TRADITION’s 2023 Book Endorsements – Part II

Tradition Online | June 29, 2023


TRADITION concludes this year’s installment of our Editorial Board’s selections for recommended summer reading.

Read the second round of recommendations below (and see Part I here). Peruse previous lists of TRADITION’s Summer Book Endorsements for 2020, 2021, and 2022. Congratulations to Sammy Groner of Yonkers, NY, for first correctly predicting the highest number of books to appear on this year’s list. Enjoy your prize winnings – a subscription to TRADITION (join him!).

Yoel Schwartz, Tzion Beit Hayyenu: Yalkut Eretz Hemda (Dvar Yerushalayim)
Yona Reiss

When Rabbi Yoel Schwartz published his two-volume work Tzion Beit Hayyenu in 1980, he was still serving as the Mashgiah Ruhani of Yeshivat Itri, a venerable Haredi Yeshiva in Jerusalem (he stepped down from this position several years later). As a native of Eretz Yisrael, born in 1939, R. Schwartz had studied in his youth at the prestigious Yeshiva institutions of Ponevezh and Mir, and he cultivated close relationships with both Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz. A tremendous Talmudic scholar and thinker, he published well over two hundred books and pamphlets on numerous halakhic and Jewish philosophical topics until his passing at age 82 in September 2022. His early work Ben Torah vi-Yeshiva, about proper yeshiva comportment and atmosphere, became a classic textbook regarding the rules of conduct in Yeshiva institutions. 

In the latter portion of his life, R. Schwartz was involved in the founding of the Nahal Haredi, a special unit of army service for those in the Haredi world who were not cut out to study full-time in Yeshiva. For these efforts, he was awarded the Moskowitz Price for Zionism in 2010. Somewhat quixotically, he also joined R. Adin Steinsaltz’s nascent Sanhedrin project, most likely spurred by his longstanding desire to spread knowledge of the Noahide laws throughout the world. 

Tzion Beit Hayyenu is a groundbreaking work insofar as it presents a rare Haredi expression of appreciation for the religious significance of resettling the land of Israel in modern times. Rabbi Schwartz sets his tone early in the first volume, recounting the great zeal exhibited by the students of the Vilna Gaon in settling the land, and of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld in building up the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. He bemoans the fact that the Haredi community has ceded expressions of love for the land to others. After all, he writes, we are bidden to “yearn for salvation” (Shabbat 31a), and he takes for granted that this yearning requires an exhibition of excitement for the modern-day miracle of the return to Zion. 

Particularly noteworthy is the fifth chapter of the book, which is dedicated to a survey of reasons for the opposition to Zionism by the Haredi community. While the author excoriates the anti-religious agenda of secular Zionism, he embraces “true Zionism” premised upon Torah principles. Perhaps his most fascinating treatment is his explanation of opposition by Haredi rabbinic leaders to religious Zionism, in which he boldly argues that the main opposition was not so much in principle as it was in practice, due to the willingness of early religious Zionist leaders to make political concessions to the secular Zionist leadership rather than insisting that the country be governed solely by Torah principles. 

I had the privilege of knowing Rabbi Schwartz z”l, with whom I shared a distant family connection, for over forty years. This book is a beautiful blend of his formidable Torah scholarship and his inspiring love for the Jewish homeland.

Eugene Korn, To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values (Urim Publications)
David Berger

Eugene Korn has devoted the lion’s share of his energies to understanding what he sees as core Jewish values and how they should shape our stance on major issues in contemporary Judaism. This book consists of nine essays that address overarching ethical theory, rabbinic approaches to morally problematic material in authoritative texts, and challenges posed by new social and scientific developments. These include inter alia the wiping out of Canaanites and Amalekites, discrimination against non-Jews, characterizing contemporary religions as avoda zara, receiving but not donating organs, assigning secondary status to women, contemptuous attitudes toward people with non-standard sexual orientations, and the criteria for waging just war.

He begins by setting forth what he sees as the foundational principles that form the basis of Jewish ethics and must serve as guideposts for all halakhic decision-making in relevant areas. These are tzelem Elokim (which he defines through a variety of creative and fruitful approaches), hesed, and tzedek as well as the injunctions of kedoshim tihyu and ve-asita ha-yashar ve-ha-tov.

A key element of the book’s argument is that rabbinic authorities dealing with morally challenging texts who have been guided by these fundamental principles have necessarily reinterpreted the plain meaning of those texts. Among the examples he cites beyond the issues already noted are the understanding of an eye for an eye, the limitations on the zealotry of Pinhas, Hazon Ish on the contemporary inapplicability of the treatment prescribed for heretics (minim), and R. Ben Zion Uziel’s approach to women’s suffrage.

This summary of the issues addressed in the book points to its broad scope and the uncompromising vigor of its analysis. Precisely because of these impressive characteristics, it will inevitably provoke disagreement with regard to particular issues. Thus, though I am thoroughly sympathetic to the overall thrust of the presentation, I have reservations about some of its more ambitious arguments. To take one example, I prefer—where this is feasible—to see deviations from the plain meaning of biblical texts as a result not of creative reinterpretation but of the teachings of the Oral Law. 

This and other disagreements are a tribute to the book’s capacity to make me think more deeply about some of the most serious issues facing contemporary Judaism. Its specific arguments are often persuasive, and its eloquent call for the primacy of ethics in Judaism is of the first importance in a world of moral ambiguities and challenges.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Geoffrey Bless Co.)
Yitzchak Blau

Despite loving his writing, for years I thought C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters was overrated. Readers love the concept of an older devil instructing his disciple devil how to corrupt humanity, but those looking for depth of thought were better served reading The Four Loves or Mere Christianity. Fortunately, a weekly Lewis study session with a fellow named Micah Eizen last year led me to reevaluate this work.

Lewis shows how religious institutions themselves can help the devil. One temptation fully identifies religion with pacifism or patriotism (#7), thereby rendering it absolutely ineffectual as religion stands for nothing beyond politics. We certainly witness such misuses of religion today in both the Democratic and Republican camps. Another option is a pastor with an overwhelming need to astonish his audience where the shock value takes precedence to the message (#16). Again, we can think of contemporary rabbis and educators who match the description.

The family can be a source of moral decay. Lewis points out how even loving family members who live together each habitually do some little things that bother one another. I personally am frustrated that my wife places pots in the kitchen sink while she would prefer that my showering never left any water on the bathroom floor. A devilish strategy generates a double standard in which a person thinks that he always acts innocently while his spouse does these things to irritate him (#3). 

Certain character traits lead us astray. Lewis outlines four types of laughter; three of which are quite innocent but the fourth neutralizes any sense of shame or guilt and justifies all wrongdoing (#11). An obsessive need for novelty creates a number of problems. It diminishes pleasure, proves financially costly, focuses foolishly on the fashionable, and ruins The Arts by making innovation more important than quality (#25).

Other traits provide crucial religious and moral support. Lewis identifies cowardice as one of the few negative traits humanity is never proud of. Thus, its appearance can lead people to realize their need for moral improvement. Conversely, courage preserves every other virtue. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point… A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions” (#29).

The Screwtape Letters includes acute psychological insight. Lewis notes how misfortune alone does not corrupt in the way that misfortune with a sense of injury can. Someone who thinks he has great claims on life reacts with greater anger when such claims remain unfulfilled. Get people to feel that their “time is their own” and they will resent even the half an hour they must give to another (#21). Interestingly, the experienced devil does not view pleasure as helpful to his cause. He prefers that individuals pursue the “best food,” “the right people,” and the “important books.” Experiencing a pleasure for its own sake enables a person to understand how the real thing far outstrips ersatz pleasures (#13).Thankfully, I gave this book another chance; few musar works can top it.

Norman Lamm, Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah (OU Press)
Erica Brown

This year, I counted down from Pesach to Shavuot with this slim volume of 24 Rabbi Lamm essays, thoughtfully curated by Daniel Gober on the centrality of Torah, the teachers of Torah, and the way that the study of Torah shapes Jewish life. In the preface, Gober writes that he found himself sharing insights from these essays every week with friends and that R. Lamm’s sermons “that relate to the love of Torah were not yet included in previous volumes” (xi). He has done us a service in collecting them here. I was given this book as a gift from the editor, which made it particularly memorable. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes in Gift from the Sea, the gift of a good book “seems to renew itself even in the act of depletion.”

R. Lamm plies his characteristic elegance in helping readers understand both the importance of intimacy with the Torah and the value of distance from it. In “How to Read the Torah,” he warns that overfamiliarity with its words prevents true understanding: “Respect for Torah means also that we must not assume too much about Torah in advance” (10). If we approach its study with “ready-made conclusions,” for example, we risk emerging from the encounter with Torah “knowing nothing more than the smug prejudices” (11) with which we began. This calculated distance, embodied by the fact that we use a yad to read the Torah scroll, enables us to approach it anew and with appropriate reverence.

In “How Do You Know You’re Awake?,” a sermon first delivered in June 1976, R. Lamm deals with the “persistent fact and professional challenge” of keeping people awake while teaching. He first uses the Turei Zahav (Shulhan Arukh, Even HaEzer 25) to demonstrate that if people are sleeping in order to strengthen their Talmud Torah then, “they receive reward for their sleeping” (126). Most, however, do not nap during sermons so that they can refresh their learning. Some, R. Lamm believes, “have never been awake” (126). He writes that this passionate-less existence is not because of intellectual laziness but because of self-indulgence: “It is only when you get out of yourself, when you are engaged with others, that you can consider yourself awake” (127).

In his conclusion to that sermon, he ends with the assumption woven throughout all of these meaningful and generative essays: “the study of Torah is the best way to be awake. Without it, life for the Jew is full of voids and vacuums, and life can be one long yawn occasionally interrupted by brief periods of semi-consciousness.” With it, “the awareness of its summons and demands, its promises and consolations, its intellectual stimulation and moral challenge – we are fully and deliciously alive” (129).

Ammiel Hirsch and Yaakov Yosef Reinman, One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them (Schocken)
Sarah Rudolph

Inside my copy of One People, Two Worlds is a faded receipt from August 2003. The book, a collection of letters between Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Reinman and Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, had been published fairly recently to great acclaim, and as it was a time in my life when I splurged on books, I bought it. It was also a time when I was both deeply immersed in the world of Orthodox Torah learning and also beginning to see further beyond my own bubble. I had attended Orthodox day school from nursery through high school, followed by six years of intensive study of Jewish texts and Jewish education, in Israel and in various Yeshiva University programs. In August 2003, I was on the cusp of beginning a year in Boston, with a new (sadly, since defunct) program named after R. Soloveitchik offering practical training for Jewish educators. 

I share this not to provide my resume, but to paint a picture of where my head was at that moment: firmly in the Modern Orthodox world. And I share that to explain why the book I’m recommending, 20 years after I read it, is so important for others similarly immersed in only one of the worlds our people inhabit.

To be sure, I knew and respected Jews who were not Orthodox, but knew little about what Judaism was for them, other than that it seemed to be somehow “less” than the all-encompassing lifestyle that it was for me. Clearly, I needed to broaden my horizons. 

In One People, Two Worlds, Reinman and Hirsch do an excellent, mutually respectful job of broadening each other’s horizons and those of their readers. To some degree, their relationship was contrived and their letters were predictable – as I understand it, they were introduced to each other with the express purpose of creating such a book, and certainly each of their letters reflects a “party line” at least to some extent. But that does not make their relationship less genuine, or their letters less thought-provoking. 

My responses were not all negative reactions to Reform writer Hirsch, or agreement with Orthodox writer Reinman. Both writers offered perspectives and arguments that made me think more deeply about their views and my own. 

Reading this book helped me develop beyond simply not judging other Jews, towards understanding them: their passion, their commitment, their deeply held beliefs. That doesn’t mean we agree – and of course, not everyone who shares the exceptionally general “not Orthodox” label shares all of Hirsch’s precise views, either – but building understanding, step by step, is a crucial piece of building a respect that goes beyond lip service, as well as an important part of deepening one’s own perspectives, all of which is necessary if we are to remain as one people.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy (OU Press)
Jacob J. Schacter

On a number of occasions spanning some thirty years, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik delivered major addresses at the annual conventions of the Religious Zionist organization in the United States. Four of those addresses were published in their original Yiddish in 1967, five in Hebrew translation in 1974, and they were printed in English translation in 1983. An additional number of these addresses, edited by Dr. David Fishman, were published in Yiddish in 2021 and an English translation just recently appeared under the auspices of the OU Press and Ktav Publishing House.

This volume contains addresses the Rav delivered as early as 1939 when he was beginning to emerge onto the national Orthodox Jewish stage and concludes with one delivered at a convention of the Rabbinical Council of America in June of 1967. Both the “Publishers Preface” written by R. Menachem Genack and the “Translators Introduction” by R. Shaul Seidler-Feller highlight the significance of this volume. I would like to underscore two aspects of it that I found to be particularly noteworthy.

First, the book contains a long reflection by the Rav on the Holocaust, still in full force when he delivered it as part of a talk in 1944 (see 5-14; also 70-72 and elsewhere). This perspective needs to be placed alongside other discussions of this event in some of his other works (see primarily my The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways). This important aspect of the Rav’s thinking has not yet been fully explicated and the discussions of it in this work are very important in filling out his perspective on it.

Secondly, in all his writings which enthusiastically support Religious Zionism and the State of Israel only rarely does he clearly and overtly call for the aliya of American Jewry to Israel. He comes close to it in his “Kol Dodi Dofek” (see Fate and Destiny [Hoboken, 2000], 35-41), but he does not make it a central priority. In this volume we find several passages where the Rav comes close to issuing this call (see 105, 142, 173-74) and they are thus particularly noteworthy.

Anyone interested in the thought of the Rav will greatly benefit from this volume. The Rav’s originality, creativity, and breadth are on full display here.

Meghan O’Gieblyn, God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (Doubleday)
Shlomo Zuckier

Our world is seeing an increasingly rapid growth of technology, with the emergence and now prevalence of ChatGPT and even more recently with Apple’s Vision Pro virtual reality headset. There are debates over how successful any one of these various projects will be – will it be a societal gamechanger or the next Metaverse? – and what dangers Artificial Intelligence or other technologies might pose for the world. 

Some have recently critiqued the Jewish community for not producing responses to the fundamental and ever-changing shifts in theology that face us today. The critique runs more or less as follows: Yes, there have been articles on some halakhic issues pertaining to new AI-related technologies and basic restatements of Jewish values that might bear on changing realities. But there has as yet been no move to think deeply about how the technological changes might shape the world as we know it, and how religion and especially Judaism might respond to it. The state of Jewish discourse on technology today is contrasted with the rich response to the times of technological ferment of the 1960s, which included Rabbi Lamm’s insightful essay “The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life” published in TRADITION (Winter 1965). 

The recommended book – part scientific survey, part memoir – is authored by Meghan O’Gieblyn, whose background as an essayist rather than a scientist yields an engaging and even accessible look into some of the more complex sides of this issue. She offers entrée to a variety of academic fields clustered around the meta-questions posed by the advancing technologies of our day – quantum mechanics, robot and AI programming, transhumanism, and more. 

The accessible volume presents the latest developments and thinking about these fields for the general reader, and also explores the history of these fields and probes the deepest questions of what it means to be conscious, and to be human. In doing so, it engages not only with science, philosophy, and history, but with theology as well, often drawing on Jewish and Christian traditions and their impact on how these issues have been understood over history. The engagement with Jewish tradition is suggestive (and mostly accurate) but far from exhaustive, allowing the reader to think further about the relevant issues from a Jewish perspective. Consider the noting of several religious views understanding the Divine image to mean intelligence/consciousness (18) and a short consideration of Kabbalah’s concept of the letters of the Torah undergirding the universe in conversation with programming a virtual world through numbers (103-104).

By engaging with works such as this one, putting it in conversation with Jewish tradition, and applying a combination of depth and faithful creativity, it may be possible to devise responses to the technological revolution of our day.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamlton (Penguin Books)
Isaac Selter, Editorial Assistant

A thinker, writer, poet, orator, soldier, politician, financial genius, family man, and much more, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), arguably the most influential founding father of the United States, was America’s first Secretary of the Treasury and the intellectual architect of the United States’ political and economic system. 

Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography reads like poetry and prose, comedy and drama, history textbook and historical fiction, all wrapped up in one. The author’s synthesis of historical precision, vivid imagery, and character depiction and analysis help recreate the revolution-era world for the reader. Chernow’s masterful storytelling and analysis kept me glued to the book—yes, even when discussing at length Hamilton’s complex economic blueprint for the United States. 

Hamilton is the story of a man who sought moral truth, honor, justice, and integrity, yet who struggled to actualize them in an imperfect world: His commitment to ideas and excellence often stole him away from his family, a tension always on his mind; his financial integrity and quest for honor often blinded him to human sensitivities—even those of his wife and friends, as was the case in the infamous Reynolds Pamphlet incident; and, like all humans in history, he confronted the clash between moral virtue and human impulse, a clash that threatened his family’s stability and all but ruined his political career. 

Hamilton’s other-worldly brilliance was eclipsed only by his human vices: endless ambition and, even more significant, his frankness—a trait that helped him effortlessly make countless enemies. Hamilton reminds us truth-seekers what it means to be principled people, yet warns us of the dangers of tactless politics, where dignified diplomacy makes rare appearances. Contrary to what we may think, the heated political rhetoric of the 21st century may actually pale in comparison to the political personal insults thrown at figures like Adams, Jefferson, and Burr, and, of course, the many slights incurred by Hamilton himself. 

And yet, with all his vices, Alexander Hamilton’s vision of freedom is one that should serve as model for Jews and Americans. Hamilton was steadfast in his support for American liberty, yet fought vigilantly against a populist patriotism that bordered on anarchy; Hamilton’s thirst for political freedom did not blind him from the fundamental differences between the American cause and the parallel French revolution, which he staunchly opposed. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, Hamilton understood the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” A “freedom from” mindset alone leads to anarchy; the “freedom to” perspective enabled Hamilton to implement a concrete political and economic plan that transformed America into a thriving republic.

Menahem Y. Kahana, Mipnei Tikkun HaOlam: Talmud Bavli Massekhet Gittin Perek Revi’i (Magnes Press)
Shalom Carmy, Editor Emeritus

Yeshiva University has been studying Gittin this year. For an outstanding resource of Brisker learning, one need go no further than the notes of R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s shiurim from the mid-1960s; and then, too, we have reviewed notes of R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s lectures as well. What of the work produced by “academic” Talmud scholars, those who focus on the Talmud’s background and whose foremost interest is the attempt to reconstruct the composition of the sugya before us? The Yeshiva world, in its various incarnations, takes a guarded attitude, if not a downright suspicious one of these approaches. To begin with, scholarly reconstructions often presume that modern professors know better what the primary Tannaim and Amoraim had in mind than the supposedly “blundering” editors of the Talmud. Such insouciance does not suit the reverence we bring to the study of Talmud, nor does it agree with common sense intuitions. Hence, studying this kind of scholarship may not be an attractive option for many readers.

Others, whose fundamental orientation is to the “royal road” of classic Talmudic analysis, are curious about academic Talmud, and especially eager to get acquainted with methods that may help with the substance of Talmud study, even while being skeptical of academic hypotheses, not always convincing, about the genesis of the text, or the tendency to grade the Talmudic Sages on their understanding of their sources, or to judge the motives behind the traditions. Here, as is frequently the case with academic approaches to Torah, some efforts are more helpful and more successful than others.

For those interested in studying the best among these works, and especially for those eager to examine the potential interface between “academic” and “yeshivish” pursuits, let me recommend Professor Menahem Kahana’s recent commentary on Gittin chapter 4. This chapter opens with rabbinic enactments regarding the annulment of a bill of divorce, a topic analyzed in the Rav’s lectures as well. Mostly, however, the chapter discusses rabbinic enactments in various areas, such as the prozbul, allowing collection of debts despite the completion of the sabbatical year, laws concerning manumission and so forth, topics omitted from R. Soloveitchik’s syllabus.

Kahana does the things we expect in academic Talmud scholarship, collating textual variants, examining the broad range of rabbinic sources including Bavli, Yerushalmi, Tosefta, midreshei halakha, paying attention to the main Rishonim. At certain points, he suggests that differing opinions and interpretations in a sugya reflect and represent the traditions and halakhic views prevalent in Eretz Yisrael versus Babylonia, or differences between the Babylonian yeshivot, Sura and Nehardea and Pumbedita. Most interestingly, he tries to identify, in the light of these factors, which sugyot were edited in which of the yeshivot and how the editorial process may reflect the halakhic bottom line which the respective editors sought to establish.

As noted, not everyone is interested in these investigations and their conclusions, and not everyone would regard this book as deserving special attention. I recommend it to those who care about these matters.   

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (revised edition, Free Press)
David Shatz

The ancient Pythagoreans taught that all reality is numbers. Today, numbers and graphs express your value: how much revenue you brought in, how many stars in your online ratings, how many citations in the literature, how many online likes and dislikes. Notwithstanding the place of numbers in our tradition—from biblical censuses to halakhic specifications to mystical thought and gematriyyot—this trend can be unnerving. It calls to mind criticisms from long ago that society has reduced people’s value to numbers. And there is one domain in which quantification has burgeoned like nowhere else: the already numbers-obsessed circles of professional baseball.

Bill James is a gaon. Not to be confused with the other Bill James—William, the celebrated psychologist-philosopher—this guru hails from Kansas and is the most famous practitioner of sabermetrics, an enormously complex mathematical approach to assessing and predicting baseball performance, popularly called “analytics.” Teams today must employ a strong analytics department to evaluate talent and the tendencies of players. The events depicted in the book, and later movie Moneyball, testify to James’ impact.

Once named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, James has developed innovative and iconoclastic ideas that became de rigeur, like stressing on-base percentage over batting average and belittling the value of stolen bases and sacrifice bunts (though with new rules those are on the ascent). Among his fascinating measures are the famous WAR (Wins Above Replacement), “runs created,” “secondary average,” and what for him is currently most important in rankings, “Win Shares.”

To watch James reason through an issue—working his way through arguments and counterarguments, thinking of virtually every consideration and datum, discovering surprising correlations and player similarities, and in general being mehaddesh with imagination, verve, humor, and of course a magisterial command of statistical evidence—is an intellectual delight. The Historical Abstract has been called the greatest baseball book ever. James isn’t just a numbers-cruncher, though; he’s also a gifted essayist—dynamic, funny, and supremely enjoyable.

What does all this have to do with TRADITION? Mah inyan sabermetrics etzel Har Sinai? I suggest there’s a prior question: What does baseball have to do with Har Sinai? What value could sports possess for Orthodox Jews? Many rabbanim are impassioned fans and are as let down as the rest of us when their team loses. Is following sports and rooting a religiously worthwhile pursuit? Whereas John Sexton, former president of NYU, wrote a book titled Baseball as a Road to God, James does not traffic in transcendence. But his work nonetheless inspires lessons. First, long-hallowed ways of assessing quality may be mistaken; second, not all measures are meaningful. As for the claim that quantifying dehumanizes, James is paradoxical: he translates baseball performance to far more numbers than were ever out there, yet, kindling nostalgia, he brings out the players’ humanity and explains their often quirky lives and personalities, which sometimes affect performance. He also writes lots of interesting history about the game’s evolution. Geekiness and humanistic insight here hang together.

Reading Bill James is a spectator sport perhaps as enjoyable as the sport he spectates. Weighing in at 1,024 pages, the book is best read in randomly selected pieces. Using a daf yomi strategy, you’ll be able to make a siyyum in just under three years.

Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books)
Judith Bleich

The “house of twenty thousand books” was the home of Chimen and Miriam Abramsky, the author’s grandparents to whom he dedicates his book (“You were, quite simply, extraordinary. I miss you and mourn for you every day”). The charms of this beautifully written memoir are manifold. First and foremost the house described is a bibliophile’s paradise, room after room stacked floor to ceiling with unexpected treasures. The reader is introduced to their provenance and apprised of their idiosyncratic arrangement. The author details the manner in which his grandfather, a secular son of the venerable sage and head of the London bet din, R. Yehezkel Abramsky, amassed the collection and became one of the most notable experts in evaluating manuscripts and rare volumes of Judaica for auction houses worldwide. Chimen (d. 2010) had no formal academic degree but his knowledge and erudition were so formidable that he was appointed to a lectureship in Oxford, later became Professor and Chairman of Jewish Studies at University College, London, and was invited to serve as a visiting professor at both Brandeis and Harvard.

The author describes how this remarkable house of books was not only a repository of printed words but evolved into a heartwarming salon. Nourished and nurtured by Miriam’s plentiful food and maternal solicitude, generational lines faded as a galaxy of friends and relatives, intellectuals and writers, students and teachers, moved back and forth from dining room to sitting room while conducting night-long discussions and debates. Many an Israeli and American scholar came to visit, stayed on as a guest, and was virtually adopted as a member of the family.

The narrative affords a fascinating window into the mid-twentieth century British Jewish community and, most interestingly, a close view of prominent members of those circles associated with the Communist Party. One is plunged into their soul-searing conflicts as the realities of Soviet repression become more and more evident and witnesses disillusionment and disenchantment supplanting fervor and devotion. Chimen himself very slowly abandons ardent Bolshevism for liberalism.

My own enjoyment of this engaging book was tinged with sadness. It transported me to my childhood in England, a period during which my revered parents became close friends of the Gaon R. Yehezkel and his aristocratic wife Reizl. I was reminded of how, much later, I became aware of R. Yehezkel’s anguish over the non-observant path Chimen had chosen and his great sorrow that the brilliant scholarship of his beloved son was not of a nature that merited recitation of Birkat ha-Torah.

Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (W.W. Norton)
Daniel Z. Feldman

Reading Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics reinforces our awareness of the ability of one discipline to impact upon another, which is of more than academic interest; it has practical implications that may influence the world of halakha as well.

Thaler, together with well-known Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, was among the founders of behavioral economics, and received the Nobel Prize for his contributions in 2017 (Kahneman received the Prize in 2002). The field developed the premise that while economic theory generally assumed people to act purely rationally, seeking to maximize gain and minimize loss, in reality decisions are often influenced by psychological factors that transcend rationality. The discipline described this as the behavior of actual “humans” as opposed to the theoretical “Econs.”

In Misbehaving, Thaler describes his history in developing the field, and along the way shares with the reader valuable insights that can impact the way individuals do, or perhaps, should, interact with each other in a business context. One illuminating concept in this realm is termed “transactional utility,” which is the benefit that a purchaser experiences distinct from the item itself: it is a sense of appreciation of the actual transaction being conducted on favorable terms.

This notion has implications for the prohibition of genevat da’at. To sell an item for more than it is worth is outright fraud. However, even when the price is appropriately set, there may still be a violation involved: if the buyer is led, falsely, to believe he is receiving an unusual bargain, genevat da’at is transgressed.

This calls into question the common marketing technique of permanently claiming a sale is in effect. Some poskim, such as R. Moshe Mordechai Karp, have even condemned the near-universal practice of “99 pricing,” seeing it as an effort to subconsciously undermine the awareness of the purchaser. However, Thaler demonstrates that compliance with a higher standard in this area is more challenging than in it seems. He relates how both Macy’s and JC Penney, in separate efforts to switch to “everyday low pricing” and greater openness with their customers, saw their shares plummet. He explains that the clientele was not willing to lose the transactional utility.

Pricing itself is also affected by this dynamic. If supply is genuinely scarce in relation to demand, the most basic rule of economics dictates that the price is legitimately raised. This is not fraudulent, even if it is at times exploitative. Thaler displays how the latter aspect incites outrage, and thus provokes punishment, even against the interest of the buyer. This is distinct from the moral component of the pricing.

Misbehaving is an entertaining and informative read, taking its place among a number of other volumes, before and after its publication, that further our understanding of human nature in ways that also inform our interpersonal responsibilities.

This is the second and final installment in this feature—read Part I here.

Leave a Reply