volume when he addresses the ideology of the Bar-Kokhba revolt. The essays, arranged in chronological order, are insightful and thought-provoking, bringing new and deeper perspectives on Chazal. Lau sidesteps the historical questions regarding the attribution of different statements and ideas to rabbinic personalities, contending that the implications of those ideologies and their relevancy to their time period retains primary importance.

The books were originally delivered as popular shiurim in Beit Knesset Ramban in Jerusalem, where Rabbi Lau serves as the spiritual leader. As such, the works remain accessible and relevent to both the scholarly and lay reader. Rabbi Lau is currently delivering the next series of shiurim in Ramban, and a third volume is expected in the coming year.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jun 18, 2008
Covenantal Imperatives by Rabbi Walter Wurzburger
Covenantal Imperatives: Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger on Jewish Law, Thought, and Community, ed. Eliezer L. Jacobs and Shalom Carmy, Urim Publications, 2008. 325 pages.

Long-time readers of Tradition certainly need no introduction to the writings of Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger z"l, who edited the journal from 1962-1988. A distinguished pulpit rabbi, communal leader, and student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, R' Wurzburger made significant contributions to Jewish philosophy, particularly in the realm of ethics and halakha. I first encountered his writings in Ethics of Responsibility (JPS, 1994), and found his notion of "virtue ethics" both compelling and inspiring.

This new volume is built around 4 themes of Wurzburger's writings: Ethics and halakha, Jewish thinkers, Jewish communal issues, and "Jewish life." The 27 essays range from topics like "religion and morality" and "Imitatio Dei" to "cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews" and "Orthodox Judaism and human purpose."

I particularly enjoyed the first section, which allows one to see the development of his notion of "covenantal imperatives," which he defines as "religious imperatives for which no specific halakhic source can be invoked" (p. 36). I found especially interesting his statement that this notion resembles that of Da'at Torah, with one important distinction: "I fully recognize that what is perceived as a religious requirement possesses merely subjective validity in the absence of explicit halakhic norms. Because of its lack of objectivity, it merely constitutes a legitimate ethical opinion but does not deny the Jewish legitimacy of alternate responses. Hence my position allows for advocacy of pluralistic approaches in all areas which are not subject to halakhic regulation..." (36-37).

The ethics section also includes his earliest attempt to argue that the Talmudic concept "Darkhei Shalom" is an ethical religious norm, and not just a "pragmatic device to safeguard Jewish self-interest" (60).

This volume is a fitting tribute to this wonderful man and significant scholar. A forthcoming volume of Tradition, expected in 2008, will be dedicated to Rabbi Wurzburger's thought and shed greater light on his contribution to Jewish theology.


- Shlomo Brody
 
May 28, 2008
New Orthodox Forum Book: Gender Relationships In Marriage and Out
Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Blau, Ktav: 2007, 298 pages.


This important new book, the 16th in the Orthodox Forum series, centers on issues of marriage, sexuality, and relationships. The book, comprised of 12 articles, can be divided into three sections:

1. Rabbinic Attitudes to Sexuality: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein presents a masterful discussion of different attitudes toward sexuality from Chazal to modern times, and in particular examines why medieval authorities displayed a much more negative view to sexuality than did Chazal.
Basing himself on his research found in his Hebrew book, Male and Female He Created Them (Zalman Shazar, 2003), Prof. Adiel Schremer delineates the different goals of marriage found in Chazal (procreation, protection from sin, and loving companionship). He then tries to contrast this attitude with that of early Christianity and show how the (largely) contrasting views on sexuality reflect different attitudes to holiness.

2. "The Singles Crisis"
Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman discusses the phenomenon of singles forever searching for the "perfect person singular." She contends that "extended years of singleness among Orthodox American Jews are both symptomatic and symbolic of the extent to which American Orthodox attitudes and behaviors are influenced by broader American culture. The growth of large social networks of Orthodox American Jewish singles... reflects a merger or coalescence of contemporary American and historical Jewish values" (p. 95).
Daniel Rothenberg as well as Koby Frances & Jennie Rosenfeld have separate articles depicting revealing interviews and panel discussions with singles.

3. Pre-Marital Guidance Regarding Sexuality and Marriage:
Rav Yuval Cherlow discusses the different types of questions he receives on the internet regarding these matters and analyzes their implications for contemporary halakhic and educational agendas. Dr. Deena Zimmerman similarly discusses the implications of questions she receives on Nishmat's website (www.yoetzet.org) regarding Hilchot Niddah. Abby Lerner and Devorach Zlochower discuss different attitudes and approaches to teaching Hilchot Niddah and matters of intimacy to chatanim and kallot.
The final chapter, by Drs. Yocheved Debow and Anna Wolski-Wruble, present the beginnings of a curriculum to provide comprehensive life values and intimacy education.

A highly informative and thought-provoking work, this volume represents a growing and welcome trend within the Orthodox community of speaking about intimacy in a forthright yet dignified manner that balances the spirit of tzni'ut while addressing contemporary needs.

- Shlomo Brody
 
May 28, 2008
Cultural Criticism and Rav Ovadiah Yosef
Ariel Picard, The Philosophy of Rabbi Ovadya Yosef in an Age of Transition: Study of Halakhah and Cultural Criticism, Bar Ilan University Press: 2007, 306 pages. [Hebrew]

While a number of books have been written on the life and writings of Rav Ovadiah, this latest contribution distinguishes itself through its unique methodology. Many studies of halakha take an "internal" perspective on halakha, focusing on questions of sources, rules of adjudication, and authority of previous generations. Others, like the works of Jacob Katz, take a more historical perspective, analyzing the context and development of different rulings and ideas.

Picard, formerly rabbi of Kibbutz Shluchot and now a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute, seeks to develop a cultural view of Rav Ovadiah's rulings by introducing modern hermeneutics into the study of psak halakha. He takes an "external" perspective by analyzing the literary rhetoric of the tshuvot and the sociological implications of the ruling.

As such, Rav Ovadia's attempt to restore "the crown" of Sephardic poskim gets analyzed through the prism of Orientalism and the writings of Edward Said. His rulings regarding Zionism and the State are seen as a way of embracing the new reality without succumbing to the cultural hegemony of the Ashkenazi elite. The writings of Foucault on attraction and sexuality help Picard dissect Rav Ovadiah's disagreement with Rav Ovadiah Hedaya regarding the impact of changing dress norms on hilchot tzni'ut.

The book makes a strong case for the utility of sociological and hermeneutical factors within the study of halakha. Yet at times one feels that in his attempt to show what is "really happening," Picard misses out by neglecting important elements of internal rabbinic analysis. Rav Yosef's choosing of one position might reflect, for example, a preference for a particular legal argument or source more than a "power" struggle between different social forces. Or to put it another way, Picard's analysis might tell us the impact of Rav Ovadiah's thought without telling us what he was actually thinking.

Nonetheless, the analysis remains frequently enlightening and always provoking, and this significant work will surely contribute to our understanding of piskei halakha.

- Shlomo Brody
 
May 11, 2008
Recent Works in Academic Talmudic Scholarship
David Halivni, Sources and Traditions: A Source Critical Commentary on the Talmud Tractate Bava Bathra, Magnes Press, 2007. 352 pages. [Hebrew]

Creation and Composition: The Contribution of the Bavli Redactors (Stammaim) to the Aggada, ed. Jeffrey Rubinstein, Mohr Siebeck, 2005. 458 pages.


All students familiar with academic Talmudic study are certainly familiar with the contributions of Prof. David Halivni, longtime professor at Columbia University and a recent Israel Prize laureate. This newest volume of Mekorot U-Mesorot is his most recent contribution to an ongoing project of writing a new commentary to the Talmud. Most significantly, the volume includes a 148 page introduction providing Halivni's updated formulation of his theories on the composition of the Talmud and the role of the so-called "Stammaim."

Beginning in 1975, Halivni began to propose that the anonymous strata of the Babylonian Talmud stems from the cryptic post-Amaraic period. Halivni postulated that while the Amoriam preserved the legal rulings of earlier sages, the dialectical argumentation and reasoning behind these rulings were preserved, albeit sometimes in incomplete form, by the "Stammaim," whose teachings make up the bulk of the Talmud.
As Halivni explains in his introduction, his opinion about the dating of the period has changed. Initially he believed that the Stammaim immediately followed Rav Ashi and Ravina. Later, however, he concluded that the famous statement, "Rav Ashi and Ravini - the end of hora'a," was not meant as a historical fact, but was rather the "adulation of a student who thought that the death of his celebrated master brought an end to 'hora'a.' " In this most recent work, Halivni concludes that the Amoraic period concluded in 550 CE, with the Stammaim operating from 550-750. Halivni elaborates on the role of the stammaim in shaping the gemara's text, their relationship to the Geonim, and their contribution to legal argumentation.

One scholar who firmly adopts Halivni's position is his student, Prof. Jeffrey Rubinstein of New York University, the editor of the second volume under review. Rubinstein has focused much of his career on the role of the Stamaim in shaping Aggadata. This volume, which includes articles from major scholars like Shamma Friedman (whose parallel and concurrent research to Halivni's helped establish the Stammaim thesis) and Yaakov Elman, significantly adds to the study of the role of the Stamaim in developing Aggadic sugyas.

The book is divided into three sections, the first analyzing specific texts, the second focusing on historiography, and the third addressing theory and method. I found the articles in the historiography section particularly stimulating, as they challenge the ability of using the Bavli for historical documentation because the Stammaim frequently edited and adapted earlier traditions.

As Rubinstein notes in his introduction, the articles also reflect differences of opinion regarding the dating of Stamaitic material in the Talmud. While some tend to attribute the statements exclusively to the post-Amoraic period, others, like Shamma Friedman, believe that "creative literary intervention already marked earlier stages of Talmudic literature, and the results of these efforsts are also included in the Bavli. There are consequently more options for identifying the source of creative composition or transmission than ascribing it to the latest anonymous redactors" (p. 73).

Rubinstein also conveniently offers an abridged English translation of Halivni's introduction to most recent volume of Sources and Traditions, discussed above.

The book is an important contribution to academic Talmud study and gives readers a strong impression of the state of the field.

- Shlomo Brody
 
May 8, 2008
Concealment and Revelation by Moshe Halbertal
Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and its Philosophical Implications, trans. by Jackie Feldman, Princeton University Press, 2007. 200 pages.


This concise and brilliant book discusses the multi-faceted phenomenon of esotericism in medievel Jewish thought. Halbertal, a prominent professor of philosophy at Hebrew University who also holds posts at New York University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, displays a wide range of expertise in various forms of both kabbalah and philosophy.

Halbertal highlights the competing claims of deeper truths, questioning why medieval Judaism produced so many esoteric doctrines and writings. He answers that "The esoteric realm became a powerful medium of integration of dominating cultural paradigms into the heart of Judaism. It served as well as the breeding ground of the most radical and diverse worldview that Judaism ever produced. In the 12th and 13th centuries the canopy of the concealed shielded a astonishing diversity of astrologists, hermetics, Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Gnostics, and others" (p. 151).

The book highlights the various - and frequenly conflicting - ways in which esotericism functioned, noting many paradoxes of this phenomenon. Halbertal uses this to provide a novel understanding of the dispute over philosophy in the early fourteenth century between Meiri, Abba Mari, and Rashba. He also uses it to explain why Talmudists with strong kabbalistic inclinations like Ramban and Rashba were more inclined to conceal mystical teachings, while their less scholarly students favored publicising these doctrines. The concluding chapter, which can be read independently of the rest of the book, lays out a broad and original taxonomy of esotericism and its implications.

Beyond its broader claims, the book also provides great insight into individual thinkers like Ibn Ezra, whose astrological beliefs are frequenty overlooked by his readers, and Rambam, whose explicit esotericism has perplexed readers for centuries. Halbertal also touches on curricular disputes and questions of translations.

A translation of the 2001 Hebrew edition, this very scholarly yet highly readable work will be recognized as a masterful work for many years to come.
 
May 8, 2008
Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller by Joseph Davis
Joseph Davis, Yom-Tov Lippman Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Rabbi, Littman Library, 2005, 302 pages.

Joseph Davis begins this highly successful biography of R. Yom-Tov Lippman Heller, the "Tosafot Yom Tov," by describing his feeling of visiting his grave in the famous Cracow cemetary. Walking between the gravestones, including that of R. Moshe Isserles, Davis felt "the difficulty... of grasping these men and women in their individuality." R. Heller, however, uniquely left sufficient and diverse written records to allow for a proper biography that portrays his "individuality and in detail: to narrate his life, to place him in the context of his time, and to see his vision of Judaism, of the world around him, and of the events through which he lived."

Having walked through that cemetary myself on two occasions, I too have felt that same dearth - and necessity - of sophisticated and intimate biographies of rabbinic luminaries. These feelings were particularly acute at Heller's grave, when the best the tour guide could muster - perhaps not having either the knowledge or interest in his decades of scholarship and communal leadership - was a mythical story about his burial next to a secret philanthropist known in the community to be a miser.

Davis successfully brings R. Heller to life by detailing his intellectual achivements, his communal leadership, and personal travails from his community as well as the non-Jewish authorities, including his arrest and trial. He also discusses Heller's ultimate move from Prague to Poland and the sufferings from the 1648 massacres.

Particularly enlightening is the way in which Davis frames Rav Heller's writings within the larger intellectual trends of the time. He shows how his mishna commentary, Tosafot Yom Tov, draws from the 16th century renewal of interest in the mishna; how his halakhic writings and particularly his commentaries to the Rif, Pilpula Harifta and Ma'adanei Melekh, relate to the Ashkenazic reception of the Shulchan Aruch; and how his attitude to philosophy and kabbalah relate to the opinions of R. Moshe Isserles, R. Shlomo Luria, the Maharal, R. Isaiah Horowitz, and other lesser known figures from the early modern period.
Davis also dedicates a chapter to R. Heller's perspective on non-Jews, particularly highlighting R. Heller's sharp disagreement with the Maharal's theory of the ontological differences between Jews and non-Jews.

This is a lucid and highly informative work that helps open the world of early modern Ashkenazic luminaries.

- Shlomo Brody


 
Mar 30, 2008
Recent Parashah Books from Urim Publications
Rabbi Chanan Morrison, Gold from the Land of Israel: A New Light on the Weekly Torah Portion from the Writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Urim Publications, 2006. 368 pages.

Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary, Urim Publications, 2006. 237 pages.

Professors on the Parashah: Studies on the Weekly Torah Reading, ed. Leib Moscovitz, Urim Publications, 2005. 359 pages.


Many Jewish publication houses today no longer publish new works on the parashah, apparently believing that the market is oversaturated. One publication house that continues to publish new - and refreshing - works on the sidra is Urim Publications. All 3 of the books include short pieces, apparently targeting the weekly parashah reader who desires quick yet substantive insights into the text.

Morrison's book adapts different pieces from Rav Kook's writings that relate to verses or themes of the parashah. The advantage of this work is that Morrison presents elements of parashanut that might go unnoticed by someone studying his works, and helps the reader find relevant material from Rav Kook's scattered writings. The disadvantage, of course, is that it extracts the material from its original context (which is properly footnoted), and therefore the reader does not see the larger context. Nonetheless, this is a useful book for readers of Rav Kook who want timely insights into his writings.

Drazin, a Targum scholar who also served as a lawyer and a US military chaplain, has both an educational and polemical tone to his work. "The goal of this volume is to inform its readers of facts that are generally withheld from them, to prompt readers to think and to improve" (p. 10). Believing that contemporary parashah study frequently stifles intellectual curiosity and honesty, Drazin quotes a wide variety of classical Jewish as well as non-Jewish sources as he tries to help people "understand the truth and value of religion." The essays, while articulate, are sometimes not long enough to fully develop the ideas.

My favorite of the three is Professors on the Parashah, the 3rd in the series of Bar Ilan University professors writing on the parashah. While there is a range of quality and style amongst the contributions, they are frequently stimulating and insightful. Interested readers can subscribe to the weekly parashah emails from Bar Ilan's website.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Mar 30, 2008
Creation and Re-Creation in Jewish Thought in Honor of Joseph Dan

Creation and Re-Creation in Jewish Thought: Festschrift in Honor of Joseph Dan on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Rachel Elior and Peter Schafer, Mohr Siebeck, 2005. 415 pages in English and 264 pages in Hebrew.


This collection of essays, 18 in English and 15 in Hebrew, captures the broad range of interests in Joseph Dan's pioneering scholarship. The book, especially the Hebrew section, features high-level scholarship which will be most appreciated by the advanced scholar, and is not intended, in style and content, for popular consumption.

Highlight essays include:

- Margarete Schluter, "The Creative Force of a Hermeneutic Principles: The Principle 'There is No Earlier and Later in the Torah' in Midrashic and Talmudic Literature"

- Herbert A. Davidson, "The First Two Positive Commandments in Maimonides' List of the 613 Believed to Have Been Given to Moses at Sinai" ("If Maimonides were alive today, he would have to concede that he too was unable to fulfill the first two positive commandments of the divine Law in the manner he insisted upon," p. 145)

- Aviezer Ravitsky, "Covenant of Faith or Covenant of Fate: Competing Orthodox Conceptions of the Secular Jews" ("In recent years, an apparently paradoxical phenomenon has emerged in the State of Israel. It is precisely the ultraorthodox Jews who so stridently rejected modernity and the secular collective, who are now conspicuously successful in their pragmatic contacts with secular Israelis... According to my understanding, the ultraorthodox approach portrayed here finds itself better prepared for the deep transformations which have taken place in the Israeli majority society," p. 305)

- Kimmy Caplan, "'Absolutely Intellectually Honest': A Case-Study of American Jewish Modern Orthodox Historiography" (Analysis of the works of Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff)

Overall, the book is a fitting tribute to Dan's significant contribution to academic Jewish studies.


- Shlomo Brody
 
Mar 19, 2008
New Books on Rambam
The Legacy of Maimonides: Religion, Reason, and Community, ed. Yamin Levy and Shalom Carmy, Yashar Books, 2006. 307 pages.

Maimonides after 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and His Influence, ed. Jay M. Harris, Harvard University Press, 2007. 343 pages.


"Yet another book on Maimonides?" So exclaims Jay Harris in the introduction to his new book. Yet nonetheless, these two collections, published in honor of the 800th anniversary of Rambam's death, offer extremely enjoyable readings in the thought of Rambam.

The first work, sponsored by the Maimonides Heritage Center, includes 14 essays, 8 of which are translations or reproductions of previously published articles. The opening essay by Prof. Isadore Twersky details Rambam's unique image within Jewish historical consciousness, comparing laudatory statements about him with those about other great sages, and then continues to delineate Twersky's understanding of how and why Rambam achieved such a unique status. It's a great article, and note as well the dedication: "Dedicated to the memory of my teacher and father-in-law, the ga'on R. Yosef Dov ha-Levi Soloveitchik, zz"l - the Maimonides of our generation."
Other pieces include Rabbi Lamm's article on Ahavat Hashem and Arthur Hyman's introduction to interpreting Rambam. Roslyn Weiss and Hayyim Angel contribute stimulating articles regarding the role of Rambam in parshanut. This is a useful collection which both scholars and laymen will enjoy.

The second work, drawing from a 2004 conference sponsored by Harvard Center for Jewish Studies, includes 16 new essays by leading Maimonidean scholars. Moshe Halbertal's fantastic essay analyzes the ambiguous goals and accomplishments of Mishneh Torah - did Rambam really intend to replace earlier literature of Torah She-Be'al Peh? Carlos Fraenkel submits a basic summary of his dissertation, nuancing Samuel Ibn Tibbon's relationship to Maimonides and his philosophy. Bernard Septimus and Haym Soloveitchik contribute important analyses of literary elements of Mishneh Torah, with Septimus focusing on Sefer Ha-Madda and Soloveitchik examining Hilchot Shabbat.
This is a very important collection which scholars will continue to consult for new ideas and trends in Maimonidean scholarship.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Mar 9, 2008
Rav Se'adya Gaon by Robert Brody
Yerachmiel (Robert) Brody, Rav Se'adya Gaon, Zalman Shazar Center, 2006, 183 pages [Hebrew].

This concise yet through biography of Rav Se'adya Gaon (882-942) covers the full range of Rav Se'adya's literary accomplishments as well as his struggles and accomplishments as a leader of the Jewish community. After giving a general historical background to the time period, Brody highlights, in separate chapters, Rav Se'adya's contributions as a philosopher, Biblical commentator, legalist, poet, linguist, and polemicist with the Karaites. Although these areas certainly overlap, Brody wisely isolates each topic separately, referring the reader to other chapters with overlapping material.

Arguably today's greatest expert (and certainly most prolific) on the Geonic period, Brody has previously published major works on Geonic literature and history. This work, however, does not intend to break new scholarly ground, but instead seeks to give a general overview of his subject to scholars and non-scholars alike. I found Brody's writing to be lucid, comprehensive, and insightful, and walked away from this quick read with a much greater appreciation of this seminal figure.

This work is a part of a larger series of biographies on great figures within Jewish history which we hope to feature in upcoming reviews.

To order, click here.

- S.B.
 
Mar 9, 2008
Recent Anthologies of Essays by Yisrael Ta-Shma
Israel M. Ta-Shma, Knesset Mehkarim - Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Literature, Part I: Germany, 420 pp.; Part II: Spain, 350 pp.; Part III: Italy and Byzantium, 360 pp., Mossad Bialik Press, 2004-2005. [Hebrew]

Israel M. Ta-Shma, Creativity and Tradition: Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Scholarship, Literature, and Thought, Harvard University Press, 2006. 238 pp.


When he passed away in 2004, Prof. Yisrael Ta-Shma left behind over 40 years of pioneering scholarship in medieval rabbinic literature and manuscripts, producing 7 volumes of work and several dozen research essays. Fortunately, he had spent the last couple years of his life organizing these papers, leaving behind a systematic treatment of medieval rabbinic literature. The scope of his knowledge is remarkable, and his probing analysis is insightful and at times even profound.

Most of his writings were originally published in Hebrew, comprising the 3 Hebrew volumes under review. (A 4th volume focusing on Provence is scheduled to be published in the near future). Certain writings were published or translated into English, or were delivered in various international conferences, and have been collected in the English volume.

Highlight essays include:

Volume 1 (Franco-Germany):
The Library of Ashkenazic Sages in the 11th to 12th Centuries (Ch. 2);
The Acceptance of the Writings of Rif, Rach, and Hilchot Gedolot in 11th to 12th century Germany and France (Ch 3);
The Relationship of Early German Scholars to Emigrating to Israel (Ch. 17);
Bible Criticism in Medieval Ashkenaz (Ch. 19);
Suicide and Murder for the Sake of Martyrdom - The Role of Agaddah in Ashkenazic Rulings (Ch. 27)

Volume 2 (Spain):
The Literary Creativity of R"I Migash (Ch. 2);
The Literary Creativity of R. Meir Abulafia (Ch. 3);
Rabbi Yonah Gerondi (Ch. 4) - Available in English;
Between East and West; Rabbenu Asher and R. Yaakov Ba'al Ha-Turim (Ch. 7), also in English
The Order of Publication of Medieval Novellea to the Talmud (Ch. 13)

Volume 3 (Italy and Byzantium):
The Italiam Background to Sefer Ha-Arukh (Ch. 1);
R. Yeshayahu Di Trani and His Book Tosafot Rid (Ch. 4);
Midrash Lekach Tov (Ch. 17)

English Volume:
Children in Medieval Germany Jewry (Ch. 8)
The Open Book in Medieval Hebrew Literature (Ch. 13)
The Study of Aggadah and Its Interpretation in Early Rabbinic Literature (Ch. 14)

- Shlomo Brody
 
Feb 18, 2008
Authorized Daily Prayer Book by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, New Translation and Commentary by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Collins, 2007, 926 pages.

This fine new siddur, produced for the United Synagogue, stands out for two major reasons. Firstly, its aesthetic layout makes it easy and enjoyable to use for newcomers and scholars alike. The font is sharp, the instructions are clear, and the new translation is both insightful and articulate.

The highlight of this new fine new siddur, however, is the commentary of Chief Rabbi Sacks, one of Judaism's most articulate thinkers today. His 20-page introduction to prayer is one of the best concise introductions to tefilla I have ever read.
Sacks highlights many of the different thematic structures within the siddur, gives penetrating interpretations to common themes like "Creative, Revelation, and Redemption," and addresses questions like, "Is Prayer Answered?"

The commentary throughout the siddur, while insightful, is a little sparse, and repeats many of the insights of the initial introduction. Occasionally the translation also carries onto the next page, making it difficult for people not fluent in Hebrew to know which words are being translated.

The nusach of the siddur follows the minhag of England, which includes a number of small and more significanct differences with the more familiar nusach practiced in Askenazic communities.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Feb 12, 2008
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, tr. Jonathan Chipman, Brandeis University Press, 2004. 327 pages.

When this book initially appeared in Hebrew in 2001, it became an instant classic. Grossman, one of the most distinguished historians of medieval rabbinic literature, provides a comprehensive view of the role of women in many different realms of medieval Jewish life. The book displays tremendous breadth, covering topics like the age of marriage and violence toward women as well as more classic issues like women's education and their role in religious life. The range of its sources, moreover, are remarkable, including sources about the "Miqveh rebellion" in 12th century Egypt and women's role in medieval martyrdom.

The first chapter tries to give a historical understanding of how medieval rabbis viewed the position of women as a whole. It should be noted that despite this chapter's trendy title, "Partner or 'The Other,'"" the book does not employ many of the culture studies theories in vogue in much of academia today, instead offering a more straight forward interpretation of the sources. Readers interested in such writings of this material should consult, for example, the writings of Jeremy Cohen (on the Crusade chronicles) or Elisheva Baumgarten (on motherhood and childhood).

Unfortunately, the translation leaves out, by the author's estimate, about two-fifths of the material found in the Hebrew edition, including many of the primary sources and some of the scholarly bibliography.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jan 21, 2008
Narrative Analogy in the Hebrew Bible by Joshua Berman
Joshua A. Berman, Narrative Analogy in the Hebrew Bible: Battle Stories and Their Equivalent Non-Battle Narratives, Brill Publishers, 2004. 244 pages.

This study represents a very sophisticated and innovative application of modern literary techniques to interpreting Tanach. Berman, a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University with rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Har Etzion, analyzes six different "narrative doublings" in Tanach where battle stories follow non-battle accounts. Berman tries to show how in each case, the battle narrative serves as an "oblique commentary" to the story that precedes it. Berman utilizes tools such as structure and word analogies, rhetorical comparisons, and points of view. The literary theory can at times be dense, but is well worth the effort.

The 6 comparisons made include:
1) Joshua 7 & 8
2) Judges 19 & 20
3) Judges 10 (two halves)
4) Esther 5 & 9
5) I Chronicles 13 & 14
6) II Chronicles 18 (two halves)
While each chapter can be read on their own, they are best understood within the larger context of the theories proposed throughout the book.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jan 12, 2008
Orthodox Judaism: New Perspectives
Orthodox Judaism: New Perspectives, ed. Yosef Salmon, Aviezer Ravitzky, and Adam S. Ferziger, Magnes Press, 2006. 622 pages. (Hebrew).

This important book, dedicated to the memory of Prof. Jacob Katz, follows Katz's historical-critical approach of understanding Orthodoxy as a modern phenomenon. The first half of the book focuses on seeks to define the characteristics and borders of Orthodoxy. Some of the articles focus on philosophical definitions - including articles by Avi Ravitsky, Avi Sagi, and Shalom Rosenberg - while others highlight cases of borderline acceptance or exclusion (traditional Conservative Judaism, feminism, etc...)
The second half of the book uses case examples from different geographic reasons: David Ellenson focuses on German Orthodoxy, Chaim Berkowitz on French Orthodoxy, etc...
Taken together, the book gives many different perspectives on the various strands and nuances of Orthodoxy. It will clearly be a well-referenced book for many years to come.
 
Jan 12, 2008
The Dawning of the Day by Haim Sabato
Haim Sabato, The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale, trans. Yaacob Dweck, The Toby Press, 2006. 181 pages.

Although there is a growing (albeit still too small) library of fiction that depicts the Orthodox community, rarely does the Orthodox world produce a writer who himself is so committed to our community. In addition to being a distinguished Rosh Yeshiva, Haim Sabato is one of Israel's most popular writers, having been compared to SY Agnon, amongst others. This enjoyable work tells the story of a Jerusalem storyteller in a humorous and candid manner. Like his other works Aleppo Tales and Adjusting Sights, Sabato continues to draw from his own as well his family's life experiences to sympathetically and insightfully depict a colorful world frequently misunderstood.

- Shlomo Brody
 
Jan 12, 2008
Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism ed. Michael Broyde and Michael Ausubel
Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism, ed. Michael J Broyde and Michael Ausubel, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005. 340 pages.

This book produces 11 essays on the conception of sex, marriage, and family throughout Jewish history. While a couple of the sociology articles analyzing the modern period seem to have been written for audiences less familar with contemporary Judaism, the legal essays are particularly probing. Standouts include Michael Berger's analysis of "Maimonides on Sex and Marriage" and Angela J. Riccetti on "Lesbian Relationships and Jewish Law." Also of interest are Michael Broyde's discussion of how monogamy beat out polygamy and concubinage as the exclusive model of Jewish marriage; and David Blumenthal's "The Images of Women in the Hebrew Bible," which probes in particular Proverbs 31 (Eshet Chayil).


 
Jan 1, 2008
Must a Jew Believe Anything? 2nd Edition by Menachem Kellner
Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything, 2nd edition with corrections and afterword, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006. 204 pages.

In his 1999 work, Kellner contended that belief in Judaism manifests itself in deeds that display trust in God, as opposed to a systematic theology or dogmatism. In his new 20-page afterword, Kellner responds to his fans and critics. In particular, he argues that Judaism without dogma does not equate orthopraxy, or a body of mindless rules, since "a) one can love someone and act on that love while knowing very little about the object of that love; and b) Judaism prizes kavanah over rote behavior" (129).
Kellner responds at length to the criticism of Prof. David Berger published in Tradition 33:4 (Summer 1999), attached to this review.
 
Dec 28, 2007
Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism by Menachem Kellner
Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006. 343pp.

Perhaps no author in the last couple of decades has made Maimonides' theology more revelant for contemporary Orthodox dialogue than Menachem Kellner. His works on dogma, belief, rabbinic authority, and other central topics have generated significant debate and dialogue, and even his biggest detractors acknowledge the substantive and stimulating nature of his work.

In this most recent work, Kellner aims to show how Rambam's theology greatly challenged the mystical worldview of earlier works like Sefer Yetsirah and the Kuzari, and considerably differed from the Kabbalistic thought that emerged after Rambam's death. In particular, he contends that Rambam construed many elements of halakha and theology as social, legal, or institutional constructions, rather than ontological or essential states of reality depicted by the mystics. The topics covered include the nature of the halakhic system, the Hebrew language, and angels.

As Moshe Idel notes in his introduction, scholars have previously contended that Rambam's writings forced mystics to reveal their own understandings of the "secrets of the Torah," leading to the evolution of the Kabbalisitc tradition and a competing theory of Judaism. Kellner complements this thesis by contending that Maimonides himself was seeking to reform a religion that he felt had been overly "mythologized." As Kellner writes in his afterword, "Maimonides writings are best understood as an attempt not only to harmonize Torah and what he considered to be science, but also to counteract the influence of what I have called 'proto-kabbalistic' elements in pre-Maimonidean Judaism" (287).

This is an extremely thought-provoking work that deserves serious attention, debate and discussion.
 
Dec 17, 2007
The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook ed. Ben Zion Bokser
The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook, ed. Ben Zion Bokser, Ben Yehuda Press, 2006.

Ben-Yehuda Press, a relatively new publishing house, has done the community a service by reprinting this 1988 collection of Rav Kook's letters, short essays, and meditations. The book begins with a brief discussion about the major controversies the surrounded Rav Kook's life, including the heter mechira debate. The essays, discuss a wide range of topics, such as evolution, culture, the study of Assyriology and the Bible, and many more topics. Regretfully, the letters do not include headers giving any indication of their topic, making it difficult to find subjects that interest the reader. Despite this shortcoming, the book gives a good feel of the matters that engaged Rav Kook's inner and public life.

Most of the citations in this anthology come from his letters and Orot Hakodesh. This book is a supplement to Bokser's other, larger collection of Rav Kook's writings, Abraham Isaac Kook, which was printed in The Classics of Western Spirituality series. That book includes a translation of Orot HaTeshuvah and other major works.

For more information about this book, click here.
 
Dec 15, 2007
BeDarkhei Shalom in Honor of Shalom Rosenberg
Be-Darkhei Shalom - Studies in Jewish Thought Presented to Shalom Rosenberg, Ed. Benjamin Ish Shalom with Amichai Berholz, Beit Morasha of Jerusalem Press, 207. 648 pages. (Hebrew)

This volume is an appropriate tribute to Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, long-time professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University as well as lecturer at Beit Morasha and Herzog Teacher's College. A collection of 36 essays, the book seeks to cover the wide range of topics of Rosenberg's own research, including cultural and theatre studies, classic Jewish philosophy, Levinas, and philosophy of halakha.

Highlight articles include:
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on the relationship between Tefilla and Talmud Torah in Avodat Hashem;
Micha Goodman discusses history and meta-history in Maimonidean thought;
Meir Seidler analyzes the rule of symbolism in Rav Hirsch's writings;
Binyamin Brown analyzes the obligation of faith in the Hazon Ish;
Shmuel Wygoda highlights the themes of man and time in Rav Hutner's works;
Yehuda Brandes dissects the revolutionary role R. Yochanan's judicial principles played in halakha;
Ofer Kutner discusses the role of remorse in halakha and philosophy; and
Neria Gutel delineates the ideological factors in the modern halakhic debate over the Israeli census

For more information, click here
 
Dec 15, 2007
Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought ed. Howard Kreisel
Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought, ed. Howard Kreisel, Ben Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2006. Vol 1 - 373 pages (English), Vol 2 - 299 pages (Hebrew).

The 31 articles, loosely organized around the theme of study and knowledge, includes a number of thought-provoking essays. Particularly stimulating are the two lead articles in each volume on the role of academic Jewish studies in Jewish life, one written by an Orthodox historian, Prof. David Berger, and the other by a humanistic philosopher, Prof. Eliezer Schweid.

Other interesting studies include:
Marc Hirshman analyzes the expression "vetalmud Torah keneged kulam" in its different contexts;
Ephraim Kanarfogel on the search for truth in the Torah study of Chachmei Ashkenaz;
Sarah Klein-Braslavy on the exoteric and esoteric Biblical interpretations of Rambam;
Alon Goshen delineates the historical idevelopment of the interpretation of "The Sage is Superior to the Prophet";
Jordan Penkower discusses the canonization of Rashi's commentary to the Torah, and in particular focuses on the development of it being accepted as an alternative to the Targum for "Shnayim Be-Mikra Ve-Echad Le-Targum"";

This a fine collection that will interest scholars from many different fields.

For more information, click here.
 
Nov 18, 2007
Jewish Mysticism by Rachel Elior
Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom by Rachel Elior, Littman Library, 2007. 207 pages.

Unlike many introductory works, this book does not seek to describe the basic metaphysical concepts or theological tenets of Jewish mysticism. Rather, it seeks to trace the common themes of the mystical experience as appreciated by the mystic himself. Elior, head of the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, explicates how mystics throughout the ages transcended their physical enviroment to experience inner freedom. In particular, Elior focuses on the power of the imagination to delve beyond the tangible reality and the use of language to discover infinite meanings within sacred texts. The book is thus not divided chronologically, and each theme includes rich examples from over 2000 years of Jewish mysticism. The book is extremely successful in delineating the existential meaning of the mystical phenomenon, and gives great insight into the popularity and attraction of this highly influential strand of Judaism.
 
Oct 27, 2007
The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 by Israel Bartal
Israel Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881, trans. Chaya Naor, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 203 pages.

Prof. Bartal of The Hebrew University strives to accomplish two major goals in this work. The first is to tell the narrative of the rapidly changing Jewish community, documenting the developments of the Hasidic and haskalah movements, urbanization, emancipation, emigration, Orthodoxy, and nationalism. The second is to frame these changes within the larger context of the Jews relationship to their surroundings. Bartal begins this story in 1772, with the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom to 3 different nations. He argues that the social and economic functions assigned to them under their new rulers deeply impacted these internal developments, and in particular propelled first the haskalah and later nationalism.

The book was originally delivered as a series of lectures for the Broadcast University of Army Radio. As such, the book avoids dense scholarly documentation and makes for a quick read.
 
Oct 3, 2007
Olam Ke-Minhago Noheg by Yitzchak (Eric) Zimmer
Olam Ke-Minhago Noheg by Yitzchak (Eric) Zimmer, Merkaz Zalman Shazar, reprinted 5766. [Hebrew]

This wonderful work, now reprinted, contains two sections. The first section documents the development of different laws and minhagim, including important articles on various topics such as the abstention from sitting in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret and reciting birkat kohanim in Chutz La-Aretz; growing peyot; and men's head coverings (kippot). (The last article is a translation from the English original published in Reverence, Righteousness, and Rahamanut, ed. Jacob J. Schacter). The essays employ a historical-critical yet respectful approach to document the nature and causes of the evolution of these practices.

The second section includes an important discussion highlighting potential differences between the minhagim of Eastern and Western Europe. The case examples include wearing a tallit on Leil Yom Kippur and different niddah practices.

This thoroughly-researched book will be of great service to those interested in these specific practices and the broader development of halakha and minhagim.

To review the table of contents or to order, click here

 

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