TRADITION’s 2024 Book Endorsements

Tradition Online

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 28 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; read the second and final round here and discover the winner of our contest to predict our picks.

Jeffrey Saks, Editor

Aharon Lichtenstein, Values in Halakha: Six Case Studies (Maggid Books)
Avraham Walfish

R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s Values in Halakha documents his ongoing effort to balance absolute halakhic fidelity with profound sensitivity to social and psychological exigencies. Chapter 1, penned in the 1960s, and published in an abridged version in 2007, presents his reflections on the sources, nature, and limitations of halakhic humanism. In the full version published here, these reflections help to flesh out the philosophical and axiological ramifications of Rama’s celebrated and controversial responsum (#125) permitting the wedding on Shabbat of an orphan girl to prevent the humiliating cancellation of the marriage. Recognizing that his halakhic arguments are “far from absolutely convincing,” Rama concludes “with a remarkable coda… reflecting both the powerful ethical impulse… and a lingering insecurity concerning its legal validity.” Rama’s balance of profound commitment to halakha with “humanistic instincts” showcase R. Lichtenstein’s delicately calibrated presentation of halakha’s “counterpointed” engagement with humanism.

The book’s first four chapters were drafted in the six decades ago, but were never completed for publication, and the family and editors are to be commended for finally making them available. The second and third chapters address two responsa in Havot Yair, again analyzed halakhically as well as philosophically. Havot Yair’s responsum #163, which addresses a question regarding hassagat gevul both halakhically and morally, evokes the issue of formalism vs. teleology, exploring the legitimacy of employing teleological interpretation to limit applicability of general rulings to specific circumstances. Havot Yair’s discussion of emigration essential for the individual but possibly injurious to the community (#213), is framed by an exploration of the legitimacy and values of self-interest.

Chapters 4-6 are topical rather than analyses of particular texts. The essays on kofin al middat Sedom and on the responsibilities of charity recipients were translated from previous Hebrew publications. The fourth discusses lifnim mishurat ha-din within the framework of Lon Fuller’s differentiation between “morality of duty” and “morality of aspiration,” and arrives at a novel dialectical conclusion that lifnim mishurat ha-din “exists in a dual capacity. At one level, it represents… the supererogatory aspects of the mitzva. At a second, it… fills in gaps between specific ethical norms – many themselves broadly subsumed under gemilut hasadim. Lifnim mishurat hadin thus fleshes out the Halakha’s ‘morality of duty.’”

For this reader, the book’s contribution goes beyond an always welcome exposure to R. Lichtenstein’s wide-ranging erudition and incisive halakhic and philosophical thinking. Each essay illustrates how a great talmid hakham weaves back and forth between models constructed by the philosophically-informed halakhic theorist and application of these models to the hurly burly of human existence, that frequently pit values against one another and test their contours and limits. What R. Lichtenstein writes about Rama is equally true of the author himself, zt”l: “Were the posek less committed to Halakha… [or] were he less sensitive to human need, there would be no problem… It is the ethical and religious desire to be sensitive to both the halakhic and human dimensions or a situation… which produces a profoundly agonizing dilemma.”

Susan Cain, Bittersweet: How Sorry and Longing Make Us Whole (Crown)
Mali Brofsky

I knew I wanted to recommend Susan Cain’s Bittersweet for this year’s summer reading a full year ago, when I read it on a good friend’s recommendation. Now, after the collective trauma of October 7th, and the ensuing, ongoing war, the topic of this book is even more pertinent. The magnitude of the reality we are currently confronted with is too overwhelming to be fully absorbed, let alone grappled with. Nevertheless, in a broken world, this book feels like a small, gentle gift.

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, has written a book that examines the experience of melancholy or poignancy that she calls Bittersweet. She wonders about the emotions of loss and longing that seem so unavoidable in this world, and that often accompany not only experiences of suffering, but also moments of transcendent beauty. Cain observes that this experience of longing is ultimately a marker for the universal experience of yearning for the transcendent and the Divine. She explores how suffering can be transformed into meaning, purpose, and creativity, and how sadness and pain can be a catalyst for connection and shared humanity.

Cain reflects on her own personal journey relating to these issues. She describes her lifetime appreciation of the types of music and artistic expression that reflect this underlying pain at the heart of the human experience. She gradually realized that these artistic endeavors give expression to our instinctive understanding that there is something beyond us that is greater than we are, as well as our universal desire to connect to that elusive perfection. She also contends that our response to beauty, as well as our longing for and obsession with romantic love, are, at heart, reactions to these ephemeral glimpses of some larger wholeness that is beyond our full grasp.

In addition, Cain tracks her personal losses and pain in relationships with family members, as well as exploring larger, generational losses that are handed down across the years from parents to children. She argues that this pain is unavoidable and should not be ignored or explained away. Cain ultimately comes to the conclusion at the heart of this book: there is no escaping loss. But when it is accepted, it can lead us to greater empathy for each other as we connect to our common experience of pain. It can also be the catalyst for finding personal meaning and creativity that can move us in the direction of wholeness. Bittersweet is well worth reading. It is interesting, absorbing, and, ultimately, comforting.

Sigrid Undset, Olav Audunssøn (University of Minnesota Press)
Shalom Carmy, Editor Emeritus

In her forties, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949; Nobel Prize 1928) became a Roman Catholic. Her religious orientation encourages one to think of her as an older, female counterpart of writers like Mauriac and Greene. Her Norwegian classic, Olav Audunssøn is her major fiction from her Catholic period; during World War II she fled to America and served prominently as a political spokeswoman. Like her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, it is set in 13th century Norway, when Christianity and the older heroic code battled for the Scandinavian soul. Olav Audunssøn traces the life of its protagonist from childhood through marriage to death. (The novel spans 4 volumes; an earlier translation appeared almost a century ago under the title The Master of Hestviken.)

The story is a tragic one. Olav and Ingunn were intended for each other by their fathers, who die when they are children. Ingunn’s family raises him as a foster child but try to back out of the marriage. The young couple resist her family; the law is murky. By the time they are united in the eyes of man and the Church, Ingunn has born a bastard son, whom Olav embraces as his own, and hopes to build an endurable life with Ingunn despite the past and the nasty rumors that surround them.

I read Kristin Lavransdatter in my youth; the mother of a friend repeatedly expressed gratitude to me for recommending it to her. I came to Olav Audunssøn recently, having learned of the new Tiina Nunnally translation and interested in filling out my knowledge of modern religious fiction.

Three aspects of this novel deserve the attention of religious individuals capable of appreciating great literature. First, and the one often remarked by Undset’s boosters, it is a compelling and apparently well researched work of historical fiction, describing what it is like to experience a crucial cultural and ethical transition. Understanding this kind of conflict is important even when the specific values and norms at stake do not affect us. Second, the reader of great epic productions witnesses the unfolding of complex human existence, especially family life, over a human lifetime. We meet Olav, his wife and his children, and the conditions of their lives and their own choices alter them from their youth to maturity, towards death.

Lastly, Undset explores specific moral and religious dilemmas facing men and women in medieval Norway. What does it mean, at a practical level, for a man to continue a marriage, once inspired by love, now shadowed by failure and disgrace? What does it mean for him to promise that he will never allude to the incident or in any way demean her illegitimate son? How does he attempt to fulfill his vow and how do his efforts and failings reshape his relations with others? What about his thoughts of avenging his honor by killing his wife’s seducer and his inability to confess it before God and the priest because doing so would publicize the affair and disinherit the boy he has acknowledged as his son?

Ora Wiskind, Hasidus Meets America: The Life and Torah of the Monastryshcher Rebbe zt”l (1860-1938) (OU Press & Ktav Publishing House)
David Berger

For me, this book, to which I wrote a Foreword that serves as the basis for much of this recommendation, has deep personal significance. The Monastryshcher Rebbe, Rav Yehoshua Heschel Rabinowitz, was my father-in-law’s grandfather.

My first awareness of the exceptional impact of his personality was nurtured by an entirely unanticipated experience at the very inception of my marriage. Two weeks after the wedding, I participated as one of four American graduate students in a dialogue in Israel with Israeli counterparts under the aegis of the American Jewish Congress. The organizers arranged a meeting with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. My wife told me that Eshkol had been brought up in a religious family in the area where her ancestor was the spiritual leader and that they saw him as their Rebbe. When the formal meeting ended, my wife and I went up to speak to our host, and I mentioned that she was a great-grand-daughter of R. Yehoshua Heschel. The reaction was remarkable, even stunning. The Prime Minister of Israel was manifestly transported to a time when he was an awestruck youngster as he described the impact of the Rebbe’s majestic appearance (hadrat panim).

This book is part of a pioneering effort to recover the legacy of a largely forgotten figure whose activities and thought eminently merit attention. Professor Ora Wiskind began her study of the Rebbe with a major scholarly article in Hebrew about key aspects of his worldview. In this volume, she proceeds to provide an overview of his life along with selections from his writings, accompanied by an analysis of their insights and their place in hasidic thought. Without compromising scholarly rigor, this work is accessible to a more popular audience and should serve to restore the intellectual and religious achievement of a significant figure to the standing that it deserves.

For nearly four decades, R. Yehoshua Heschel served as the Rebbe for a network of approximately thirty towns and villages in Ukraine, enduring multiple tribulations targeting religious Jewish leadership. His son, R. Gedaliah Aharon, was killed in the post-war pogroms. Iמ in 1924 he moved to the United States, where he headed the Agudas Ha-Admorim. Unlike most Rebbes of his generation, he wrote a significant number of works containing creative discourses rooted in traditional hasidic thought. At the same time, we have clear indications of a broader than usual perspective. He points with great pride to the disproportionate Jewish contribution to civilization as a whole. An article critical of his reported reservations about Zionism nonetheless remarks that he is a man of culture, of majestic countenance, who reads newspapers and Russian literature, is a skilled musician, and writes prescriptions rather than amulets for the sick. “He even respects the fairer sex, as a cultured man should.”

Ora Wiskind’s historical insight and expertise in hasidic thought combine to produce an engaging and penetrating portrait of a complex and influential leader.

Dr. phil. Tonja Soloveitchik and the Transformation of Jewish Popular Education in Poland, edited by Stefan van der Hoek and Michael Wermke (Hentrich & Hentrich)
Jacob J. Schacter

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik is well known. His father, R. Moshe Soloveichik, who greatly influenced him, is also well known. But another figure to whom the Rav owed an enormous amount has been much less known, until now. Recently a book was published that focuses on the Rav’s wife, Dr. Tonya Levit Soloveitchik (1904-1967).

A few years ago Dr. Michael Wermke, Professor at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Jena, Germany, got the idea to make available to a broad audience Dr. Levit’s hitherto unpublished dissertation that she submitted in 1931 while a student at Jena on the subject of “The Development of Jewish Popular Education in Poland.” He noted that it was one of the few contemporary descriptions of that area and therefore was worthy of publication. This book contains a copy of the dissertation, in the original German and in an English translation. Its importance as a contribution to this field is obvious.

In addition, the book contains bi-lingual (German and English) introductions by Dr. Wermke and by R. Zsolt Balla, State Rabbi of Saxony, Germany, who played a pivotal role in bringing about its publication. Most significant is a beautiful bi-lingual biographical sketch of Dr. Levit Soloveitchik written by her daughter, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, an earlier version of which was recently printed in TRADITION. Dr. Lichtenstein’s portrayal of her mother is substantive and sensitive, erudite and educational. I was mesmerized by her descriptions of the different phases of her mother’s life and, in particular, of her mother’s character and manifold contributions to Jewish life in Boston and New York. I also found the photographs she included at the end of her article to be particularly interesting.

It is obvious that this book is a must for anyone interested in the Rav and, in the process, provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about a woman remarkable in her own right. Our community owes Dr. Wermke a great debt of gratitude for taking the initiative to see this book to completion.

Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstat: A Play (Grove Press)
Hannah Shapiro, Editorial Intern

Tom Stoppard’s play, Leopoldstat, masterfully weaves together the stories of six generations of the Merz family in order to illuminate the complex emotional journey and harsh realities of Jewish existence in Vienna, between 1899 through 1955. The drama depicts the devolution of a once flourishing and vibrant Jewish community through the celebration of Jewish holidays. We witness key events in Jewish history occurring during these fifty years, from the Austrian Jewish encounter with modernity, to intermarriage and assimilation, through the World Wars and their tragic aftermaths. The audience is mindful that contemporary Jewish society continues to grapple with many of these events and ideas.

Leopoldstadt opens with an 1899 Christmas dinner, where we meet the Merz family, integrated into Viennese society, enjoying complete civil rights and liberties. We are introduced to Hermann and Eva Merz, children of matriarch Emilia Merz, both of whom have intermarried. The family discusses metropolitan ideas, ranging from Herzl’s theory of Zionism to Viennese art and culture.

Following this enlightened exchange of ideas, the play progresses to 1900, where the family reconvenes over a Passover Seder, during which it is revealed that Gretel, Hermann’s wife, has engaged in an affair with an Austrian officer. Hermann dismisses his wife’s transgression and the family proceeds to celebrate the birth of Hermann’s niece. The scene reflects the duality of the Jewish experience, that fine-tuned ability to simultaneously live in joy and heartbreak.

Jumping ahead to 1924, we grieve the impacts of Bolshevism and World War I, alongside the bereaved Hermann and Gretel, whose son fell in battle. A second son, Jacob, lost an eye and functionality of one of his arms. The family convenes for a brit, and the juxtaposition of tragic loss and new life is poignant, calling us to contemplate that life and death are two sides of the same coin.

We then advance to 1938, to encounter the Anschluss through the eyes of the Merzes. The family gathers to contemplate their escape; their discussion is cut short by the arrival of Nazi soldiers, who seize the family’s belongings, requisition Hermann’s business, and expel the family from their home, to leave on transport the following day. It is revealed that Jacob was the product of Gretel’s affair and, as an Aryan, retains legal ownership of Hermann’s company.

The play closes with a heart-wrenching scene in which the sole family members to survive the Holocaust, Leo, Rosa, and Nathan, convene to piece together their scarce and broken memories of the vibrant Jewish family of which they were once apart. The three painstakingly recall the tragic fates of their lost loved ones and attempt to cobble together the shards of painful memories they each managed to retain.

Leopoldstadt calls its audience to contemplate the dichotomy between personal Jewish identity and worldly perceptions, through the lens of one Viennese family, raising themes that continue to ring true nearly a century after its summation.

Yair Ettinger, Frayed: The Disputes Unraveling Religious Zionists (Maggid Books)
Shlomo Zuckier

Our attention has largely been focused on Israel over these past eight months, and properly so. And we have concentrated primarily on the security and military aspects of Israel’s Matzav, along with the phenomenon of unity as this crisis has brought Israel’s divergent parts together.

Ettinger’s Frayed looks at a very different aspect of Israel, considering recent developments in the Dati Leumi community and that community’s role in larger Israeli society. The author, a journalist by day, offers a sort of unified theory, arguing that the past two decades since the Disengagement have ushered in a period of individualism within Israel’s Religious Zionist community. Rabbis have less power or influence than ever before, and a wide-ranging and diverse array of trends coming from various corners of the community are shaping not only the Dati Leumi community but Israeli society as a whole.

From Naftali Bennet, a Dati Leumi prime minister, to progressive women’s issues (a broad array – from saying Kaddish to learning Torah to serving in the army to women’s ordination and egalitarian minyanim) to Temple Mount faithful to gay Orthodox activism, these are all trends worth keeping track of. Ettinger gives voice to a wide variety of perspectives in a manner that offers a real window into different phenomena within the community, although at times he also puts his finger on the scale (one gets a sense that he favors progressive developments more than traditionalist ones).

This book was originally published in Hebrew in 2019 (under the title Perumim, pointing to the fraying and multilateral strands of the community but perhaps also a play on the Hebrew equivalent of “Frummies”), and the translation is first-rate, although some things are inevitably lost in the toggling between cultures. One thing that is fascinating to track, coming from the North American side of things, is how many innovations start in America only to languish here, yet then enjoy a more successful trajectory in Israel.

To some degree this is a function of the relative sizes of our communities – Modern Orthodoxy counts only approximately 150,000 adherents in the United States, while surveys show that over a million identify as Dati Leumi – as quantitative magnitude allows for greater qualitative ranges. But it also points to a different communal structure – in Israel things are much more decentralized and bottom-up, which is much of the point that Ettinger is arguing for.

Hopefully, once our thinking about Israel returns primarily to its society and culture, and not just its security situation, we will have the insights of this volume to guide us as we think about coreligionists across the Atlantic.

Eliezer Berkovits, Faith and Fortitude: Megillat Ruth and the Torah Reading for Shavuot, compiled and edited by Reuven Mohl (Urim)
Joel B. Wolowelsky

This is the third volume in a trilogy of commentaries drawn from the writings of one of the major Orthodox thinkers and talmidei hakhamim of the last century. R. Berkovits had studied under R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin. In addition to many Torah writings and articles, he was the author of nineteen books, including Faith After the Holocaust; God, Man and History; and Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha. Writing with philosophical rigor combined with halakhic fidelity and broad knowledge, he explored issues such as the Holocaust, Religious Zionism, and the changing status of women in our present-day Torah society. He insisted on viewing Torah with an honest awareness of contemporary concerns and was often courageous in applying halakha to new situations without compromising faithfulness. [Read Eliezer Berkovits’ many contributions to TRADITION in our archive.]

Reuven Mohl selected excerpts from a wide variety of R. Berkovits’ English writings and organized them into a coherent and enriching commentary on three basic texts of holiday observance. (The previous were Faith and Freedom on the Passover Haggadah, and Faith Fulfilled on Megillat Esther and the Evening Service for Purim.)

There are few direct references to Megillat Ruth in R. Berkovits’ writings, but he wrote extensively on themes associated with the book. For example, consider his comments on dealing with converts:

The problem is that in this case the prescribed laws on conversion are in conflict with another important principle of Judaism, that of preserving the unity of Israel, the idea of Knesset Yisrael through the obligation of ahavat Yisrael, the love for the people of Israel. Only when we understand this have we raised the halakhic question.

Or the commentary selected for Boaz’s declaration that he is acquiring Ruth as a wife:

The formal marriage is not to be based on the present love that at this moment unites two human beings, but on the trust in the self-transcending power of that love, in the as-yet unfathomed potential that through care, devotion, and practice of basic humanity and decency will carry two human beings to the richest bio-psychic fulfillment of which they are capable.

These three books serve as a sort of anthology that gives the reader an appreciation of the major seminal themes that R. Berkovits explored over a creative career, and simultaneously provide new and inspiring insights into less frequently read texts. Including a commentary to the Torah readings of the day in Faith and Fortitude encourages one to bring it to shul on Shavuot morning.

Jonathan Marc Gribetz, Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (Princeton University Press)
Mark Gottlieb

Any book receiving praise from both Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian Nationalist historian at Columbia, and Ruth Wisse, the indefatigable champion of Jewish Power formerly of Harvard, is worth a closer look. All the more so in our age of shallow sound bites and strident slogans, void of complex views of history and culture. Blessedly, Jonathan Gribetz delivers in his Defining Neighbors. Gribetz won acclaim for his book when it was first released in 2014 but it is arguably more important than ever, when the stakes of understanding friends and enemies has never been more acute.

By marshalling painstaking archival research and the careful study of literary and popular outlets of the day, Gribetz argues that Jews and Arabs of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael in the early 20th century saw each other not only—or even mainly—in emerging rival nationalistic terms but in religious and racial categories. This insight situates the incipient conflict between Jews and Arabs in the more elemental spaces of identity and deep-seated faith, orientations less susceptible to political or technocratic amelioration, let alone solution. This may not be a happy conclusion for the cause of regional peace and the prospects of a new Middle East but the realism of Gribetz’s thesis belies more simplistic approaches—from all sides.

The genius of Gribetz’s study is that he gets to these cautionary observations via some of the most fascinating encounters and sources from the pre-Mandate era, demonstrating how deeply our current situation is implicated in these more incorrigible categories. He begins the book with the October 1909 meeting between Eliezer Ben- Yehuda, the pioneer of modern Hebrew, and Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi, one of that time’s most respected Palestinian intellectuals, a student at the Sorbonne, and member of the Ottoman Parliament (and grandfather of the above-mentioned Khalidi, who gave Gribetz access to important archives in researching this book). Ben-Yehuda called Khalidi “an acquaintance and friend from the bad days, when we needed to close the door behind us and whisper out of fear that the spies of [Sultan] Abd al-Hamid were secretly listening to our words,” but the promising friendship faltered under the strain of growing tensions between the two communities. Still, for a fleeting moment there was a genuine hope of real understanding and empathy between the two—and through them, the communities they represented. Khalidi would later author an unusual 123-page document, ““On Zionism or the Zionist Question,” which, contra contemporary Palestinian rhetoric, affirmed the Jewish People’s historical connection to Palestine but, in a likely mistaken interpretation of Moses Mendelssohn, denied the reality of Jewish corporate political life. This was the intellectual basis—drawn in Khalidi’s mind from internal Jewish sources—of his public-facing rejection of Zionism and the slowly building mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe.

From this and other forgotten footnotes in early Zionist-Arabic history, Gribetz paints a rich and fascinating picture of possibilities unrealized, perhaps inevitably so. Gribetz reminds us of the enduring power of race and religion in the consciousness of this region and the limited prospects of a more secular framework for peace in the Holy Land. In our post-October 7th world, Gribetz is required reading.

Ruth Lichtenstein, Manhig be-Sa’ar ha-Tekufa: Perakim be-Hayyav shel Manhig Agudat Yisrael ha-Olamit Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin zt”l (Mossad HaRim Levin)
Judith Bleich

When Jews were accorded formal representation in the Polish Sejm in the early twentieth century, various sectors of the Jewish community vied for election by organizing themselves in political parties. The Orthodox Jews in Poland found it necessary to seek independent recognition. Many did not understand why religious segments of the community refused to accept united advocacy. Challenged to explain Orthodox entry into the political arena and his own personal participation as a member of the Sejm, Rabbi Meir Shapiro responded that, if secularists would limit themselves to reciting “Al ha-Tzadikim,” traditionalists would joyfully rely simply upon uttering of “Ve-la-Malshinim.”

Yet, there remained a persistent suspicion that the prerogatives and emoluments of power would compromise the integrity of religious delegates. One person was beyond reproach. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin, who stood at the helm of Agudath Israel for sixty years, first in Poland and later in Israel, was a unique personality. His spiritual stature, uncommon erudition and single-minded devotion to his father-in-law, the Imrei Emes of Gur, was the exception who proved the rule – a political representative who transcended politics and whose probity was acknowledged by all. R. Itche Meir, as he was fondly known, was a sagacious diplomat who possessed the rare ability both to deal tactfully with governmental officials and to engage effectively with everyone, from members of Mapai to denizens of Meah Shearim.

The two-volume Hebrew biography, Manhig be-Sa’ar ha-Tekufa (A Leader in Turbulent Times), is a magisterial work that depicts the life and accomplishments of Rabbi Levin. His granddaughter, Ruth Lichtenstein, editor of the English-language Hamodia, lovingly dedicated decades of research to compiling this comprehensive work.

The narrative stretches over three distinct periods: the twenty years of Agudath Israel’s dynamic activities in Poland during the interwar era; the indefatigable campaign to arouse heartless bystanders during the Nazi years; and finally, the herculean efforts to rebuild the religious world of yesteryear while safeguarding its values in the secularly dominated nascent State of Israel.

Many of the events meticulously reported in these volumes are treated only cursorily, if at all, in the vast majority of other academic works. In particular, in the latter studies, matters relating to the reestablishment of a Torah society in Israel are conspicuous in their absence. Of marked significance in this presentation is the trenchant critique of Jewish Agency policy in limiting the number of immigration certificates allocated to observant Jews and the detailed discussion of the infamous saga of the “Yaldei Teheran.”

This work is no hagiography. Lichtenstein describes the unfolding events with rigorous and exacting thoroughness, copious notes, and a plethora of photographs, accompanied by citation of original documents as well as an abundance of primary sources. The result is a masterful work that fills a heretofore gaping lacuna in the historical record. Manhig be-Sa’ar ha-Tekufa is a must for anyone seeking to understand the forces that shaped the astonishing revivification of the world of Torah Jewry.

Martin Puchner, The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, and Civilization (Random House)
Jeffrey Saks

Harvard’s Martin Puchner set out to show the impact literature has had on civilization, from Homer to Harry Potter, in his The Written World. The book attempts to trace the somewhat symbiotic relationship between the story of humanity and the stories written by humanity about itself, and teases out ways these two tracks have crisscrossed over the millennia. Each chapter (there are 16 in all) takes up some important text and discusses it and its author, the time and place of its composition, and how it reflects its host society and in turn left its impact on the place from which it originated—and throughout human civilization. The selection criteria (not always fully adhered to) is, in Puchner’s words, “foundational texts such as the Bible, texts that accrued power and significance over time until they became source codes for entire culture, telling people where they came from and how they should live their lives.” The chapter on Tanakh, which may not accord with our commitments to Torah mi-Sinai, is an engaging presentation of how the Book of Books both shapes Jewish life, law, and culture – but of course, also examining its role in larger world history. Needing a main character around whom to spin a large and complex story in a reasonably succinct chapter, Puchner does well to make Ezra his hero. The chapters on works as diverse as Gilgamesh, Don Quixote, and The Communist Manifesto (alongside epics from less-familiar cultures I am embarrassed to say I knew little about before Puchner’s tutorial) are equally enlightening. If we live in an increasingly smaller and smaller global village, this book maps the contours of that village through a commitment to “world literature,” a phrase coined by Goethe in 1827 while on the “Grand Tour” in search of an animating canon to infuse his own work and to which he would add new elements (a scene the book returns to multiple times).

Of secondary concern, no less fascinating, is the delivery systems for the written word and the technologies that have shaped writing, printing, publishing, and distribution of ideas (including an homage to libraries and a jab against overly expansive notions of copyright). Puchner covers this angle of the story from the Stone Age to our own digital world. The book only just predates the current moment of A.I. and its dystopian promise for the future of literature (to my Luddite tastes, at least). Nevertheless, Puchner tempers this fear with optimism for the future of the long story he tells. “Librarians warn that the best way to preserve writing from the vagaries of future format wars is to print out everything on paper. Perhaps we should carve our canons into stone, as Chinese emperors did. But the most important lesson from the history of literature is that the only guarantee for survival is continual use: A text needs to remain relevant enough to be translated, transcribed, transcoded, and read by each generation in order to persist over time. It is education, not technology, that will ensure the future of literature.”

Ilai Ofran, Torah shel haNefesh (Yediot Sefarim)
Lawrence A. Kobrin

Ilai Ofran is a rabbi and a trained psychologist. He brings both of these backgrounds and disciplines together in this interesting book of essays. Each chapter starts with an explication of a classical theme in psychology which he then uses to interpret or explain various topics or passages in Torah. What emerges are frequently unusual insights into otherwise difficult sections or events in Humash or elsewhere.

By way of example, after a technical description of an individual’s need for personal self-identification, he uses this idea to explain the incident of the emergency brit mila of the child of Moshe on the way back to Egypt from Midian. To this understanding, Moshe continued to struggle with his own identity; to preserve his options for his children, he had deferred the son’s brit. Tzippora realized the situation and by her act committed Moshe and his son to clear identification with the Jewish people he was returning to redeem. Other chapters have lesser connections with psychological analysis but remain original and interesting. One such example is a broad review of the difference in Torah between the question posed by the Hebrew words lama and madu’a in a variety of biblical settings. One calls for an answer and the other does not, suggests Ofran.

This interesting work has probably had less circulation outside of Israel for a variety of reasons. (The awkward translation of its title to “The Torah: A Psychic Turn” does not help.) Moreover, while the Hebrew is relatively straightforward, the extensive use of technical psychological terminology sends many to the dictionary more frequently than might be convenient. Even when the translation of a given key word to English was clear, the non-professional can remain unsure of what the author is getting at. A glossary of such terms might help in a future edition. And yet, the effort involved in parsing through these technical terms are well worth it. The various analogies are always original and creative and may well go beyond standard traditional commentary. They serve to illustrate the benefits of integrating professional fields from areas thought to be “secular” with the study of Torah and its wisdom.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Yitzchak Blau

Most authors have a medium in which they truly shine even when they produce other types of work as well. R. Moshe Feinstein will always be known for his Iggerot Moshe even as we find worthy material in Darash Moshe and Dibrot Moshe. T.S. Eliot’s poems are more significant than his plays, though Murder in the Cathedral contains a few excellent passages. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the English writer, may be unique in the Western canon in that his essential medium did not involve writing at all.

Johnson’s novel, History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, is not outstanding nor is his poetry. His one-man dictionary is a very impressive achievement and his literary criticism and biographies are quite good. However, he revealed his most profound expressions in daily conversation. Fortunately, James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer, began recording Johnson’s wisdom in 1764. In addition to visiting London, Boswell spent time with Johnson in a famous joint trip through Scotland.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is more a book of collected table talk than a standard biography. Johnson sits together at the pub or in others’ homes with eminent men such as statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, actor David Garrick, writer Oliver Goldsmith, painter Joshua Reynolds, politician Henry Thrale, and, of course, Boswell. Despite the impressive crowd, Johnson always dominates the discourse in Bowsell’s account.

Here, we offer a brief sample of Dr. Johnson’s insights. Responding to the question if all happy people are equally happy, Johnson says: “A peasant and a philosopher are equally satisfied but not equally happy. Happiness consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness. A peasant has not capacity for having equal happiness with a philosopher” (January 14, 1776).

The Life cites Rev. Robert Brown’s helpful imagery. “A small drinking glass and a large one may be equally full; but the large one holds more than the small.” We can admit that a person who views a good hamburger as the pinnacle of life can thoroughly enjoy it and still view him as lacking in appreciation for the best things in life.

In an endorsement of the Talmud’s dictum that “a person can only learn in the place where his heart desires” (Avoda Zara 19a), Johnson recommends reading what we love. “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read” (April 12, 1776).

Johnson asserted that he had thought of all of Hume’s skeptical questions but he had little patience for disbelieving questions totally foreign to how we live life or those that undermined basic morality. Upon being asked about Bishop Berkeley denying the material world’s reality, Johnson kicked a rock and said “I refute it thus” (August 6, 1763). Regarding those who deny ethics, “If he really does think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our house let us count our spoons” (July 9, 1763).

Hopefully, this small taste of Johnson will whet the appetite for the entire meal.

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin)
Natan Levin, Editorial Assistant

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America poses a thought-provoking hypothetical: What if the notoriously antisemitic aviator Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election? The novel follows eight-year-old Roth and his family as they contend with the social and political challenges that follow Lindbergh’s surprising victory. Over the course of the novel, Roth interweaves historical events with the family’s personal experiences, creating an engaging narrative that is eminently readable.

One of the novel’s strengths lies in the intricate and realistic detail of its historical accounting. Political enactments such as the “Iceland Understanding” — wherein Lindbergh pledges that America will not interfere in the Nazi party’s expansion throughout Europe — and Homestead 42 — which forces Jewish families to relocate to Western and Southern regions of the United States — give the plot an air of believability that allows for complete immersion in the novel’s world.

Throughout the narrative, Roth explores themes and tensions that resonate with our current national moment. Most prominently, he delves into the dialectic between Jewish insular reinforcement and the desire to integrate into society and progress through its ranks. While Aunt Evelyn joins Rabbi Bengelsdorf in supporting Lindbergh’s attempt to incorporate Jews into American culture, warring against the traditionalist “ghetto” mindset, Herman Roth views Lindbergh’s motions as thinly veiled attempts to undermine Jewish life from within. Although Herman’s perspective proves salient, the arguments put forth by Bengelsdorf and his ilk are portrayed as cogent and reasonable, highlighting the complexity of navigating Jewish discourse even in moments that may present themselves as black and white.

Amidst this societal upheaval, Philip’s coming of age is especially compelling. His story provides a window into the consciousness of an innocent observer grappling with familial strife, political cynicism, and Jewish identity, adding an intimate and relatable layer to the novel’s broader historical and political themes.

Despite its clear relevance to contemporary times, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of instrumentalizing the novel as an ideological message curated for our contemporary challenges. As Roth himself cautioned in response to comparisons between Lindbergh’s rhetoric and that of the Bush and Trump administrations, the book ought to be taken at face value as a reconstruction of American politics in the early 1940s.

This is the first of two installments in this feature. Check this link for the rest of the endorsements. Peruse previous lists of TRADITION’s Summer Book Endorsements for 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

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  1. […] Read the second round of recommendations below (and see Part I here). […]

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