TRADITION’s 2023 Book Endorsements

Tradition Online | June 26, 2023

TRADITION continues its yearly tradition of turning to our esteemed editorial board for endorsements for summer reading. Some may be amused to think of a seaside read with the 20+ hefty tomes our team chose – but that’s what you get when you turn to the TRADITION leadership for reading picks of works of Torah, Madda, Torah uMadda, or enlightening literature that they would wish to draw to the attention of our readers. Some of the picks may be surprising; all would be worthy of your attention.

What follows is our first installment; another set of recommendations appears here along with the identity of the winner of our contest to predict our picks.

R. Jeffrey Saks, Editor

Stefano Massini, The Lehman Trilogy (HarperCollins)
Rivkah Blau

What happens in a rich family? Stefano Massini answers in The Lehman Trilogy, a novel translated from Italian: wealth transforms the family. While many of the characters portrayed here have some counterparts in the life and times of the Lehman Brothers financial firm, the book is a work of fiction.

Massini has turned the lives of Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer from their origin as the sons of Abraham Lehmann, a Bavarian cattle-dealer, into a symbol of the Jewish experience in America. Where our ancestor Avraham had obeyed God’s command to go to a new land, Abraham Lehmann sent his son Heyum to America to earn money, remain an observant Jew, and return to his family. Heyum became Henry and brought his brothers along to build a family fortune. 

The family’s descent is traced from Henry’s death from yellow fever. Emanuel and Mayer observed the mourning appropriately, from tearing their garments, to saying the Kaddish, to closing their store during shiva. Two generations later, when Mayer’s grandson Peter, an American pilot in World War II, dies, the relatives know what they should do “according to ritual.” They recite Kaddish, but “closure for mourning would mean a two-million loss.” Instead, the bank observes “Three minutes’ silence. / For all staff.” The period indicates an end-stop— three minutes to note the loss of a young husband, father, member of the founding family—and then back to work. 

When Peter courted Peggy, who became his wife, they spoke in lines from romantic movies of the ‘30s. When Peter dies, Peggy thinks “her Tyrone Power died a hero, in his plane / in military action.” (The line breaks in the text indicate that the novel is written in blank verse.) As the family has fallen away from its religious tradition, it now lives with pretense, using borrowed phrases from American fiction.

Hebrew blessings and Baruch Hashem had been said often in Book One. By Book Three, as the collapse of the bank approaches (“Egel haZahav” is the title of the antepenultimate chapter), the younger generation is worshipping the idols of global computer trades.

Massini tells the story of the past 150 years in America through one family’s fall with sardonic comments to indicate that this is his version of history. Although he uses Hebrew and Yiddish terms, he is not Jewish. He was a cut-up when he was young. An employee in his father’s firm, whose life the father had saved, proposed sending the boy to a Jewish school. This sparked a passion for Jewish knowledge. It has resulted in a brilliant novel of the American-Jewish experience.

Oded Yisraeli, R. Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides): Intellectual Biography [Hebrew] (Magnes Press)
Avraham Walfish

R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, in an interview with R. Haim Sabato, explained why, more than any other figure of the past, Ramban had the greatest impact on his own spiritual outlook and on that of the Jewish people: Ramban “gives me the synthesis that I seek” among general knowledge, psychological depth, and profound analysis of Jewish canonical texts. Like R. Lichtenstein, Oded Yisraeli’s Hebrew book, R. Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides): Intellectual Biography, emphasizes Ramban’s role as the great synthesizer among varied branches of Jewish and general knowledge, while bridging the traditions and methodologies of Spain and Northern France. Examining the different stages of Ramban’s literary production, Yisraeli charts the trajectory of Ramban’s thought, exploring the reasons for changes in his goals and outlook at different stages of his life.

The first of Ramban’s halakhic works, composed in his late teens and twenties, was Milhamot Hashem, which began as a spirited defense of the great Sephardic posek, the Rif, but his acknowledgment in the introduction to the second part of Milhamot Hashem that interpretations of talmudic passages cannot be proven mathematically adumbrates the pluralistic approach characteristic of his talmudic novellae. 

The Maimonidean controversy, in which Ramban played a crucial mediating role, led Ramban to turn from his halakhic writing, in order to address the ideological tensions emerging from this controversy. He sought to address the burning philosophical issues that preoccupied many Jewish minds – including Ramban himself – within the traditional framework of Torah study, demonstrating in his commentary that all branches of knowledge are contained or alluded to in the Torah. While his rigorous exposition of peshat, like his Talmud commentary, is based on a wide-ranging survey of previous commentators, he diverges from his predecessors by focusing largely on mapping the contours of larger units, seeking to ferret out their theological, spiritual, and moral messages, often engaging polemically with the rationalist approach of Rambam. Yet more revolutionary is his presentation of a systematic kabbalistic reading of the Torah, in which he shows that certain textual difficulties may best be resolved by uncovering their hidden kabbalistic meanings, and often notes “allusions” even in seemingly straightforward passages to a wide variety of scientific, theological, ethical, and metaphysical truths. 

Alongside his demonstration of how Torah exegesis can yield knowledge in all significant realms, Ramban’s Torah commentary presents a coherent understanding of the purpose of mitzvot and divine service. Whereas the philosophical and kabbalistic outlooks prevalent at the time both focused on achieving knowledge of God, Ramban oriented religious life towards achieving an ongoing relationship with God, responding to the hidden miracles promised by the Torah. 

As presented in this rich and painstakingly researched book, Ramban serves as a model for creatively synthesizing between cultures, methodologies, and modes of thought. The contemporary reader may additionally find much instruction and inspiration from the polysemy characteristic of Ramban’s talmudic and scriptural exegesis, from his dialogic theology, as well as from his unwavering attentiveness to the ethical component of religious life.

Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire: The Great Lisbon Earthquake, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason (Vintage Books)
Jeffrey Saks, Editor

At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 1, All Saints’ Day 1755, as the faithful were gathered in their churches and cathedrals for prayer, the most powerful recorded earthquake hit the coast of Lisbon, estimated at up to 9.1 on the moment magnitude scale. The Portuguese capital, the center of a maritime empire, was reduced to rubble, washed over by a massive tsunami, and ravaged by fires that raged for a month. Shock waves were felt throughout Europe—as far away as Finland and Venice; tsunamis reached the shores of Brazil. It was believed at the time that up to 150,000 people had perished (current estimates vary); 8 of every 10 houses, and almost 9 of 10 churches and public buildings, were flattened.

This Gulf of Fire draws on seismology, geology, architecture, politics, public policy, economics, medicine, and especially philosophy and theology, in tracing the wide-ranging effects from those few minutes during which the earth quaked through aftershocks we still feel. It joins a shelf of books that promise that if we’ll only understand one specific thing deeply (cod, rats, salt, e.g.), we’ll discover it offers a united field theory of everything

A recent visit to Portugal aroused my interest in the earthquake. Over two-and-a-half centuries later, it is as impossible to ignore while touring Lisbon as overlooking the effects of 9/11 would be while visiting lower Manhattan. “Officially” no Jews were affected by the Portuguese tragedy, having been expelled in 1497 (the Inquisition was still in full swing as the city collapsed). Molesky is less familiar with how European Jewry responded to reports of the events. In fact, the Hida, traveling through southern France, felt the shocks and recorded his thoughts; the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community, who might have been forgiven for indifference to the suffering in their alte-heim, called for fasting and selihot. Instead, Molesky’s book offers an excellent prism to consider Portugal’s history—what it was before and what it became after the quake (and how). For our purposes, the book is most useful in tracing the impact on the philosophy of suffering and divine providence. Voltaire used it as a sledgehammer against Leibniz’s idea that we live, as far as theodicy goes, in “the best of all possible worlds.” His “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne” and depictions of the trauma in his Candide, are critical denunciations of a cruel world (and implicit indictment of the Master of that world). Rousseau and Kant also broke quills and spilled ink in trying to make sense of the calamity. Molesky suggests that before the quake Kant’s “works were filled with references to the divine. After Lisbon, he embraced a more empirical approach to knowledge and the universe.” The book is an excellent demonstration of how suffering is made sense of in an “age of science and reason.” Its relevance for those committed to a divine plan for creation should be clear, even as the ground continues to shake beneath our feet.

Ruchi Koval, Soul Construction: Shape Your Character Using 8 Steps from the Timeless Jewish Practice of Mussar (Lifecodex Publishing)
Hillel Goldberg

I’m not looking for the thread to tie this book together, to tell you what the book means, to sum it all up. Each sentence so singly sucks me in that I can’t flee the vortex. This is what a book of musar, as opposed to a book about musar, should be. Musar is less a theory than a practice, and because the subject of the practice is the human being, in all its contradictions and complexity, a book of musar compels the reader to focus on a specific midda, or character trait, whether flawed or aspirational, rather than articulate a theory of personal transformation. Soul Construction by Ruchi Koval possesses the rhetorical power and allure to compel the reader to focus on a specific midda. In this, she admirably follows the unsystematic style of the first work of modern musar, the five letters that the founder of the movement write to his disciples when he moved from Vilna to Kovno in 1849.

Koval writes: “I actually have three children. John and the girls. [John is the husband.] Since their husbands are not providing the emotional bonding they seek, these women begin to view the men as simply more ‘children’ to look after, clean up after, and feed.”

What to do? What might musar recommend? “[T]hese attitudes cut very deep. Men need to feel respected by their wives more than they need to be respected by anyone else, and they need to feel respected in general a lot more than they let on. Of course, women also need to feel respected and not diminished. Everyone needs validation and connection to feel whole, even if they may pretend they don’t.”

Ergo? “This is exactly the gift of generosity that we human beings need from one another.” How can you be generous to a person who is not generous to you?

This is a classic musar dilemma and the classic musar way of compelling a reader to sit up and question oneself rather than sit comfortably, enjoying a fine dissertation on the meaning of musar. At its root, musar is not only a form of personality transformation, not only a form of observing the Torah without the distorting lens of flawed character traits, but a form of rhetoric. Soul Construction masters this, as its title promises. Since the object of musar – my behavior – is often inconsistent, skipping around this book to find just the topic I need at this moment. . . that’s how a soul is constructed. A piece at a time, based on the piece I need to focus on now. It is not easy to be generous to a person who is not generous to you. On this and many other obstacles to constructing oneself, to serving humanity and serving God, Soul Construction is a masterful guidebook.

Steven J. Weiss, Pirke Avot: A Thesaurus—An Annotated Bibliography of Printed Hebrew Commentaries, 1485-2015 (The Dr. Steven J. Weiss Collection printed by Keter Press
Michael A. Shmidman, Editor Emeritus

For Steven J. Weiss, M.D., author of the handsomely produced and meticulously researched volume entitled Otzar Pirke Avot (English title: Pirke Avot: A Thesaurus—An Annotated Bibliography of Printed Hebrew Commentaries, 1485-2015), the prodigious effort involved in creating this work represents a genuine labor of love.

A physician in Los Angeles, Weiss became interested in Avot commentaries while on a fellowship in New York in the 1970s. His insatiable appetite for both acquiring perushim on Avot and compiling a comprehensive bibliography of all printed commentaries led him to personally visit the collections of libraries across the globe, while benefiting from the previous bibliographic work of scholars like Y. Y. Cohen and Solomon Neches, as well as both printed and online bibliographies of Hebrew books.

The highly impressive results of his decades of research were published in this volume in 2016. The primary section of the book is a 400+ page bibliography of over 1,500 printed commentaries on Avot, listed chronologically by date of publication from 1485-2015. (Alphabetical listings by title, author, and place of publication appear in appendices to the volume.) A typical entry contains basic bibliographic information, including: title, author, place of publication, publisher, year of publication, pagination, size, and the essential contents of the title page description. Almost all of the entries are based on direct observation of the volumes listed. Additional comments and footnotes are added by the author to highlight interesting features of the entry, ranging from lists of haskamot and quotations from an editor’s introduction to the commentary, to citation of noteworthy additions or passages within the text of the commentary and references to—or discussion of—academic literature relevant to the entry. A bibliography of more than 400 articles on Avot and its commentaries is included as an appendix to the volume. 

A fascinating feature of this remarkable work is the 48-page section of color photos representing a sampling of manuscripts, books, and Judaica objects in Weiss’ extensive collection of Avot-related materials. Photos include a page from the 1485 Soncino edition of Avot with Rambam’s commentary; pages of Rambam’s Avot commentary in Arabic from the Cairo Geniza; photos of title pages from two dozen commentaries, most printed in the sixteenth century (including the first three editions of Abravanel’s Nahalat Avot, 1506-1567, and the first four editions of Midrash Shmuel, 1579-1600); and photos of Avot ephemera such as Israeli stamps and personal bookstamps with quotations from Avot, and an RCA Victor vinyl record of Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky singing “Akavya ben Mahalalel.” 

Hafokh bah va-hafokh bah.” This volume serves as an invaluable research tool for rabbis, academicians, laypersons—for anyone (like myself) with a passionate interest in Avot, its commentators, and its commentaries. [The book is available for direct order from the author.]

Pearl S. Buck, Peony: A Novel (John Day Co.)
Gabriella Jacobs, Editorial Intern

“Would he keep himself separate, dedicated to a faith that made him solitary among whatever people he lived, or would he pour the stream of his life into the rich ocean of human life about him?”

Pearl S. Buck’s relatively obscure 1948 novel, Peony, should be read by all Yeshiva High School students before graduation. Indeed, the novel radiates a message pertinent to every diaspora Jew who has felt the ever-present tension between the attractive and worthy wiles of secular western culture, and the deeply prized Jewish wisdom and customs we embrace so dearly.

Set in the 1850s, the novel recounts the twilight hours of the once-thriving Jewish community of Kaifeng, China. Intimately and endearingly portraying the lives and loves of the House of Ezra, the only remaining Jewish-identifying household of wealth and prominence, and also broadly surveying the decline of the community as an entity, Peony is an acutely relatable and tragic cautionary tale that warns of the seductions of comfort, ease, and amity.

Like many stories of historical Jewry, Peony is a tale of struggle, turmoil, and loss. Throughout modern history, there have been many graphic and painful chronicles of Jewish communal destruction by way of persecution. But there have been fewer which remember the spiritual death which accompanies assimilation. There are many histories and narratives which highlight the immediate physical danger which follows being an insular minority group. There are few that highlight the prolonged dangers of distraction and pleasure. 

Each character in the novel has a varying level of allegiance to either the kindly, pleasure-loving Chinese or to the God-fearing Jewish elements in each of their lives, and all vie to capture the attention and ultimate affection of David. The privileged only child in the traditionally Jewish House of Ezra, David is colloquially “Modern Orthodox”— keeping Shabbat and Kashrut, while also studying Confucian philosophy and spending his evenings in the company of Chinese friends and singing servant women. 

From a Jewish perspective, one might wish the novel was narrated with an affection for retaining tradition and with support for monoculturalism. However, Peony is set apart by Buck’s intentionality in presenting the advantages and failings of each worldview evenhandedly, without ever passing open judgment on which is virtuous, a rarity in modern fiction literature. 

Altogether readable, thoroughly enjoyable, and profoundly stirring, Peony is proof that summer reading and philosophical meditation can (and should!) go hand in hand. Tonally, it is contemplative; this factor makes it palatable to a wide audience, but it uniquely challenges those of us who identify with the “Modern Orthodox” David to ponder the logical conclusions of our own decisions, as we discover where David’s lead him.

Kaddish: Women’s Voices, edited by Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas (Urim Publications)
Joel B. Wolowelsky

While Kaddish is said to elevate the deceased’s soul, more often than we realize, it is the mourner’s soul that is elevated as well. This anthology gives us a window to appreciate what generations of mourners feel and have felt as they worked through months of saying Kaddish. These are not necessarily universal reactions; nonetheless, it is uplifting for the average shul-goer to read these dozens of personal narratives and reassuring for those who begin the process after the trauma of burying their dead. 

While then there seems to be nothing new to share the feelings of generations of mourners, there is something very novel here: all the writers are women. A yovel ago, every mourners’ guide—including those aimed at the Modern Orthodox community—stated that only sons may say Kaddish. Today, even far more rightward-oriented rabbinic publications issue lenient opinions allowing women to recite Kaddish.

It is surprising that it took so long for such awareness to surface when the phenomenon has been approved by such hakhmei Lita as Rabbis Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, Moshe Feinstein, Shaul Yisraeli, Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik. R. Ahron Soloveichik issued a more forceful public policy statement: “Nowadays, when there are Jews fighting for equality for men and women in matters such as aliyot, if Orthodox rabbis prevent women from saying Kaddish when there is a possibility for allowing it, it will strengthen the influence of Reform and Conservative rabbis. It is therefore forbidden to prevent daughters from saying Kaddish” (Od Yisrael Yosef Beni Hai, no. 32).

Yet, as we know, the permissibility does not sit well with everyone, even within the Modern Orthodox community. The anthology also gives the opportunity to hear of the pain some experienced when they came to shul to say Kaddish: “Once, the tenth man in a Mincha minyan―a personal acquaintance of mine―walked out just as Kaddish was starting, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to say Kaddish as a result. My internal struggle to be kind and understanding vs. feeling angry and resentful was a serious challenge at times” (217). 

Another author relates: “Once, I had a rather toxic experience, ironically at the school that I was running. When it came time for Kaddish at a Maariv minyan, after an evening event for families, I joined in. I heard murmurs and whispers from the men’s section and could feel eyes piercing through me. When I mustered up the courage, I looked up. Jaws were dropped. Some men left the room, asking whether this was a school for Reform Rabbis. I have never felt more humiliated as a member of the Orthodox community than during the time that I said Kaddish for my mother” (141). 

Saying Kaddish might indeed elevate one’s soul along with those of the deceased. But the opportunity might not come pain free. This volume is an important read both for women who are considering saying Kaddish and for anyone who opposes their doing so.

The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Leviticus, edited by David Arnovitz (Koren Publishers)
Hayyim Angel

This summer gives us the opportunity to explore the profound comparisons and contrasts between the Temple and sacrifices of the Torah versus the rituals of the ancient Near East. The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Leviticus, edited by a team of scholars headed by David Arnovitz, makes this world of scholarship accessible to the public. This volume is the third in a new series that eventually will encompass all of Tanakh.

Drawing heavily from the Anchor Bible commentary of the late Jacob Milgrom, this volume pinpoints several of the vital differences in theology and religious-ethical values that contributed to the Torah’s revolution in the ancient world. To cite a few brief examples: Animal sacrifice was a universal practice. Hittite rituals included the pouring the blood—the life force of the animal—onto the altar. Yet, pagan gods were said to eat the sacrifices, whereas God in the Torah is pleased by sacrifice but does not “eat.” Rather, sacrifices are a means to bring God closer to the people and people closer to God.

In Mesopotamia, people had no idea what their gods wanted of them. Consequently, they performed rituals and confessed sins in the hope of somehow pleasing their gods. In the Torah, by contrast, God commands all Israelites exactly what He demands, and holds people accountable for their actions. Israel’s destiny depends on its faithfulness to God’s covenant in the Torah. Many pagans had rituals to clean away impurity, but they viewed impurity as a malevolent, demonic force. In contrast, the Torah’s impurity is a ritual state generated by death-related experiences or by human sin. The blood of the hattat cleansed the Temple of impurity. People needed to take personal responsibility and repent for their own sins. Similarly, many cultures had ablution in water as part of a purification process. However, the ablution generally was a component in the pagan healing process. In contrast, the Torah does not ascribe any powers to the waters. People ritually immerse only after healing from the physical cause of impurity.

More broadly, the Torah is the first ancient collection of laws that combines ritual and civil-ethical laws. In other ancient Near Eastern laws (and in many modern societies, as well), one is merely obligated to refrain from wronging others. For the first time in recorded legal documents, the Torah obligates people to proactively help other members of society—both one’s fellow and the underprivileged. Pagan priests and diviners kept cultic knowledge private, and did not include laypeople in the rituals. In contrast, Israel’s priests work together with laypeople during the service, and have an educational role to teach the entire Torah to all.

Although there are many external similarities between the Torah’s rituals and ancient Near Eastern rituals, this delightful volume demonstrates yet again that the divine is in the details.

Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (Portfolio Books)
Mali Brofsky

Arthur Brooks’ From Strength to Strength focuses on the second half of life, and serves as a guide for finding peace, happiness, and meaning in this stage. This book is important and enlightening for those who are in this life phase, and I suggest that it’s also helpful for those of us for whom it is but a harbinger of things to come..

Though the topic is universally relevant, Brooks (Harvard professor, author, Atlantic columnist) wrote this book particularly for those he calls “strivers”—high achievers who are used to hard work and success in their professional endeavors; those most likely to be challenged by adjusting to the inevitable shift brought on by aging. 

The bad news is that what Brooks calls “fluid intelligence,” those qualities of mind characterized by rapid analysis, creative innovation, ability to recall information and to multitask, does decline in the middle years. But instead of getting stuck there, Brooks posits that the good news is that there is another type of intelligence: “crystallized intelligence.” This is characterized by the ability to use the vast stores of one’s accumulated knowledge for the good of oneself and others; in other words, wisdom. By learning how to take the leap from one “curve” to the other, one can learn to live a life of happiness, meaning, and satisfaction.

How to take that leap? The book leads the reader through Brooks’ hypothesis. He first breaks down the striver’s need to be attached to his familiar trappings of success. Essentially, he suggests that while we all have a healthy aversion to objectifying others, we have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves. Defining our worth only in terms of external measures of success and achievement (money, titles, accolades) is also a pernicious form of objectification – objectification of the self. I found this to be a healthy and refreshing frame.

Brooks explains why we desire this type of success, primarily using neurological/evolutionary theory to explain our hard-wiring for achievement and accumulation. However, he advises that true satisfaction on the second curve lies elsewhere. The next chapters outline where it is and how to get there. 

What follows are chapters on learning how to isolate and identify one’s core self and inner values, learning to focus on and cultivate relationships later in life, altering our relationship with time, emphasizing what David Brooks (no relation) calls “eulogy virtues” as opposed to “resume virtues,” mentoring and passing one’s wisdom to others, incorporating faith into one’s life, and understanding that times of transition, such as this one, are rich with opportunities for finding growth and meaning. He sums up the lessons he has learned into the following seven words: “Use things. Love people. Worship the Divine.”

Gedolei haUma leYaldei Yisrael (Series from DabriShir Publishers)
Lawrence A. Kobrin

A series of children’s books in Hebrew would seem like an odd suggestion for an adult reading list, but that is exactly what this is. For those with access to Israeli Hebrew publications, one or more of the volumes of the series Gedolei haUma leYaldei Yisrael (Heroes of the Nation for the Children of Israel) may prove interesting and informative. Perhaps broader sales and distribution outside of Israel would encourage the publishers along the same lines. (Word has it that English translations are in the works, but why miss out on the chance to read in Hebrew and encourage our children and grandchildren to do so as well?)

The series is a project of the Israeli publisher DabriShir and is designed for middle school children (Anglos with a good facility in Hebrew reading will do fine). What makes the series interesting is the selection of the personalities depicted in the various volumes. They include more than would normally be found in the hagiographic set issued by publishers in the United States. Among the volumes issued to date are profiles and life stories of such figures as R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Kook (both father and son), R. Shlomo Goren, Nehama Leibowitz, R. Moshe Tzvi Neriah, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Around 20 volumes have appeared to date with more on the way. What brought the series to the attention of this reviewer were the volumes concerning R. Lichtenstein, the leader of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a prominent Modern Orthodox thinker known to all readers of TRADITION, and that describing the life of the late R. She’ar Yashuv Cohen, the son of the Nazir of Jerusalem, who was the Chief Rabbi of Haifa for many years. While I knew R. Cohen for over fifty years, and met with him many times, the book dedicated to his life’s storyincluded much information about his career which had escaped me previously. Similarly, the volume on R. Lichtenstein, an interesting choice for young readers, included details of his life and personal qualities which may escape the attention of adult biographers, but come as no surprise to those who knew Rav Aharon personally.

More widespread publicity about these volumes (both the existing Hebrew and the anticipated English versions) should encourage the publishers to continue and expand the series. They constitute welcome reinforcement of identification with Modern Orthodox orientation and personalities.

Chaim Navon, Ne’ehaz Ba-Svakh: Shearim leHaguto shel HaRav Soloveitchik (Yediot Sefarim)
Menachem Genack

The title of Chaim Navon’s introduction to the thought of R. Soloveitchik is taken from the Rav’s essay U-Vikashtem Mi-Sham: “The man of God, halakhic man, is wound up in the dialectic of his communication-consciousness, caught in the thicket of opposites with no way out and no escape.” Yet if the Rav’s description of dialectical thinking sounds uncomfortable, Navon’s work makes it a pleasure. The author, a student of R. Aharon Lichtenstein, has edited and translated some of R. Lichtenstein’s halakhic works (as well as translated to Hebrew some of the Rav’s writings), in addition to authoring many books of his own. 

In this volume, nine well-written chapters explore the Rav’s approach to a variety of topics—the relation between Halakhic Man and “The Lonely Man of Faith”; the Rav’s complex relationship with Zionism; the dialectical relationship between love and fear of God; Talmud Torah as both an emotional and intellectual experience; etc. [Read Mali Bofsky’s review in TRADITION.] In each chapter, Navon explores the tensions which characterize the Rav’s thought. The Brisker derekh is famously characterized by its “tzvei dinim”—seemingly simple topics in halakha are found to contain two different underlying elements. The Rav expanded the Brisker derekh into a philosophy. Tzvei dinim are not only the keys to understanding halakha but to understanding humanity as well—thus Adam is not a simple being; he is composed of two parts, Adam I, charged with subduing the earth, and Adam II, who strives for godliness, and these two aspects exist in dialectical tension with each other (as famously expounded in “Lonely Man of Faith”). Navon’s work, which contains a foreword by R. Lichtenstein, allows the reader to encounter R. Soloveitchik’s thinking on a variety of different issues as part of a systematic worldview. This book was recommended to me by my mehutan Dr. Michael Muschel, and I heartily concur with his recommendation of this engaging exploration of the Rav’s philosophy.

Michael Ward, After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (Word on Fire Academic)
Mark Gottlieb

The English literary scholar, imaginative writer, and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is no stranger to Modern Orthodox circles, having authored several titles that are now near canon among scholars and laymen alike. Fans have favorites, of course: R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l profitably cited Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) but was also reported saying that the following year’s Screwtape Letters (1943), Lewis’ epistolary exchange between a senior-level tempter and his novice nephew, qualified as a modern musar classic. Particularly striking is the fact that most of Lewis’ books that remain popular in Orthodox Jewish circles to this day are, to a greater or lesser degree, Christian in content and imagery—think Miracles (1947) or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) and The Four Loves (1960). 

But one text from Lewis’ corpus which, by all accounts, should have a greater following than it presently enjoys, especially among non-Christians, is his 1943 Riddell Memorial Lectures delivered at the University of Durham, and rather cumbersomely titled The Abolition of Man: Reflections of education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of school. One cause for its complicated standing in the Lewis catalog is that the book is dense, with three relatively short and tightly argued chapters, and a more purely philosophical approach (i.e., non-Christian or even non-theistic) than nearly anything else Lewis wrote. At the very same time, the work is arguably one of the most important pieces of moral education of the 20th century, having been named to several Top Ten lists in more traditional and culturally conservative precincts.

To both bring the book to a broader, non-specialist audience and clear a pathway to deeper understanding among Lewis devotees, Michael Ward has done the contemporary world a great service. Ward, author of the most important work of Lewis scholarship in several decades, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford, 2008) and a Roman Catholic priest, now brings his talents for mining archival work and making complex arguments and allusions more accessible (the bulk of the book is a nearly line-by-line annotation of Lewis’ original) to the cause of this sometimes-neglected moral classic. And, if Lewis’ prophetic voice in this slim volume is right, the civilizational stakes could not be higher. 

Ward emphasizes the anthropological, not theological, nature of Lewis’ argument in Abolition: “Objective value, is humanity’s ethical inheritance, which we can extend and develop but may not properly escape.” In Lewis’ own words, “we can argue from the Tao [Lewis’ ecumenical term for the universal natural law we find across all cultures and faiths—even no “faiths” like stoicism and Eastern traditions] but never to the Tao.” Without the Tao, Ward avers, “we produce ‘men without chests,’…people who have no stable heart, no reliable capacity to liaise between intellect and appetite, no ability to distinguish between what is good in itself and what is good for them. Right thus dissolves into might and sheer willpower takes the place of reason. The result is the erasure of our true identity, ‘the abolition of man.’” Stark stakes indeed. 

Jonathan Kaufman, The Last Kings of Sanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China (Viking)
Elisheva Rabinovich, Editorial Assistant

The Last Kings of Shanghai follows the Sasson and Kadoorie families as they flee Baghdad for India and China to create huge business empires over the almost 200 years the families lived through British colonialism, Indian independence, world wars, and the rise of Communism. Each generation has its own cast of characters and Kaufman makes it a point to include how interesting the women were. As the businesses grow to include luxury hotels and nuclear energy, the descendants become more and more involved in education, building infrastructure and local politics.

This book has everything. It is, as advertised, a look at how Shanghai became a global commerce power. It gives the background to how thousands of Jewish refugees were welcomed into China during World War II. It is a story about immigrants and assimilation, the experience of living in the Jewish diaspora, and how Antisemitism both stopped these families from fully joining high society, but also probably saved lives in the Japanese-ruled Shanghai ghetto.

But more than anything else it is a book about family and loyalty and power—and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Elly Kadoorie dies under Japanese imprisonment and Victor Sassoon is exiled from China. Without giving away even more spoilers, they gamble on the wrong side and lose almost everything.

I heard Kaufman speak recently about his book, and he quoted Balzac’s famous line, “behind every great fortune is an equally great crime.” And while he spends a long time here discussing the fortune, he does not focus enough on the latter. The Sasson and Khadoori families were heavily involved in the opium trade. And while they were not the first or only players, they made their initial wealth exploiting others and I felt that Kaufman could have explored that more.

This is the perfect summer read. Informative and fun with compelling protagonists and celebrity appearances. It somehow manages to read both like a textbook and a gossip magazine. Perfect for lovers of Jewish history and/or the popular television series “Succession.” And if you read it quickly, which you will, you can catch the exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York on the Sasson family (closes August 13).

This is the first of two installments in this feature. See this link for the remaining endorsements. Peruse previous lists of TRADITION’s Summer Book Endorsements for 2020, 2021, and 2022.

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