With this post TRADITION inaugurates a new tradition – our annual summer book recommendations. For many, that phrase conjures images of beachside page-turners. Some may be amused to think of a seaside read with the hefty tomes described below – but that’s what you get when you turn to our editorial board for their reading picks. Given our current reality, when many are still in some degree of lockdown, and no one’s life has returned to normal, we hope that (health permitting!) our readers are taking the opportunity to stay at home with a pile of good books. We asked TRADITION’s board to endorse works of Torah, Madda, Torah uMadda, or enlightening literature that they would wish to draw to the attention of our readership. Some of the picks are almost Purimshpiel parodies of what you might have guessed would appear on our list, others are quite surprising, all would be worthy of your attention.
What follows below is our first installment; read the second round of reading recommendations here.
Jeffrey Saks, Editor
Jonathan Grossman, Ruth: Bridges and Boundaries (Peter Lang, 2015)
In preparing a class on Ruth for this past Shavuot, I immediately returned to reread Professor Jonathan Grossman’s recent book and am reminded of how valuable a contribution it is. Grossman reaches his usual standards of excellence in his commentary. With impressive command of literary techniques along with knowledge of traditional commentary and contemporary scholarship, Grossman judiciously analyzes individual passages and ties everything together into a larger picture.
Grossman submits that Ruth’s central theme is compassion toward the Other, and that this compassion led to Israel’s monarchy through David. It teaches further that the success of Israel’s monarchy depends on the king’s concern with his subjects, especially the most vulnerable. The commentary is filled with careful readings within the book of Ruth, as well as parallels to other biblical passages. What begins as a beautiful, simple narrative expands rapidly into a dazzlingly multifaceted gem. Here are a few brief examples:
Naomi progressively accepts the Moabite Ruth as family. Initially upon her return to Bethlehem after the famine, Naomi feels alone despite Ruth’s standing by her side: “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (1:21). After Ruth returns from Boaz’s field, however, Naomi proclaims, “the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen” (2:20). Naomi now includes Ruth in the family relationship.
The anonymous foreman reflects the anti-Moabite bias in Judean society: “She is a Moabite girl who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab” (2:6). In stark contrast, Boaz looks beyond Ruth’s Moabite background and even their family connection, focusing exclusively on Ruth’s remarkable character and commitment as his motivation for treating Ruth so kindly: “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before” (2:11).
Ruth herself transitions from identifying as a Moabite to a full-fledged Bethlehemite. She detaches herself from her mother’s house (1:8) and her birthplace (2:11) and eventually finds “rest” with her husband Boaz. Boaz informs Ruth that the city’s leaders respect Ruth as a woman of valor (3:11). Ruth’s breathtaking altruism and her opening herself to others enable Bethlehem’s society to open itself up to her despite her being an outsider.
Drawing on the extensive parallels between the book of Ruth and the Rebekah narrative in Genesis 24, where the second matriarch’s hesed shines, Grossman argues that the parallels are intended to silence those who would denounce the entry of a righteous foreign woman into the nation of Israel.
Overall, Grossman’s commentary takes the book of Ruth’s core premise of hesed and develops its finer shades in a sophisticated analysis grounded in the text of the book of Ruth and in parallel passages from throughout Tanakh.
Andrew Solomon The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Scribner, 2015)
Solomon’s 2001 volume won the National Book Award and the author added a new chapter entitled “Since” for the 2015 edition. This meticulously researched work covers numerous angles relating to depression, including suicide, competing approaches of medication and therapy, evolutionary explanations for the presence of depression, the relationship between poverty and depression, a history of how humanity has related to this difficulty, and much more. Solomon himself suffers from depression giving the volume an intensely personal quality. At a time of growing numbers of individuals struggling with mental health issues, The Noonday Demon provides important insight.
Solomon argues against seeing therapy and medication as an either/or choice. He further states that those opting for medication should not feel that they are avoiding authentically confronting their problems. “Antidepressants help those who help themselves. If you push yourself too hard, you will make yourself worse, but you must push hard enough if you really want to get out” (102).
The need for human warmth and solidarity emerges quite powerfully. Solomon advises the friends and relatives of the depressed to “blunt their isolation.” “Do it with cups of tea or with long talks or by sitting in a room nearby and staying silent or in whatever way suits the circumstances, but do that. And do it willingly” (437). In a related fashion, the elderly are more likely to be depressed when living in a nursing home (189) and hospitals are not “a place for depressives unless they’re totally helpless or desperately suicidal” (75).
Solomon’s discussion of suicide should influence our thinking about the Second Amendment since availability of means greatly impacts upon suicide rates. “The United States is the only country in the world where the primary means of suicide is guns. More Americans kill themselves with guns than are murdered with them every year in the Unites States” (255).
We should not make easy assumptions about who suffers from this malady. The author had his first major depression specifically during a period of professional success. Furthermore, effective treatment may not mean eliminating the problem altogether. “You don’t defeat depression. You learn to manage it” (441). For a similar insight see R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin on the difference between the salvations of Pesach and Purim (Divrei Soferim 32).
The volume’s concluding passage offers a crucial reminder to depressives. “One’s current reality often feels eternal… Summer, like winter, will come again. I have learned to envision feeling well even when I’m at my lowest—and that dearly learned skill infiltrates the demonic blackness like the light of noonday” (509).
Yehuda Leib Levin, HaSaraf (Nahaliel, 1959)
A slim Hebrew volume, HaSaraf, devoted to the life and teachings of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, was published over sixty years ago. Despite the plethora of works on hasidism that have appeared in the ensuing decades, this one remains unsurpassed. The monograph was authored by R. Yehuda Leib Levin, a prominent scholar and pioneering Orthodox journalist (father of Ruth Lichtenstein, editor of the English-language Hamodia).
A deeply riven, tormented communal leader who sought only followers whose dedication to truth was overriding, the Kotzker taught that “Thou shalt not steal” encompassed the imperative not to fool oneself. HaSaraf is a literary gem: polished, sparkling, flawless. The spare language and telling anecdotes constitute a mi’ut ha-mahazik et ha-meruba, a prime example of less is more.
Appended to HaSaraf is a section focusing briefly on sixty hasidic figures who were attached to the Kotzker. The book itself is actually the first of a small three-volume set entitled Beit Kotzk. The later works describe the lesser-known devotees of the charismatic Kotzker. With an insider’s knowledgeability and an authoritativeness that few can command, Levin captured the essential characteristics of each personality and affords the reader a glimpse of the lost world of Polish hasidism.
Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel (Princeton University Press, 2017)
No doubt we will use our books as a distraction from the heaviness of summer 2020. Sandwiched between an outbreak of a deadly global virus laced with heartbreaking race riots and the November elections, there will be many readers who can only find escape by traveling elsewhere in the mind. Those who want to lean into this travesty and seek a spiritual and political framing for it need look no further than The Beginning of Politics, a short, accessible and powerful gut punch about leadership and its dangers that emerge from the Book of Samuel.
Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes teach the book’s narratives with an eye to how authority is shaped and re-shaped through the lens of Saul, introduced to us as “an excellent young man; no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people” (I Samuel 9:2). Looking like a leader and acting like a leader are, however, two very different matters. We first encounter Saul shepherding, the proper trajectory for biblical leadership, but instead of shepherding sheep, he herded donkeys. Instead of guiding them, he lost them. These are not good portents for his future on the throne. The text portrays a naïve, incompetent and insecure young man upon whom leadership is literally thrust by Samuel to feed the needs of a people who rejected Samuel’s leadership, and that of God, in order “to be like all the other nations” (I Samuel 8:19). This, too, is another bad omen for what is to come.
As Saul reached the heights of his power and the heights of his insecurity, his leadership unraveled. Thus, we have this prescient gem from The Beginning of Politics:
Power is an indispensable tool needed for a vital collective god. It must therefore be organized and cultivated. The privileges and status of the highest political office can be intoxicating, transforming sovereign authority all too easily into an end-in-itself, a stand-alone goal which becomes the very raison d’etre of those seeking to gain or maintain it. It is no secret that many power wielders end up using much of the power they have attained to help them stay in power (167).
When Saul pursue David to the death, Halbertal and Holmes help us understand why Saul could not honor his chief military leader, son-in-law, and musician:
No one who is so thoroughly dominated by the desperate drive to maintain power at all costs can experience genuine human relations. Because he uses others to retain power, moreover, Saul naturally reads the behavior of those around him as equally instrumental, projecting onto them his own motives and mode of conduct… Saul’s inordinate fear of potential betrayal by members of his innermost circle was both a source and a consequence of the self-defeating logic of political instrumentalization. The royal paranoia and obsessive mistrust that we observe here are also accompanied by outpouring of narcissism and self-pity (69).
Halbertal and Holmes have analyzed an ancient story with very modern resonances and, in so doing, have also offered us a warning: “The paranoid ruler, sniffing betrayal everywhere, loses control of himself…his conduct spirals erratically out of control in response to inconclusive hints of disloyalty, like a leaf tossed randomly in the wind” (78).
Yerucham Olshin, Yare’ah leMoadim: Pesahim, 2 vols. (Lakewood, 2013)
Shalom Carmy, Editor Emeritus
Rav Yerucham Olshin, a prominent member of the Lakewood Yeshiva faculty, has been producing works of halakhic analysis on the festivals, with companion volumes on spiritual themes of the holy days. Since this Passover year I have reviewed it chapter by chapter with R. Daniel Vinik.
R. Olshin’s approach to Halakha belongs to the classic Lithuanian tradition. The Brisker dynasty is central to many of his studies (despite the absence of one branch of the Soloveitchik family). On occasion he relies on R. Aharon Kotler. Mir Mussar plays a role in his theological thinking. Each chapter is written as an independent unit, with helpful cross referencing so that one pleasure of studying the entire book is seeing the way certain ideas and arguments reappear and build on other chapters. He includes a wide array of Rishonim on Talmud, pesak halakha and minhag, plus standard Aharonim and the staples of modern lomdus. Mostly he poses questions and proposes answers; once having established the analytic matrix of the chapter he appeals to other sources in Rishonim or a seminal formulation of R. Hayyim or the Griz.
R. Olshin, like many yeshiva writers, treats the entire corpus of Torah as a unified whole. I mean that he is less interested in clarifying exactly what a Rishon meant, as an historian would, than in building a logically consistent edifice out of the material. Having said this, there are chapters in which his analysis of particular Rishonim convincingly demonstrates a remarkable coherence: for instance, section 2 tying the blessing for eliminating hametz to different views on the reason for bittul hametz. For readers who want to pursue the question of intention, R. Olshin’s clear exposition makes it easy to do.
“Lithuanian” lomdus is notoriously dependent on its terminology. Here, too, students at times wonder whether terms not used systematically by the authors under discussion capture their full and precise meaning. R. Olshin frequently appeals to the Brisker distinction between drinking wine derekh herut (as an expression of freedom) and kos shel berakha (the cup of wine on which the blessing is recited which Hazal attached to particular performances on the Seder night). The Gemara’s reference to fulfilling the “obligation of wine” (Pesahim 108b) is itself ambiguous, as Rashbam takes it to mean rejoicing on the festival rather than fulfilling a specific mitzva. All the same, the classification is dominant in the world of learning and R. Olshin leans heavily on it, until in trying to elucidate the opinion that we drink a fifth cup after Hallel, he admits that the binary distinction may not explain everything and a third category may be necessary.
We tend to think that we know what is to be known about the holidays, and about the observance of Pesach. R. Olshin’s volume invites us to think carefully and rigorously about what we know and what we may think we know. It is a pleasure to acknowledge what I have gained from him this year and, one hopes, in the future.
Alan L. Mittleman, A Short History of Jewish Ethics: Conduct and Character in the Context of Covenant (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
The great Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, lists a number of regrets in the preface to the second edition of his A Short History of Ethics. Chief among them in the category of rank omissions, an understandable hazard in the compact treatment of nearly three-thousand years of moral thought, is this curiosity: “There is no name whose absence from the index…is more regretted now than that of Maimonides.” Less than two decades later, whether inspired by this particular lacuna or, more likely, MacIntyre’s larger project of ethical investigation along the lines of competing traditions of inquiry, the always incisive Alan Mittleman has produced a minor classic.
Mittleman brings several virtues to this slim volume, the most obvious, his great erudition and sweeping scope [read chapter 1 here]. From Tanakh to the medieval rationalists, from the early modern kabbalists to Hasidism and Musar, and Cohen, Buber, and Levinas, to contemporary thinkers like Lenn Goodman, David Novak, Ken Seeskin, and Jonathan Sacks, Mittleman never leaves the reader with a sense that rich and complex content is being sacrificed on the altar of a procrustean monograph-sized survey (although I would have liked to see a treatment of Breslov and contemporary neo-Hasidic thought as a reassertion of radical divine voluntarism, a position Mittleman is critical of in other contexts). As important, Mittleman’s integrity and subtlety as a thinker allows him to unapologetically ask questions that belie a simple narrative of religious progress and enlightenment, still so much a part of our cultural brahmins’ baggage. Whether treating challenging aspects of biblical ethics (from the Akedah to Amalek), the solvent claims of modernity and the incredulity with the divine, to say nothing of divine command ethics, or the very coherence of the concept of Jewish ethics (as apart from halakha or Kantian or Rawlsian reason), Mittleman navigates a steady course between the claims of critical tradition and philosophical rigor, never succumbing to the temptations of an easy presentism.
With a characteristic sense of ambition for the possibilities of both human virtue and duty to the divine and chastened with a healthy dose of epistemological humility, he concludes the chapter on modern Jewish ethics by acknowledging that “the concerns with which we began this chapter, whether values hang in the air and whether the world is ‘hard’ and indifferent to our convictions of the ineluctable significance of value, cannot easily be resolved.” What’s more, Mittleman says, is that “Jewish thinkers in the traditionalist mode sometimes ignore [those challenges].” Quickly pivoting from this position, Mittleman avers, “But perhaps they do not. Perhaps their very persistence as traditional Jews affirming a time-honored, morally rigorous way of life gives a tacit testimony to an imperishable moral vision. The vision is that of a covenantal partnership between what is ultimate and what is fleeting. The fleeting cannot perceive the ultimate, but is guided by it. That guidance…is what we mean by Jewish ethics.” In Alan Mittleman’s retelling, the story and history of Jewish ethics is not only coherent, it is endlessly compelling, and worthy of our continued attention.
Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Knopf, 2019)
Lawrence A. Kobrin
It is interesting to me how difficult it is nowadays to come up with a list of actual books that one has read in the past months. We are so attached to our electronic media, from which we derive news, comment on the news, serious articles, and comments on them. As a result, I spend much of each Friday printing out the materials I have put aside (on the computer’s “desktop”) for Shabbos reading. Between that and Shnayim Mikra there is little time to read anything else,
I leave to my more learned and academic colleagues suggestions on books from within the Jewish canon and world that are worthy of summer reads. Instead, I offer a suggestion from outside the Jewish ambit which may be worthy of attention. The slim book which I have thoroughly enjoyed was Robert Caro’s Working.
Caro is now seeking to complete the last installment of his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson and many of his fans were unhappy when he diverted time from that effort to compose this autobiographical book. The diversion was not serious, however, since the new volume is primarily a compilation of already published materials or interviews.
For me, Working provided several “take-aways” with general and some specifically Jewish application. Caro’s description of the devotion he brought to the task of his present effort and his earlier mammoth biography of Robert Moses make him something of a secular “masmid.” There were times of severe economic privation and physical difficulty, but he persevered. He describes the mammoth task involved in first locating and then reviewing vast files, and applying to them the maxim of turning over every page to be sure that the full picture emerged. It is a model for anyone devoted to any kind of serious research, whether it be secular history or halakhic jurisprudence. None of this effort is eliminated by our modern digital record keeping, which in many ways has made the task even more massive and difficult.
In describing, as he does, the Johnson years during the polarized times of the Vietnam War, he could just as well be writing about this week’s headlines and the polarized state in which we now find ourselves. The reading was prescient and eerie. If my recommendation does not convince Jewish book lovers, they may be taken by the fact that the according to the author’s family tradition one of their ancestors another author name Caro—Rabbi Joseph Caro of the Shulhan Arukh!
Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition (Maggid Books [20th anniversary ed.], 2010)
The recent news of the death of Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l has unleashed an outpouring of grief across the Centrist Orthodox world which he so masterfully helped to shape and define. In the very brief time since his passing, many admirers have posted reflections and retrospectives of this towering figure. One of his eulogists poignantly noted that the only one who could have really uttered a fittingly eloquent eulogy was R. Lamm himself. Inspired by this observation, I turned to the book that is arguably his magnum opus to distill his own words of consolation.
R. Lamm’s Torah Umadda is a robust encapsulation of the dialectical tension inherent in the idea and ideology of Yeshiva University, the uneasy encounter between, in the author’s words, “Jewish learning and the worldly wisdom of our culture.” But more fundamentally, it provides a keen glimpse into the mind and soul of its most passionate proponent and kindred spirit. R. Lamm was both a lamdan and a darshan, a chemist and a philosopher, an idealist and a pragmatist, and an introvert and an extrovert. Had the average undergraduate student at Yeshiva College, struggling with the schizophrenic demands of Yeshiva’s dual curriculum, been able to know R. Lamm during his seemingly aloof and inscrutable days as YU President, the conclusion undoubtedly would have been (with apologies to Pogo), “I have met the President, and he is us.”
In his illuminating introduction, R. Lamm confesses that “the big void in my education [at Yeshiva University] was the lack of a cohesive halakhic and philosophical theory of Torah Umadda.” As President of the very same institution years later, R. Lamm felt an imperative to try to explicate this doctrine even if he “had not yet resolved all the problems involved.” When read in this light, the rest of the book is an exquisite presentation of “faith and doubt” (the serendipitous title of one of his earlier works), blending his steadfast faith in the power of Torah to address, inform, and uplift modernity and worldly wisdom, with his humble self-doubt that he might not succeed in explicating this idea.
After exploring different potential approaches towards Torah Umadda, such as the rationalist model of Rambam (understanding the world as a fulfillment of the mitzva to know God), the cultural model of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (promoting the respectability of Torah by being cultured), the mystical model of Rav Kook (sanctifying the profane), the instrumentalist model of the Vilna Gaon (understanding the Torah better through secular knowledge), and the inclusionary model (Torah encompasses Madda), R. Lamm opts for the Hasidic Model, which he essentially admits to having invented based on his fondness for the Hasidic concept of avoda be-gashmiut (serving God through physicality), having nothing to do with secular studies. R. Lamm’s rhapsodic elocution of this model is a stirring blend of poetry, whimsy, and intellectual creativity. But at its core, his final message is simple and sublime: Torah Umadda is not about the subject matter; it is about you. It is about harnessing God’s universe to become your most sacred self, however you choose to define the motto.
The last sentence of the book is perhaps the most revealing: “Let the dance go on!” The reader may not have realized up until then that the mental locale of the book was a dance floor. Behind R. Lamm’s aristocratic demeanor and scholarly aura, lurked an adventurous acrobat, who never stopped dancing to the music of his mind, or to the symphony of his soul. [Listen to R. Lamm discuss Torah Umadda on the TRADITION Podcast]
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
David Rubinstein, Editorial Assistant
A perennial denizen of high school and college literature curricula, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not an intuitive choice for a summer reading list. Yet, it is a work meant to be read on the beach. Indeed, the beach is the location where Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist and titular artist-to-be, has an epiphany and a defining moment. Stephen walks on the shore with “his stockings folded in his pockets and his canvas shoes dangling by their knotted laces over his shoulders.” Isn’t the best summer reading comprised of literature that can inspire the comfortably barefoot reader?
Portrait is James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical narrative of his youth. In both content and style, Portrait describes Stephen Dedalus’s progression from obedient child quietly absorbing his surroundings to a budding artist who is figuring out his own aesthetic theory and who questions the culture and religion in which he was raised.
Portrait is more relevant to readers of TRADITION than might be imagined. The protagonist, when wandering through Dublin, walks through “the quarter of the Jews” and “the dark narrow streets of the poorer Jews.” These walks, hosts to moments of development for the main character, invite a Jewish reading of the novel.
A central question of Portrait is what it means to be a member of a nation and culture and to choose to become a leader—an artistic leader—of that people. Stephen Dedalus’ answer, specifically about becoming an Irish artist, is to go into exile to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
A Portrait of the Modern Orthodox Jew as a Young Man or Woman would similarly ask what it means to be a member of the Jewish nation and culture and to choose to become a leader thereof. Much of the answer rhymes with Joyce’s: I must leave home and patria—quit North America for a year or two in Israel. I must immerse myself entirely with the conscience of my race, studying Torah for a dozen hours a day. And all of this is for hopes of improving the language of Jewish discourse.
But the harmony with Joyce ends there. While his protagonist sees his race’s conscience as “uncreated,” the Modern Orthodox youth pilgrimage to yeshivas and seminaries are based on the opposite sense of Jewish tradition. The gap year in Israel is meant to be when the Modern Orthodox young forge in the smithy of their soul a deep bond to the millennia-old conscience of their race. Young readers of TRADITION may refine, not create, an aesthetic theory on a warm day on the beach, but their epiphanies are reserved for the Torah study halls.
Adam Teller, Rescue the Surviving Souls: The Great Jewish Refugee Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2020)
Jacob J. Schacter
We have all recently been living with different emotions during these extraordinarily challenging times, ranging from some degree of anxiety to profound grief over the loss of loved ones. As a historian, I have looked back to see what can be learned from earlier Jewish experiences of resilience in the face of challenge and catastrophe, a reality, regretfully, very much a part of the Jewish historical experience. Many blog posts and even books have been written and distributed online that focus on plagues and their aftermaths throughout Jewish history. In these last months I have taught a lot about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s contribution to insuring a vibrant post-hurban Judaism, and on the optimism of Rabbi Akiva in the face of formidable adversity, and I have spoken to different audiences about the work of my late father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter z”l, immediately following the Shoah. And, about three weeks ago, I read a book about the aftermath of the Chmielnicki massacres in the middle of the seventeenth century that I found fascinating and inspiring and that I choose to recommend here.
What interests the author, Adam Teller, is not the story of the massacres themselves. For that I refer you to Amelia M. Glaser, ed., Stories of Khmelnytsky: Competing Literary Legacies of the 1648 Ukrainian Cossack Uprising (Stanford, 2015). Teller’s focus is on how the Jewish world (and I mean “world” literally) for the most part banded together to help those who survived after the massacres. He traces in careful detail the individual, local, communal, and even national efforts (for example, those of the Council of the Four Lands) to provide physical, emotional, and spiritual support for those who were displaced and whose lives were greatly affected by the upheavals wrought by the Chmielnicki uprisings and their aftermath. He describes an elaborate and often coordinated transregional effort involving Jews from as far away from one another as Amsterdam, Poznań, Ancona, Hamburg, Krakow, Iran, Istanbul, Lublin, Frankfurt am Main, Venice, Lviv, Belgrade, Cairo, Vienna and elsewhere to provide aid to their co-religionists deeply traumatized by terrible challenges. Teller demonstrates how the bonds of solidarity that united Jews from different cultures, backgrounds, and economic strata motivated them to open their homes, raise substantial money, ransom captives about to be sold on the Middle Eastern slave markets, provide letters of support, and do much more to help the many affected refugees restart their shattered lives. And, particularly resonant these days, Teller concludes that, surprisingly, the broad negative impact of this terrible crisis was not long lasting. The Jewish community rebounded from the disaster, culturally, economically, and spiritually, in the decades that followed.
It is hard to feel nehama when we are still in the thick of the crisis but we know from our past that we, as a people, will be blessed with a future.
Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky, Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart: Divrei Torah of the Talner Rebbe on Bereishis and Shemos, edited by David Shapiro (Urim Publications, 2020)
Michael A. Shmidman, Editor Emeritus
Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky zt”l, was justly renowned for his brilliantly insightful, meticulously researched and felicitously formulated scholarly oeuvre, concentrating generally upon medieval Jewish intellectual history and with special attention to the Maimonidean corpus. But the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University also was the Talner Rebbe of Boston, as comfortable delivering divrei Torah at Shalosh Seudos in the Talner Beis Midrash as he was conducting doctoral seminars on medieval Jewish rabbinic literature in Room G of Widener Library in Harvard Yard.
Professor Twersky would admonish students not to bifurcate Maimonides into Rambam the halakhist and Maimonides the philosopher, but rather to view his work as an essentially unified whole—for all its striking tensions—thereby opening their eyes to the integral nexus, the often overlooked or ignored fusion between law and philosophy, that permeates and welds together the monumental works of Rambam. So too, the teachings of the preeminent interpreter of the Rambam, HaRav Professor Twersky, Hasidic rebbe and Ivy League academician, are most perceptively appreciated and accurately assessed when viewed in their breathtakingly sweeping totality.
Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart: Divrei Torah of the Talner Rebbe, expertly and lovingly edited by Rabbi David Shapiro, superbly illustrates the unity of the Talner Rebbe’s teaching. In this initial volume, R. Shapiro has reconstructed the key elements of selected divrei Torah delivered by R. Twersky at the Talner Beis Midrash during the years 1984-1997 on the books of Bereshit and Shemot (as well as the Arba Parashiyot and Purim) based on his own notes, penned each Saturday night. The edited divrei Torah are accompanied by careful English translations of cited Hebrew sources, highly useful supplementary notes, internal cross-references, bibliographic suggestions, and an insightful editor’s introduction. The Twersky family has added an eloquent and percipient foreword.
The recurring themes of the divrei Torah—the proper, sometimes elusive, balance between law and spirituality, intellectual love of God, the dialectical elements in the human-Divine relationship, reason in service of faith, religious sensitivity, imitatio Dei, the power and uses of the gift of speech, dimensions of kedusha in human beings and sacred objects, study and action, natural law and theology, and related motifs, are central to Professor Twersky’s illuminating academic examination of the works of Rishonim and Aharonim as well. The fact that, on one occasion, Rabbi Shapiro includes an excerpt from Prof. Twersky’s academic magnum opus, Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, to fill in a gap in the notes to one of the entries, underscores the unity of the author’s writings and concerns.
Although the individual divrei Torah are often relatively brief and at times deceptively simple at first blush, a more rigorously reflective reading elicits the pithy, characteristic and repercussive ideas that emerge from the concise formulations and judicious, wide-ranging textual selections. Indeed, those readers familiar with the academic work of the Talner Rebbe will immediately link the brief discussion, for example, of Rambam’s novel definition of Temimut (in Lekh Lekha) with the author’s more extensive treatment of the same concept in his scholarly works. (Rabbi Shapiro astutely notes a number of such instances of direct correlation throughout the book.) But the correlation that is perhaps ultimately most important is that between the spiritual directives emphasized throughout this volume and the author’s exemplary personal piety. In the elegant wording of the editor: “To read his [the Talner Rebbe’s] divrei Torah is thus to encounter him personally.”
Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva, translated from Yiddish by Curt Leviant (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967)
Does Torah count as summer reading? I am reminded of an image conjured by Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein during a “tisch” in Adar 5757. In attacking the contemporary Orthodox social amalgam of “Torah and Fun,” she painted the image of a person laying back on a chaise lounge with a sefer in one hand and a Coca Cola in the other. True Torah learning involves an attitude of reverence and intensity. Such a relaxed “summer reading” posture counter-indicates that bearing.
Yet, we find in Tehillim (119:92): “Were not Your teaching my delight I would have perished in my affliction.”
The Torah is meant to be a delight. Dr. Lichtenstein would likely respond that Torah can be a delight when it is treated with proper reverence and not when it replaces a romance novel. A bit of recommended “summer reading” might back up such a claim. The Yeshiva by Chaim Grade describes the summer culture of Jews fleeing Vilna from Lag ba-Omer to Rosh Hashana. In addition to many other beautifully rendered and somewhat surprising descriptions of pre-war eastern European Jewish culture, Grade depicts the Hazon Ish’s summer routine in the form of his character R. Avraham-Shaye Kosver:
The first summer resident had arrived at the cottage in the green courtyard of the abandoned pitch factory, at the edge of the pine forest. He had come in a peasant’s cart that bypassed the town and proceeded along a side road that led from the railway station through the fields. On top of the tall white chimney of the old factory the storks, steady summer visitors, began fanning and beating their dry wings, welcoming their neighbor of many years… The Valkenik congregants had heard that Reb Avraham-Shaye had had heart trouble since his childhood. People would find him resting on an iron cot in his forest cottage, holding a little Talmud in his hand, or lying stretched out on a wooden bench by the long table in the middle of a grassy courtyard (319-321).
The question of whether a Godly life can be lived amidst sin lies at the center of Grade’s book. It teases out the implications of the Novardok Musar movement through the inner-conflict of its protagonist, Tsemakh Atlas. As Atlas asks the question, “Can the yetzer ha-ra – in fact – be slain,” Reb Avraham-Shaye offers a more modest aspiration for the religious personage, one that integrates with summer and all that it means. His character argues that summer and Torah do go together. Enjoying the beauty of God’s world with a book in hand, and the proper attitude, only brings more light to God’s creation.
Aharon Lichtenstein, Kedushat Aviv: Studies in the Sanctity of Time and Space, edited and adapted by Shay Lichtenstein with Haim Navon (Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2017)
The posthumously published Hebrew monograph, Kedushat Aviv, is a remarkable capstone to the illustrious career of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, melding together the signature features of his oeuvre: broad erudition, incisive and systematic analysis, careful attention to detail and nuance, and an unmatched ability to map out the myriad aspects of the sugya. Uniquely this book applies these well-known qualities of R. Lichtenstein’s talmudic scholarship to a systematic investigation of a broad halakhic concept: kedusha. Divided into two sections, the sanctity of time and of place, the halakhic topics analyzed include: comparing the sanctity of Shabbat with the sanctity of Yom Tov; reciting kiddush; Yom Kippur; calendar management; and the sanctity of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the sections of the Temple.
The book is studded with hiddushim grounded in the well-known Brisker method, often developing, refining, or critiquing ideas propounded by previous practitioners of Brisker lomdus. Ideas from R. Soloveitchik regarding the dual nature of kiddush as expressing appreciation for the Shabbat’s sanctity while a simultaneously adding a dimension of sanctity, and regarding the roles of the High Court and that of the nation as a whole in sanctifying the New Moon, are carried forward, adding new material, insights, and nuances.
Beyond the skillful practice of Brisker lomdus, however, the truly novel feature of the book is the overarching framework which imparts to the individual discussions and hiddushim broader and deeper conceptual ramifications. Although R. Lichtenstein adheres to the well-known Brisker eschewal of esotericism (nistarot) and ta’amei ha-mitzvot, he suggests – with characteristic humility – that by careful delineation of halakhic parameters perhaps “a trace of a reason” for the contours of the halakha structure may emerge (63). In the first and longest chapter, he carefully lays the groundwork for such ramifications, opening uncharacteristically with a study of the many biblical passages, leading to characterizing Shabbat’s sanctity as focusing upon by cessation of work, in turn explaining the notion unique within the realm of sacred time of “defiling” sanctity, as well as Shabbat’s designation as a “covenant.” This conception drives R. Lichtenstein’s investigation of whether Yom Tov shares aspects of the laws of work on Shabbat, such as melekhet mahshevet. Within this framework – to take one example – the classic “two dinim” differentiation between two types of rabbinic metaken (rendering a vessel usable) emerges as a characteristic expression of the different sanctities of Shabbat and Yom Tov (99).
The editors of the book, R. Lichtenstein’s son R. Shay Lichtenstein and R. Haim Navon, are to be commended for their painstaking piecing together of the many larger essays and smaller fragments from R. Lichtenstein’s writings and lectures, often seamlessly filling in details and lacunae. Additionally, they have appended to the book a chapter in which they present the main contours of R. Lichtenstein’s conception of sanctity, as they emerge from the chapters of the book, such as the centrality of the human role in creating sanctity. Along with R. Lichtenstein’s characteristically thorough and methodical characterization of halakhic concepts (how is a given form of sanctity defined, how is it produced, what reaction does it command, may it be enhanced or deepened, can it be impugned or removed, how is it transgressed), this chapter also highlights the unique contribution of this book to understanding the interface between halakhic analysis and spiritual meaning.
Click here to continue to the second installment of reading recommendations.
[Published June 16, 2020]