New and Noteworthy Books Received

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Avi Baumol, In My Grandfather’s Footsteps: A Rabbi’s Notes From the Frontlines of Poland’s Jewish Revival (Austeria)
In 2013 Rabbi Avi Baumol was hired to serve as a Rabbi in Krakow, Poland. He expected to find a sad, dwindling community on the verge of extinction; but instead discovered a city in the midst of a remarkable Jewish revival. For 6 years Baumol wrote articles about his extraordinary experiences, posting them to various media outlets. This volume collects those reflections plus other stories about the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland.

Studying Hasidism: Sources, Methods, Perspectives, edited by Marcin Wodzinski (Rutgers University Press)
This edited volume collects 13 chapters exploring the various research methods in the scholarly study of Hasidism. The chapters draw upon a set of different sources, many of them previously untapped, including folklore, music, big data, and material culture to demonstrate what is still to be achieved in this field. Wodziński has emerged as a leader in this field—see Tradition’s review of his two most recent works.

Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing Sacred Texts (Knopf)
In an increasingly secular world, holy texts are at best seen as irrelevant, and at worst as an excuse to incite violence, hatred, and division. So what value, if any, can scripture hold for us today? The holy texts at the center of all religious traditions are often employed selectively to underwrite arbitrary and subjective views. But Armstrong, who has written prodigiously on the place of religion in contemporary society, shows the modern, jaundiced view of the Bible and other sacred scriptures is ignorant of those texts’ historical role as spiritual tools. Scripture was a means for individuals to connect with the divine and to transcend their physical existence. Armstrong argues that only by rediscovering an open engagement with their holy texts will the world’s religions be able to curtail intolerance and violence, and society will find that Scripture still has a great deal to teach us. [Read Nicholas Kristof’s review in The New York Times.]

Adiel Schremer, Ma’ase Rav: Halakhic Decision-Making and the Shaping of Jewish Identity [Hebrew], (Bar-Ilan University Press)
How are halakhic rulings determined? What are the considerations that halakhic decision-makers make when they come to rule? A common opinion views psak halakha as the outcome of studying authoritative halakhic sources and its application by public authorities. Schremer seeks to offer a different portrait of halakhic thinking as a battlefield in which struggles are held over the shaping of Jewish life. The forces driving the enterprise are closely related to the questions of collective identity, and they involve various considerations that deviate from the requirements that arise from binding halakhic literature. The main considerations relate to the outcome of the ruling and its possible implications for the religious identity of the public.

Menachem Fisch, Berit Imut – Covenant of Confrontation: A Study of Non-Submissive Religiosity in Rabbinic Literature [Hebrew], (Bar-Ilan University Press)
The central argument of this book is that the literature of the Sages in all its aspects contains a deep and fundamental disagreement about the nature of religiosity itself: On the one hand, there is the accepted view that identifies religious loyalty with the willingness of the believer to accept the sources of the authority of his religion. However, rabbinic literature also contains a different voice, the voice of an explicitly and self-denying heretical view of the moral integrity of the sources of authority of the Jewish religion, including God Himself! Therefore, this perception identifies religious loyalty with a willingness to take a critical and constructive stance toward the sources of authority. On the limits of halakhic authority regarding halakhic tradition, Fisch identifies the dispute of religiosity with the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, and explores how these ideas play out within Talmudic literature.

Sefer HaHadrakha al Hovot HaLevavot leRebenu Bahya Ibn Pakuda, introduction, translation from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew, and notes by Binyamin Abrahamov (Bar-Ilan University Press)
This book is a new, annotated translation from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew of the classical work of Medieval Jewish thought, Hovot HaLevavot (Duties of the Heart). The introduction to the translation presents Rav Bahya Ibn Pakuda’s theological and moral doctrines, and the notes explain topics in the translation and refer the reader to the author’s sources. Read a Hebrew review of this important new edition published in Makor Rishon.

Yossef Stamler, Hiyyuv Hasekhel veShelilato – Ambivalent Intellectualism in the Thought of Rav Shmeur Zalman of Liadi [Hebrew], (Bar-Ilan University Press)
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Habad Hasidim, was seen by his followers, by other Hasidic streams, and by many scholars as exceptional in the Hasidic landscape. This is due to Habad’s theoretical and educational tendencies which influenced different motifs in Habad thought. Stamler presents an original, comprehensive and in-depth sketch of the educational characteristic that is unique to the Ba’al HaTanya’s thinking, revealing his ambivalent attitude towards human intellect.

Mikraot Gedolot HaKeter – Mishlei, edited and annotated by Menachem Cohen (Bar-Ilan University Press)
The Book of Proverbs is presented in the newest volume in Bar-Ilan University’s multi-year project of producing a text accurate, annotated version of the Mikraot Gedolot, the classical rabbi anthology of rabbinic commentary on the Bible. Read about this significant scholarly endeavor at

Chaim I. Waxman, Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy (Littman Library)
As the leading sociologist of contemporary Orthodoxy, Chaim Waxman is one of the keenest observers of American Jewish society. This book explores ways in which Orthodoxy is adapting to modernity, and presents discussions of halakhic developments, particularly regarding women’s greater participation in ritual practices and other areas of communal life. Waxman’s conclusion: the direction of change is not uniform. There is both greater stringency and greater leniency, and he helps us understand the variety of reasons for this. New paperback edition.

David S. Ribner & Talli Y. Rosenbaum, I Am For My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples (Urim)
This forthright and frank volume is intended for religious couples seeking to enrich their marital and intimate lives within the framework of Jewish tradition. Written by two Orthodox Jewish sex therapists it conveys information about intimacy, anatomy and physiology, sexual relations within the life cycle, and Jewish values and attitudes towards sex – with an informative and practical approach.

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[Published on November 25, 2019]

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