TRADITION’s 2021 Book Endorsements

Tradition Online | June 27, 2021

TRADITION continues its yearly tradition of turning to our esteemed editorial board for endorsements for summer reading. For many, that phrase conjures images of beachside pulp fiction. Some may be amused to think of a seaside read with the 25 hefty tomes our team chose – but that’s what you get when you turn to our editorial board for their reading picks of 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 a TRADITION list, others are quite surprising, all would be worthy of your attention. What follows is our first installment; round 2 can be found here, the final round is here.

Peruse last year’s list of TRADITION’s Summer Book Endorsements.

R. Jeffrey Saks, Editor

Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel (Schocken Books)
Erica Brown

On the Book of Psalms

Nahum Sarna renamed his classic treatment of Psalms On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel. Its original title was Songs of the Heart, and it is this first title that seems more apt to what he was trying to achieve. In aiming perhaps to appeal to a more academic audience, this new title shortchanges what the author set out to do, which he describes throughout its pages. 

In his introduction, Sarna explains that psalms “possess intrinsic value” because “they fulfill a didactic function,” based on a talmudic statement that “one who sees the Book of Psalms in a dream may hope for piety.” Sarna pays careful attention throughout to etymology and archeological discoveries. He contextualizes verses within the milieu of other ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature and poetry to enhance rather than to diminish from his understanding that psalms are “meant to be internalized.” 

Psalms speak to the soul of a nation precisely because they capture the universal experience of an individual with first-person accounts of loss, grief, fear, thanksgiving, and joy. They also help frame and shape experience by offering the tender perspective of a person in communication with God about humanity’s most vulnerable moments: “The vexing problems of life, the fearful insecurities of existence, the troubles and travails that afflict every human being – all are reflected in the psalmist’s work.” Sarna observes that despite the “frequent expression of basic human concerns, there is a complete absence of personal pleas for power or wealth.” It is not only that the heart speaks—it’s that the heart of the psalmist speaks to the majesty of the human condition rather than its basest instincts. 

It is for this reason that Sarna understands the liturgical role that the book has played throughout Jewish history: “Diligent recitation and study of them is propaedeutic to a higher level of spirituality and piety; and piety, in the biblical view, is not solely individualistic, certainly not egotistical, self-righteous, or sanctimonious. Importantly, it finds expression in the quality of interpersonal relationships.”

I re-read the book during COVID as a way to expand my understanding of Psalms as I traveled through the 929 Tanakh cycle. To that end, I also re-read and was deeply moved by For Thou Art With Me: The Healing Power of Psalms by Samuel Chiel and Henry Dreher. The authors selected several psalms that are traditionally recited as healing prayers and explicated verses while applying them to modern situations. As a rabbi, Chiel recited psalms with patients and even doctors and shares their reaction at times of despair and confusion. I read Robert Alter’s hefty book on Psalms, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary for the first time and wondered how useful this language-based commentary is without the Hebrew text he continually elucidates. I’m unclear who his audience is if unfamiliar with the words in the original. Unlike these two other books, Sarna finds the sweet spot: a combination of scholarship and inspiration that made for enriching reading during some of the hardest days of isolation. 

Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Wipf and Stock)
Hayyim Angel

Several of the contradictions and statements in Kohelet cause religious discomfort to many rabbinic thinkers, and Hazal even considered removing it from circulation (Shabbat 30b). Kohelet’s frequent contradictions led no less a commentator than Ibn Ezra (7:3) to propose a battery of methods to harmonize them. After all, “the greatest lightweight among the wise would not compose a book and contradict himself in that book.” Commentators likewise apply various interpretive strategies to mitigate the oftentimes perplexing assertions of Kohelet.

I recently re-read Michael V. Fox’s academic commentary on Kohelet. Fox rejects forced harmonization of the contradictions, since one must ask why Kohelet has so many contradictions in the first place. He likewise rejects attempts to attribute verses to other putative speakers, since there is no non-arbitrary method of doing so. If Kohelet quotes someone without attribution, that statement becomes Kohelet’s own.

Instead, Fox maintains that Kohelet teaches that life in this world is beset with contradictions, especially challenging what sages think should occur. Kohelet describes and bemoans these realities, and does not propose solutions. Rather, he teaches how to live a wise and religious life within the confines of this world. In this respect, Fox’s concept approaches the position of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who likewise embraces contradictions as an aspect of the Torah’s teachings:

Judaism has never accepted the two-value Aristotelian logic which, in its principle of contradiction and the excluded middle, states that, if A contradicts B, then only one of them is right and the other is wrong….. Judaism has ignored this principle and has quite often acted as if both A and B are right, in spite of their mutual exclusiveness. Even in the halakhic realm, Judaism believes that there is a possibility for a contradiction in the objects without negating either of them. Jewish philosophy and the metaphysic of man can only be understood if the dialectical principle is adopted as the point of departure (Days of Deliverance, 29).

In addition to his treatment of Kohelet’s contradictions, Fox proposes that Kohelet’s ubiquitous word, hevel, is best understood as “absurd” rather than “vanity” or other commonly proposed translations. Kohelet does not think that life has no meaning, but rather there are eternal values and principles which are tainted by absurdities. Everything in life is, in some way, inadequate and transient, and injustices abound. There is no point in striving too hard for anything—wealth or wisdom. It is best simply to enjoy what you have when you have it as God’s blessings, and to fear God.

As an academic commentary, Fox periodically offers interpretations that may not rest well in a traditional setting. And like any writer, his interpretations are sometimes more convincing than others. By and large, however, Fox offers a scholarly, straightforward, and balanced commentary that properly gives Kohelet his own unique voice within the infinite tapestry of Tanakh.

Maria Poggi Johnson, Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned about Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews (Thomas Nelson Co.)
Mali Brofsky

Strangers and Neighbors

Maria Poggi Johnson’s Stranger’s and Neighbors: What I Have Learned about Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews is a great summer read. It is written with a light and entertaining touch, and can be read in a couple of sittings. At the same time, it is thought-provoking, and frequently even inspiring.

The author is a practicing Catholic and professor of theology at the University of Scranton, who found herself and her family living among an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Jews (her description). She and her family, including her young children, struck up friendships and relationships with numerous Jewish families and the Jewish community as a whole. The book recounts her reflections and experiences as refracted through her unique lens.

Johnson’s observations of the community are impressively on the mark. She seems to truly understand the lived experience of her friends and neighbors, and for myself as an Orthodox Jew, it is fascinating and enriching to read her descriptions of our Jewish life and practice. 

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is Johnson’s ayin tova—her charitable and kind-hearted perspective. She genuinely appreciates the Jewish values and customs she observes, and thinks deeply about their meaning. Her conclusions are insightful, and, in a way, reveal us to ourselves. The many areas Johnson touches upon include her reflections on Shabbat, kashrut, the nature of Jewish peoplehood, the pluses and minuses of insularity, and on the way in which keeping the strictures of halakha binds  its practitioners to God in a manner that is simultaneously physical and spiritual. Her thoughts and insights are not only charitable, they are often spot on, and serve as a reminder of the beauty and wisdom inherent in a tradition that is so reflexive for many of us. For those among us who are jaded and cynical about Jewish practice, and perhaps sometimes about those who practice it, this is a welcome reminder of some of the most positive aspects of our communities, values, beliefs, and rituals. 

At the same time, Johnson is a believing Catholic. The Orthodox Jewish reader is suddenly brought up short, for example, after basking in warm reflections on the beauty of Judaism, by a chapter which reveals that for Johnson, Passover night is fundamentally about the Last Supper. Johnson tackles questions about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, her perspective on their historical and theological split, and how she views the relationship between the two religions today. Her perspective is her own, born of her experience, and is challenging and interesting. Ultimately, while Johnson and I undoubtedly share much, there is a deep theological divide that stands firmly between us (one which she recognizes). Despite this insurmountable theological divide, one thing I know after reading this book is that I would love to have this gracious, kind, extremely insightful and thoughtful person as my neighbor. 

Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice (Pantheon)
Jacob J. Schacter

The Last Trial

The biblical story of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, presented in Genesis and known as Akedat Yitzhak, is one of the most complex passage of the Hebrew Bible, one which has challenged and confounded commentators for millennia. In the biblical description of the narrative, it is Abraham’s faith and obedience to God’s will that is the central feature of the story. He is the hero and Isaac is totally passive. To quote Ibn Ezra, “There is nothing in the text about Isaac.” By contrast, in post-biblical Jewish sources the perspective is reversed and it is Isaac’s behavior that occupies equal, and in some cases even central, stage. This significant shift of emphasis on the identity of the primary protagonist of the story that already appears in rabbinic literature reaches its climax in the twelfth century. Searching for biblical role models in the wake of the slaughter of the Rhine Jewish communities during the Crusades, liturgical poetry written at the time highlighted rabbinic sources that claimed that  Isaac was not only bound to the altar but was actually sacrificed, and even burned on the altar, and was brought back to life.

The Holocaust brought renewed attention to this rabbinic tradition. In 1950, Shalom Spiegel (1899-1984) published a long Hebrew article on this subject that was translated into English by Judah Goldin as The Last Trial (1967). It is ostensibly an introduction to a hitherto unpublished liturgical poem written by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, a well-known Hebrew poet and chronicler, in the second half of the twelfth century—but it is much more. In a magisterial, wide-ranging essay, Spiegel presents a comprehensive analysis of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and pagan sources relevant to the Akeda story, with a specific focus on midrashic literature. Spiegel pays a great deal of attention to the tradition of “the ashes of Isaac,” both figuratively and literally, providing the context for this reference in a passage in Ephraim of Bonn’s liturgical poem. Of far greater interest to Spiegel is the victim of the story (Isaac), not the perpetrator (Abraham). His focus is on the post-Crusade era when “the biblical figures were drawn in the light of the actualities of the Crusades, when the saints of Germany and France sanctified the Name in droves” (134), but it has been pointed out that uppermost in his mind was the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, literally a “burning” resulting in “ashes.” (See Arnold J. Band’s article “Scholarship as Lamentation: Shalom Spiegel on ‘The Binding of Isaac’.”)

I have been mesmerized by the breadth of knowledge in this essay and my thinking about this story has been forever changed. I highly recommend it.

R. Kaufman Arenberg, Killing Vincent: The Man, the Myth, and the Murder (Nostradamus)
Hillel Goldberg

We all know about Vincent Van Gogh. Brilliant artist. Crazy. Cut off his own ear. Killed himself. Did he kill himself? Consider this: No crime scene was ever established. There was no police report. No witness. No murder weapon found, nor an exit wound, nor a bullet. No written medical report. No forensic analysis. No autopsy. Van Gogh lived 30 hours after he allegedly shot himself. He was well enough when he returned from the field to climb the 17 stairs to his room. He didn’t look like a man on his way to death. Yet, he was denied medical treatment by his doctor.

The story of Van Gogh’s suicide is based on the report of Paul Gachet, Jr., who was not an eyewitness to most of the last 30 hours of Van Gogh’s life. Paul Gachet offered his account of those 30 hours only years later, after the people on the scene had died, with one exception, an eyewitness to the events of Van Gogh’s death: Adeline Ravoux (“The Lady in Blue” in a Van Gogh portrait). She contradicted Gachet’s suicide narrative.

Paul Gachet’s father, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, was Van Gogh’s physician. According to the doctor’s son, Paul, the doctor compassionately stayed with Van Gogh all night long. The actual eyewitness, Adeline Ravoux, contradicts this.

This was not likely a case of “he said, she said” because Paul Gachet, Jr., peddled his story of Van Gogh’s suicide for decades, but before Ravoux said anything. She spoke up only because someone discovered that she had been an eyewitness and decided to interview her.

R. Kaufman Arenberg, M.D., of Denver, deems the story of Van Gogh’s suicide an act of posthumous injustice. He believes that the forensic evidence shows that Van Gogh was murdered, and that his murder in a very small town with a very clear social structure was covered up by people who held prominent positions in that power structure and could control news and narratives. 

Arenberg has gathered evidence Van Gogh wanted to marry Gauchet’s daughter, and she wanted to marry him, but the doctor forbade the marriage because Van Gogh was inferior socially, morally, and professionally. (After Van Gogh’s death, the Gauchet daughter never married and sunk into a lifelong depression.)

Arenberg believes that the narrative of Van Gogh’s suicide is full of holes, which he illustrates. Kaufman cites reports of loud arguments between Van Gogh and Dr. Gachet and his son. Still, Arenberg offers his evidence pending a disinterment of Van Gogh. Is there a bullet in the casket? If so, which gun would have discharged it? Kaufman has analyzed all of the guns known to have been in the town at the time of Van Gogh’s death. Van Gogh was not known to have owned any of them. Short of a disinterment, Arenberg says the evidence points to the murder of Van Gogh and to who the murderer’s identity.

This is a non-fictional whodunit. Why should I reveal his conclusion?

James Oakes, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (W.W. Norton)
Daniel Z. Feldman

In this period of increased attention to American history, and particularly the role of slavery within that history, there is great value in reading about the process recounted in The Crooked Path to Abolition. The book recounts a pivotal episode in the history of both a nation and a man, providing crucial nuance and context in the appreciation of both. 

As to the nation, the ongoing struggle to define America’s essence through its history is illuminated by this detailed recounting of the transition from a nation which tolerated slavery to one that did not. As to the man, the fact that Abraham Lincoln is the most frequent biography subject has not diminished the clash over his legacy. While entire societies should rightly defy glib characterizations, individuals too cannot be assessed without the contexts in which they functioned and especially led. Any deeper exposure to the contours of the ideological battlefields that preceded the actual ones of the Civil War is beneficial in a fair and useful evaluation of Lincoln. 

Much of contemporary public discourse ignores the reality that the complexity of any individual revolves around many axes, all of which are informed by this book. In addition to cultural and intellectual context, there is also the evolving and shifting reality of one’s trajectory, hopefully one of growth and increasing clarity of moral vision. The narrow focus on any one moment or quotation or episode not only does an injustice to the subject, it does fundamental injustice to a theology that is premised on character development, aspirations for moral growth, and repentance.

The conflation of values with strategies greatly damages any efforts toward fair evaluation. To read of a Lincoln who was “not an abolitionist” yet “hated Slavery as much… as any abolitionist,” who was able to harness diplomatic and politic skills to change the face of the nation forces the historical and cultural arbiter to calibrate his assessment. 

Of crucial significance is the book’s focus on the value of a text as a controlling influence of the direction of a society. The Constitution, a product of and for a diverse population, was ambiguous on the issue of slavery, yielding camps who subscribed to a “Pro-slavery Constitution” and an “Anti-slavery Constitution.” It was belief in and advocacy of the latter that allowed the nation to be shepherded into an America without slavery. 

This recognition underscores the notion that a nation that began its journey with the words “All men are created equal,” and yet tolerated actual bondage well into that journey, and traveled further while still falling far short of that ideal, need not be condemned as uselessly and hopelessly hypocritical. Rather, the designation of an ideal, often at great distance from reality (perhaps preferably so), serves as a beacon to pull a society up to higher ground, even if the process takes centuries. 

As students of Torah we cherish the role of a foundational text, together with demanding and ideal standards, in setting a path to elevate the character and function of humanity, however slow and winding the journey. We can look to history to confirm our philosophy of the future.

Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (Knopf)
Isaac Selter, Editorial Assistant

An Officer and a Spy

“The Dreyfus Affair” is a household Jewish history term usually invoked to convey the same theme that pervades nearly all 2,000 years of exile—antisemitism. And so it should. Especially as antisemitism reaches new heights in the United States, the Dreyfus story reminds us of another time in history when, a mere century after the French fight for enlightenment, progressivism, and emancipation, dormant antisemitism came to fierce expression. This historical event paints a clear picture of the attitudes of government officials, as well as the bourgeoisie, toward their Jewish neighbors. And though justice may be achieved at the end of the story, the seething prejudices of the French continue to brew and come to a boiling point only 40 years later. 

But behind the scenes of this perversion and then never quite complete correction of justice is the lesser-known story of Georges Picquart, a French Army Officer who was the leading figure fighting to vindicate Alfred Dreyfus after his trial in France and banishment to Devil’s Island in 1895. Picquart, no philo-semite himself, faced tremendous opposition in his pursuit to clear Dreyfus’ name. Demotions, defamation, death threats, incarceration, and exile to Tunisia, Picquart’s superiors do everything they can to quell any resistance to their accusation against Dreyfus. However, Picquart, an embodiment of “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” pursues justice with astounding persistence. Picquart’s exemplary character challenges us today, living in the world of misinformation and “fake news,” to seek truth at all costs—even exile to Africa, even if it takes almost a decade. 

Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy can hardly be called historical fiction. Though, like any good novelist, Harris takes liberties to enrich the story, his fidelity to the historical research is remarkable; he seamlessly weaves the cold hard facts of the Dreyfus and Picquart story into a riveting novel that has the reader constantly on the edge of his or her seat. Harris also paints a clear picture of the contemporary French and European politics to properly contextualize the Dreyfus trial, its consequences, and Picquart’s unrelenting quest for truth.

After reading this book, the Dreyfus affair now simultaneously recalls the evils that mankind can inflict on a people, but also brings to light the admirable individuals who can restore our hope in humanity. Though this is no story about a French officer’s love for Jews, An Officer and a Spy, leaves the Jewish reader convinced that Georges Picquart be counted among the “Righteous Gentiles,” a half-century before that term took on its modern meaning

R. Pinchas Hirschprung, The Vale of Tears (Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program)
Yona Reiss

The Vale of Tears

Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung (1912-1998) is well-known within the Torah world as one of the gedolei ha-dor of the previous generation, a magnanimous Torah scholar who served as the beloved Av Beth Din of Montreal for several decades, and one who was able to recite any page of the Talmud by heart. In his youth, he served as the bochen for the prestigious Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva under the leadership of the renowned Rabbi Meir Shapiro. 

In 1944, R. Hirschprung authored a Yiddish memoir, written as a series of vignettes for a Canadian Jewish newspaper, recounting his harrowing experiences fleeing the Nazis during the early years of the war, relocating from his hometown of Dukla in Galicia to numerous other locations, and eventually making his way to Japan, until finally settling in Canada in 1941. This memoir was unknown to many, including many of his own family members, until his death in 1998. Several years ago, through the Azrieli Foundation, his memoirs were exquisitely translated into English by Vivian Felsen.

The book, one of the earliest known autobiographical accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust, is a testament to R. Hirschprung’s clear thinking and unshakeable faith even during the most trying of circumstances. On numerous occasions, R. Hirschprung’s quick wit and razor-sharp judgment, often informed and inspired by biblical verses, talmudic passages, and rabbinic aphorisms, helped him make life-saving decisions regarding when to run, when to stay in place, which news reports to trust, how to respond to officials, and where to travel next. 

R. Hirschprung also emerges as well-educated and worldly-minded. One is struck by his knowledge of the literary works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Bialik, as well as the political thought of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, and his very thoughtful discussion regarding both the appeal and the dangers of socialism, recounted in the form of a conversation between himself and an elderly Jew whom he encountered at a synagogue in Linsk. R. Hirschprung was fortified not only by heroic relatives, friends, and rabbinic leaders throughout the Jewish communities who generously provided hospitality, food, and advice, but also by the righteous gentiles who stand up to the Nazi persecutors, including a Christian woman who responds to a Nazi’s taunt, “Where is the God of the Jews?,” by declaring, “He’s here… He took revenge on Pharaoh, Haman, Titus and Sennacherib, and He will also take revenge on you!”

One of the most poignant accounts in the book is R. Hirschprung’s description of his encounters in Vilna with Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Torah figure of pre-war Europe, during the time that R. Hirschprung and his colleagues were working to re-establish the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in independent Lithuania. He elegantly describes R. Chaim Ozer both at the apex of his brilliance, productivity, and communal leadership as supervisor of all the yeshivot, and then again a few months later, after the Red Army had invaded Lithuania in June 1940 and the yeshivot were in existential peril, when “the sparkle of life in his eyes had become extinguished.” 

One of my senior rabbinic colleagues in Chicago told me that when he discovered the Yiddish manuscript in the 1980s, he called up R. Hirschprung to tell him how moved he was by the book, to which R. Hirschprung immediately responded, “bittul Torah!”— but then acknowledged, upon the Rabbi’s prodding, that it was worth considering an English translation. We should be extremely grateful that such a translation has now been rendered, as it provides a broader audience with an invaluable perspective into both the making of a Torah giant and the eternal perseverance of the Jewish spirit even during the most cataclysmic of times.

R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky of Slonim, Nesivos Shalom
Emanuel Feldman, Editor Emeritus

נתיבות שלום

Several years ago, while browsing among the seforim in my Jerusalem shul, I came across the five-volume set of the Slonimer Rebbe, titled Nesivos Shalom. I had never seen it before, but have not put it down since. It is part of my weekly Shabbos routine.

A collection of divrei Torah by the scion of the Slonimer hasidic dynasty, R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000), it offers amazing insights not only into the weekly Torah portion but also into our own selves. The Rebbe passed away only 21 years ago and was thus fully aware of the intricacies and challenges of contemporary life. These are not the typical hassidishe Torahs, but realistic looks at the human condition, our temptations and strengths, our weaknesses and foibles, all through the prism of the weekly parasha. I only regret that I did not have this sefer during my active rabbinate (though I was very well served by Shem MiShmuel).

I take for example the recently read portion of the biblical spies (Numbers 13). In his analysis, the Slonimer offers a profound rendering of what Eretz Yisrael is in its essence. It should be required reading for the principal players in Israel’s degrading circus as its elected leaders shamelessly jostle for prime seats in the government. He goes on to offer refreshing insights into the motivations of the spies, and a deeper understanding of their downfall. This alone is, as they say, worth the price of admission.

Among the hundreds of sefarim available on the weekly portion, this set is among the most refreshing and thought-provoking. Its insights are realistic, yet profound. I highly recommend it not only to rabbis and teachers, but to anyone who yearns for freshness and creativity wrapped in the garb of the great hasidic masters. [Portions of Nesivos Shalom have recently begun to appear in English editions by R. Yitzchok Adlerstein and others.]

This is the first of three installments in this feature — continue with the next round here.

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