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What the Straus Center Is Reading

Reviews of the latest works in history, philosophy, culture, politics, and Jewish thought by Straus Center faculty and staff

Recent Reviews

The Crown and the Courts

The Crown and the Courts: Separation of Powers in the Early Jewish Imagination

David C. Flatto | Harvard University Press | 2020

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The Crown and the Courts: Separation of Powers in the Early Jewish Imagination

David Flatto's The Crown and the Courts examines how classical Jewish texts have wrestled with the limits of kingship through two strands of biblical writings. READ MORE

Time and Difference

Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism

Sarit Kattan Gribetz | Princeton University Press | 2020

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Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism

In her National Jewish Book Award-winning Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, Sarit Kattan Gribetz seeks to uncover the rabbinic conception of time. READ MORE

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

Micah Goodman | Yale University Press | 2020

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The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

In his The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, Micah Goodman seeks to bridge the divide between religious and secular Israelis and chart a path that avoids the trappings of extremism. READ MORE

Don Isaac Abravanel

Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography

Cedric Cohen-Skalli Brandeis University Press | 2020

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Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography

Cedric Cohen-Skalli's Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography is a masterful biography of the renowned statesman and commentator. The author, a professor at the University of Haifa, skillfully traces both Abravanel's political career as well as his contributions to Jewish biblical interpretation. READ MORE

Founding God's Nation

Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus

Leon R. Kass Yale University Press | 2021

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Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus

Kass sets out, in this volume, to demonstrate how the Book of Exodus offers moral, political, and philosophical insights relevant and inspiring to all those — Jewish and non-Jewish — who come to its pages seeking to find meaning. READ MORE

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills | Oxford University Press | 2020

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The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

A gift to both lay readers and scholars interested in ancient Jewish literature, the volume’s scholarship covers works mostly unknown beyond specialists. READ MORE

The Crown and the Courts

The Crown and the Courts: Separation of Powers in the Early Jewish Imagination

David C. Flatto | Harvard University Press | 2020

READ MORE

The Crown and the Courts: Separation of Powers in the Early Jewish Imagination

David Flatto's The Crown and the Courts examines how classical Jewish texts have wrestled with the limits of kingship through two strands of biblical writings. READ MORE

Time and Difference

Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism

Sarit Kattan Gribetz | Princeton University Press | 2020

READ MORE

Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism

In her National Jewish Book Award-winning Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, Sarit Kattan Gribetz seeks to uncover the rabbinic conception of time. READ MORE

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

Micah Goodman | Yale University Press | 2020

READ MORE

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

In his The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, Micah Goodman seeks to bridge the divide between religious and secular Israelis and chart a path that avoids the trappings of extremism. READ MORE

Don Isaac Abravanel

Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography

Cedric Cohen-Skalli Brandeis University Press | 2020

READ MORE

Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography

Cedric Cohen-Skalli's Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography is a masterful biography of the renowned statesman and commentator. The author, a professor at the University of Haifa, skillfully traces both Abravanel's political career as well as his contributions to Jewish biblical interpretation. READ MORE

Founding God's Nation

Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus

Leon R. Kass Yale University Press | 2021

READ MORE

Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus

Kass sets out, in this volume, to demonstrate how the Book of Exodus offers moral, political, and philosophical insights relevant and inspiring to all those — Jewish and non-Jewish — who come to its pages seeking to find meaning. READ MORE

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills | Oxford University Press | 2020

READ MORE

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

A gift to both lay readers and scholars interested in ancient Jewish literature, the volume’s scholarship covers works mostly unknown beyond specialists. READ MORE

The Bible in American Law and Politics
 

The Bible in American Law and Politics

John R. VileRowman & Littlefield | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

“...for pathos of narrative; for the selections of incidents that go directly to the heart; for the picturesque of character and manner; the selection of circumstances that mark the individuality of persons; for copiousness, grandeur, and sublimity of imagery; for unanswerable cogency and closeness of reasoning; and for irresistible force of persuasion; no book in the world deserves to be so unceasingly studied, and so profoundly meditated upon as the Bible,” wrote John Quincy Adams in a letter to his son, George Washington Adams, in 1813.

As John R. Vile demonstrates in his encyclopedia, The Bible in American Law and Politics, Adams, and his son’s namesake, were among the countless American leaders who turned to the Bible to speak to, and about, the American project. An invaluable tool for all those interested in the role the Bible has played in American public life, Vile’s work provides relatively short and immensely useful entries surveying and distilling scholarship on a tremendous array of subjects.

The author, professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, leans heavily on recent seminal works on the role the Bible has played in American political and legal thought, including by Harvard University’s Eric Nelson, American University’s Daniel Dreisbach and the University of Haifa’s Eran Shalev, to provide the most up-to-date research on the topics covered. Dreisbach, as Vile notes, has documented at length how rhetorical uses of the Bible by American politicians enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary, enhance the power of their speech, evoke ancient and transcendent rules, and illuminate the role of Providence in American history in numerous articles and Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

Many of The Bible in American Law and Politics’ entries center on the concept of America as a new Israel, including Puritans comparing their arduous sea journey to the ancient Jews crossing the Red Sea, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson contemplating depicting the Exodus from Egypt as part of the American Seal, and jeremiads in which American leaders would thunder rebuke to their constituents as the prophets of old.

Plenty of quirky and lesser-known topics sit alongside expected subjects like the Scopes Trial, the Liberty Bell (on which Vile authored an entirely separate encyclopedia), George Washington’s comparison to figures such as Moses and Gideon, and verses cited in presidential inaugural addresses. We learn that biblically inspired “days of humiliation, fasting and thanksgiving” were undertaken both in early America and George III-led Great Britain. During the “Bible Balloon Project” between 1953 and 1957, helium balloons from West Germany dropped bibles into Eastern European nations controlled by the Soviet Union. The Bible has been used to defend environmental efforts and argue for and against capital punishment. Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, wrote multiple books on the Bible, including 1834’s Value of the Bible and Excellence of the Christian Religion: For the Use of Families and Schools. And multiple American figures have been compared to the evil queen Jezebel depicted in the biblical book of Kings. 

Students of American history, biblical interpretation, and political rhetoric, as well as all those seeking a fuller appreciation of the immeasurable impact the Bible has had, and continues to have, on the American story, stand to gain much from Vile’s exhaustive and engaging work.

 

Biblia Americana: America's First Bible Commentary: A Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments: Exodus-Deuteronomy

Cotton Mather Mohr Siebeck | 2019

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

Cotton Mather (1693-1728), the popular Puritan minister, accomplished scientist, prolific author, grandson of Massachusetts Bay Colony spiritual leaders Richard Mather and John Cotton, and son of Harvard President Increase Mather, had much to say on many topics, writing over 460 books over his 65 years. Yet his magnum opus, Biblia Americana, has only recently been published by a team of scholars led by Georgia State University’s Reiner Smolinski. 

The first American commentary on the whole of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the work was too lengthy and unwieldy to be published during the author’s lifetime. Its appearance in recent years now offers a treasure of insights into a variety of disciplines, not limited to American history and biblical interpretation, as can be seen by a look inside the 1461 page Volume 2: Exodus - Deuteronomy. For someone with a background in Jewish biblical interpretation, the work is particularly fascinating.

Mather is as comfortable crediting the Bible for influencing Greek thought (“Plato would have his well governed City, divided into Twelve Tribes. Behold, an Imitation of the Division of the Israelitish Nation!”) as he is demonstrating how kohanim differed from pagan priests (“The Heathen Priests, did not seldom with Castration preserve Chastity, or, by Juice of Hemlock, not so much Flie from Lust, as Putt it unto Flight. The Jewish Priests knew none of these Hardships.”) 

His descriptions of Jewish practice are often both detailed (eg. “For which Cause, the Jewes to this Day, do with so much Exactness avoid, all Communion with this Rite, that at their Tables, Flesh and Milk, must not be seasoned with the same Salt, not Flesh and Cheese cutt with the same Knife”) and admiring (he describes Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah thus: “On this Day, they sojourned not in Tabernacles; as they did on the Seven praeceding… they returned unto their Houses, & they kept a very great Solemnity there, unto another Purpose, than that for which those Dayes had been appointed. Then they not only made great Feasts in their Houses, but they also sang the Praises of God at the Temple, with Trumpets & Instruments of Musick.”).

His interpretive explanations are often strikingly creative even when lacking textual basis, such as when he connects the horns of the Golden Calf to the radiance of Moses’ face (“I will add, methinks, the Holy & Faithful Zeal of Moses against the Golden Calf, may have a Sensible Reward in the Glory thus vouchsafed him. Hee destroy’d an Idol that had Brutal Horns; God Rewards him with Divine ones.”) He also suggests that the utensils in the Tabernacle mirror the human body (“The Throne, the Incense-Altar, the Table, and, the Candlestick; not unaptly answering, in their Number, and Scituation, to the Brain, the Heart, the Stomach, and the Liver.”). 

Structurally, the commentary is offered in question and answer form, such as this charmingly conceived explanation for how retired Levites spent their time:

The Levites how might they spend their Time, after they were by Age discharged from the laborious Part of their Service?

They had then Time to apply themselves unto Learning & Study; by which Means, they became Expert… in Medicine and Policy and other Liberal Arts. Thus they became able to do Good among their Neighbours & govern Schools for the Education of Youth, & qualified for high Posts in Governments; and many of them were advanced unto the principal Offices in the Commonwealth. 

Another fascinatingly offered suggestion is his attempt to explain why Aaron and Miriam spoke ill of Moses, and how that related to his wife:

Probably, they were Jealous of Moses’s being too much ruled by his Wife & by her Relations; For it was by her Fathers Advice, that he made the Judges, mention’d in the Eighteenth of Exodus. And perhaps they imagined, that she and Hobab, had a hand in choosing the Elders lately made… It is evident, those Elders were nominated, without consulting either Aaron, or Miriaim, about it. These taking themselves to be neglected, in so great an Alteration made of the Government, without their Advice, were very Angry. But because they durst not charge Moses directly, with this Neglect of them, they fell upon his WIfe; whom in Scorn they call, A Cushite, or Arabian Woman.

Alongside his comfort quoting traditional Jewish sources and beautiful descriptions of abidance of halakha (such as this description of Sefirat Ha-Omer: “Maimonides thinks, it was for the Honour of this Great Day of Pentecost, that they were to count the Dayes till it came; just like a Man; saith he, who expects his best Friend; he is wont to tell the Dayes and Hours till he arrive…. And this Counting sometimes is performed publicly in their Synagogues; yett so that every Master of a Family is bound every night for to do it at home.”), Mather is often disdainful of both Jews and their beliefs. He blames the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, on their not knowing Jesus (“The Service of the Sanctuary, began with a Terrible Death; a Sad Intimation, that Life was not to bee obtained or expected from that Service; no, tis our Lord Jesus Christ alone, who is the Truth & the Life.”) and dismisses the Tabernacle in its entirety for similar reasons. (“While they see nothing of the Messiah in the Tabernacle, they make it a little better than a Tabernacle of Moloch.”)

Professor Smolinski and his colleagues have performed historic work in sharing with Americans, and all readers of the Bible, this previously unseen work of one of America’s earliest intellectual polymaths. Their decades-long project has been well worth the three-century wait.

 

Biblical Philosophy
 

Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments

Dru Johnson | Cambridge University Press | 2021

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In his Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments, Dr. Dru Johnson argues for the philosophical importance of the Bible. Johnson, an associate professor of biblical and theological studies at The King's College in New York City and director of the Center for Hebraic Thought, recounts once being asked at a conference, "Why are you at a philosophy conference making arguments from the Bible?" This volume serves as his response. 

Johnson frames his book as a sequel of sorts to Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (the book is dedicated to Hazony)Agreeing with Hazony's general case, Johnson argues that "the idea of a Hebraic philosophical style" breaks many widely held notions about what counts as philosophy, what the nature and purpose of biblical literature is, and how societies have articulated notions of reality. 

Johnson articulates how, while some sectarian Jewish Second Temple texts "bent this Hebraic philosophical style to the point of breaking" due to Hellenistic influences, the New Testament modeled itself in line with the Hebrew Bible philosophically. Avoiding supersessionism, Johnson claims that "the Hebrew Bible's language and constructs seem to penetrate the thought world" of the Jewish New Testament authors. 

The Hebraic constructs include a creation account that places emphasis on God's relationship with the universe and its creatures, personal agency, rituals as means towards knowledge of God, and a community called upon to reflect on God's role in history. These themes are conveyed in biblical stories, stylized speeches, poetry, and law, many with "a rhetorical and persuasive force that makes them apt for philosophical engagement." 

Egypt, contra the Hebraic model, held that the gods were assigned to and animated the natural world, saw only its citizens as fully human, maintained a formal distinction between justice and formal religion, and did not advocate a particular view of knowledge. Hellenistic modes of thinking contrasted with the Hebraic model in its lack of a defined canon, and its linear arguments, autonomist ethos, and abstract convictions. 

Some Jewish thinkers, like Philo, were deeply influenced by the Hellenistic framework, and thus those who followed in their wake, the New Testament authors, who were "surrounded by Hellenistic Judaism and the literary creations of that period... eschewed those works in favor of what they called 'the Scriptures.'"

Johnsons is a learned study of the philosophical nuances of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and will appeal to both students of the Bible and those dedicated to philosophy generally. As he concludes, "For the sake of both biblical studies and philosophy/theology, more interdisciplinary work needs to include apprenticing with each other, collegial skybridges between the silos, and broader explorations into the material worlds of Scripture."

Boomers
 

Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster

Helen Andrews | Sentinel | 2021

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In her Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, Helen Andrews takes on an entire generation. Andrews, a senior editor at The American Conservative, frames her work as following in the footsteps of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a 1918 work of short biographical portraits that argued against the purported heroism of British national icons of the time. Andrews, in turn, takes on the boomer generation’s sacred cows, including Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. Idealized — but, in Andrews’ view, misguidedly so — the throughline of her critique of these icons represents how unsuccessfully boomers have navigated wanting to be both rebels and the establishment. As she writes:

Every generation is dealt its own challenges and handles them as well as it can. The boomers were dealt an uncommonly good hand, which makes it truly incredible that they should have screwed up so badly. They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken ­democracy.

Jobs, for example, in encouraging people to “Think Different” and dedicating his life to changing the world through technology, thought that giving away charity was “a waste of time,” and Apple never had corporate matching for charitable donations when he was in charge. His anti-establishment streak left American culture saturated in perpetually adolescent Silicon Valley types who insist, as Andrews documents, “that everyone be super psyched about their jobs all the time.” The iPhone and video games have led to “the redirection of America’s productive energies into inducing and servicing addictions.” And the tech-focused children of boomers have subsumed their predecessors’ predilections. As Andrews notes, “The cool hippie liberalism that built Google doesn’t convince the millennials who work there that their elders are well-intentioned and deserve the benefit of the doubt. It tells them they’re easy marks.”

Sorkin’s sepia-toned portrayal of the White House in the West Wing is credited with changing how aspiring politicians view their jobs. As she puts it:

Sorkin encouraged DC staffers to think of themselves as a caste apart. Well-intentioned, hypercompetent, with the relevant facts at their fingertips at all times, these were just the sorts of people anyone would want to see running their country...one could easily come to the conclusion that such people ought to have as much power as they can get their hands on.

The chapter on Al Sharpton is offered through the prism of transformational vs. transactional leadership. As the author notes, the former can let their “rhetoric run away with them” in a way that the latter, more tied to reality, cannot. Transformational leaders often display an ability to actually see the bigger picture they are trying to transform. 

When it comes to Justice Sotomayor, Andrews argues that her constant references to feeling out of place due to her disadvantaged upbringing are reflective of “boomers’ preoccupation with oppression, identity, and grievance... [which] create[d] many bullies, because it turns out that thinking of yourself as a victim can make you heedless of the ways your actions victimize others.”

Despite their self-congratulatory nature, boomers, Andrews concludes, have left their successors disdainful of institutions, devaluing loyalty to anything beyond themselves, and subject to ever-rapidly-changing value systems. Agree or disagree with Andrews’ politics, her sharply written and revisionist take on millennials’ parents offers both generations an intellectually stimulating read.

The Crown and the Courts
 

The Crown and the Courts: Separation of Powers in the Early Jewish Imagination

David C. Flatto | Harvard University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

David Flatto's The Crown and the Courts: Separation of Powers in the Early Jewish Imagination examines how classical Jewish texts wrestled with the limits of kingship. Flatto, a professor of law and Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, offers a scholarly tour-de-force of how intra-biblical differences regarding the relationship between the king and the law evolved over millennia.

In one strand of biblical writings, as reflected in verses in Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and elsewhere, the king is positioned as the ultimate arbiter of justice. In this ideal, he is "the ultimate force behind the legal apparatus." Such a stance, Flatto demonstrates, is reflected in non-canonical Second Temple works, including the Psalms of Solomon and certain Dead Sea scrolls. This position aligns with that of much of the ancient world, wherein the king was the divinely sanctioned ultimate ruler (see, for example, Hammurabi's code). Practically, of course, the king would delegate subordinate power to judicial authorities. But ultimate power lay with him.

The second biblical strand, however, best articulated in Deuteronomy 17, separates the king from administering justice. It was law, in this line of thinking, to which even the king was beholden.

Flatto's volume traces how major ancient Jewish thinkers navigated this tension. Philo attempted to do so by, as Flatto writes, "reconfiguring monarchy and projecting the ruler as the embodiment of law; and stretching jurisdiction beyond the grasp of any one office." The scrolls from Qumran offered various attempts to navigate between priestly law and royal power. For Josephus, "the rule of law constitutes the essence of Jewish institutional power."

Moving to rabbinic texts, Flatto extensively examines how, while the Mishnah positioned the king as beyond the rule of law and emphasizes his prominence, the Bavli "marginalized this scheme," with the Talmudic rabbis less inclined to "keep rulers out of, and away from, the judiciary." As Flatto demonstrates, the predominant strand in rabbinic literature sought to limit the role of the king and of individual judges and to elevate that of institutional justice, arguing that "legal authority should reside in the hands of learned jurists, and not rulers." The supremacy of law trumps the authority of men.

Concluding with the post-Talmudic afterlife of these attempts to separate royal and legal power, Flatto notes how medieval Jewish thinkers expanded on the centrality of law. Rabbi Nissim Gerondi wrote of how the Sanhedrin upholds divine law's eternal principles while the king renders this-world verdicts. In the Enlightenment and Emancipation periods, as Eric Nelson's work demonstrated, how Jewish thought regarded the limits of kingship was impacted by Western political ideas, particularly in the American founding. 

As Flatto notes, it is surprising that "a comprehensive mosaic legislation crammed with religious laws" ends up inspiring "a blank set that tolerates all religious practices...the appropriation of theocracy by early modern political thinkers to establish religious toleration is deeply ironic." But by leaving biblical times and eventually transcending the walls of the ghetto, what began as a focus on the monarchy's rights and privileges ends up arguing "in favor of aggrandized civic authority."

Don Isaac Abravanel
 

Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography

Cedric Cohen-Skalli | Brandeis University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

Cedric Cohen-Skalli's Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography is a masterful biography of the renowned statesman and commentator. The author, a professor at the University of Haifa, skillfully traces both Abravanel's political career as well as his contributions to Jewish biblical interpretation.

Abravanel (1437-1508) played an active role in courts in Portugal, Castile, Naples, and Venice, bringing him into close contact with, as Cohen-Skalli describes, "great developments, innovations, and crises in the realms of economics, politics, religion, literature, philosophy, and geography."

Not simply a court official and merchant who participated in the political and economic dynamic of his time, Abravanel was an author and scholar who made a crucial impact on the Jewish communities in Italy and the Sephardic diaspora, serving both noblemen and kings. His education included knowledge of Christian, Islamic, and classical literature (in his Portuguese and Hebrew writings, the book notes, Abravanel liberally quotes Seneca and Cicero alongside medieval sources). He composed commentaries on the Bible, rabbinic texts, Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed, and various philosophical works.

In considering that scholarship has viewed Abravanel as prefiguring the modern Jew of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cohen-Skalli wonders, "Was Don Isaac a hero who defended Judaism and Jews as the modern era dawned, perhaps protecting Judaism from modernity itself? Or perhaps was he a Jew imbued with the spirit of modernity (or early modernity), who internalized new conceptions and new modes of behavior and expression?"

Abravanel traced his roots to an illustrious but complicated family. His ancestors, he claimed, had resided in Seville ever since the destruction of the First Temple. But subject to persecution and a wave of mass conversions to Christianity, his relative Samuel Abravanel converted out of the Jewish faith. Isaac's father Judah was a prominent merchant who was in close contact with the king. In considering his own place in the history of his people, Don Isaac identified with the elders of the Bible. Unlike Moses, who Maimonides identified with, Abravanel viewed himself a learned Jewish nobleman, not a solitary national leader.

Cohen-Skalli is as skilled discussing Abravanel's rollercoaster political career (he more than once had to flee for his life, rising and falling out of favor in the courts, including after 46 years in the kingdom of Portugal) as he is in articulating Abravanel's philosophy. In considering Don Isaac's philosophy of history, Cohen-Skalli writes, "the neo-Stoic conception identifies in the ebbs and tides of personal and collective fate the hand of external natural causes, factors that lie beyond our control, so Abravanel conceives of the waxing and waning fortunes of the Jews through history as a circular motion approaching and leaving the center of providence (the land of Israel) – a process that also cannot be influenced."

Just as skillfully, Cohen-Skalli mines Abravanel's exegetical writing as it reflects the context of its composition. In detailing Abravanel's description of the destroyed Temple, the author sees a spiritual leader offering both solace and hope. As he writes:

Facing the destruction of Spanish Jewry, Don Isaac offers an account of the Temple's beauty and grandeur. In contrast to the abandoned home of the Spanish exile, the Christian churches appeared to be at the height of their power and glory. Nevertheless, the exegete can disinter the Temple's long-lost greatness and represent it within the imagination of the exiles as a tangible and beneficial religious alternative to Christianity. We can thus understand the breadth of Don Isaac's discussions as an attempt to give his reader an important experience: to spend as much time as possible in the Temple by delving into the details of its dimensions and construction. It is a literary tour, reestablishing for the reader the messianic link between the Temple's ancient glory and the future glory of a temple still to come. Thus, the Spanish Jewish exile is given a religious edifice of its own and he can see in the destruction of his community a way station on the path to a messianic redemption.

Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography is a rich, comprehensive, and rewarding biography. It adeptly situates Abravanel's writings within his career and the wider political happenings of their composition and offers a nuanced portrait of the man. The reader will no doubt be grateful for having gained a deeper understanding of the life and times of Judaism's most celebrated learned nobleman.

The First Inauguration
 

The First Inauguration: George Washington and the Invention of the Republic

Stephen Howard Browne | Penn State University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

During George Washington's first inaugural address on April 30, 1789, as Stephen Howard Browne writes in The First Inauguration, America’s first president “established a resource of the ongoing work of realizing America’s greatest ideals.”

Browne, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, offers, in this fascinating volume, the first full-length treatment of that historic speech. Lamenting “the passing of an age when citizens deliberated as citizens, with speeches, not tweets; with crisply argued letters to the editor, pamphlets, orations, and finely tuned sermons,” Browne aims to restore reverence for something “precious, hard, and fine about our shared humanity” and American consciousness. After all, as he notes, Washington has long served as a screen in which Americans have projected their ideas and ideals.

In the book, we learn of the lead-up to the speech (written with the assistance of James Madison), Washington’s social circle, and even financial situation. (Browne notes that Washington was “estate rich and cash poor, concerned with borrowing money to finance portions of his journey to the inauguration itself.) There were many stops along the way to the main address itself. During a stop at the University of Pennsylvania, the president and faculty reminded the president-elect that it had bestowed upon him an honorary degree on July 4 at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. They expressed their hope that as president, Washington would remember that the “influence of sound learning on religion and manners, on government, liberty, and laws, will make it a favorite object in every civilized society: and the sciences, having experienced your protection amidst the confusion of war, reasonably expect a distinguished patronage in the calm of peace.” 

The question of Washington’s personal religious beliefs, long a source of fascination for scholars and laymen alike, is dealt with extensively. While the nuances of Washington’s religious practices remain elusive, he often spoke of divine providence and mission. In a speech in Alexandria, he said: “All that remains for me is to commit myself and you to the protection of that beneficent Being, who on a former occasion hath happily brought us together, after a long and distressing separation. Perhaps the same gracious Providence will again indulge us with the same heartfelt felicity.” In Baltimore: “I know the delicate nature of the duties incident to the part which I am called out to perform: and I feel my incompetence, without the singular assistance of Providence to discharge them in a satisfactory manner.” And in Philadelphia: “When I contemplate the Interposition of Providence… I see myself oppressed and almost overwhelmed with a sense of the Divine Munificence… Almighty God hath been please, in some sort, to make use of me as his instrument.” In the 1,432-word inaugural address itself, which of course receives a close reading from Browne, Washington said: “In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States.”

A paean to the country’s past as well as its ever-present possibility, The First Inauguration reminds us of a time in which presidential addresses left, as one observer at the scene of Washington’s described,  “Expressions of every Face so affected, and overpowered me, that I could not command the Emotions of my Heart.” As Browne argues, the ritual and rhetoric, the pomp and circumstance, of these occasions remain an important way in which “the great body of the people” created and maintained the conditions of its own possibility. As he concludes, faith in our country “demands only an abiding commitment to the ideals so memorably addressed by Washington on behalf of his country, and ours.”

Founding God's Nation
 

Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus

Leon R. Kass | Yale University Press | 2021

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

With Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus, Leon Kass, currently the dean of faculty at Shalem College in Israel, continues his learned and eloquent readings of the Hebrew Bible, which started with the Book of Genesis and more recently with the Book of Ruth. Kass, whose background is in bioethics and who is an emeritus professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, came to Jewish learning later in life. But he has found it an endless fount of wisdom. As he defines it, the Bible, like the works of Plato and Aristotle, articulates the "whole-hearted pursuit of the truth about the world and our place within it, in search of how we are to live.

Kass sets out, in this volume, to demonstrate how the Book of Exodus offers moral, political, and philosophical insights relevant and inspiring to all those — Jewish and non-Jewish — who come to its pages seeking to find meaning.

Kass is a keen reader with a dignified writing style and a talent for felicitous phrasing. Writing of the population expansion of the Israelites at the beginning of the book, he glosses, "Israelite fecundity seems to partake of the natural and hyper-abundant fertility that is characteristically Egyptian — a gift of the land where the overflowing river guarantees plentiful crops... before things go bad, the Israelites swarm happily on their own, flourishing like the Egyptian land that is now their home."

While Kass frequently sticks closely to the peshat (literal-contextual meaning of the text) in his running commentary, only occasionally quoting traditional medieval interpreters, he often chimes in with characteristically astute observations. In his description of Moses' birth and early childhood, he notes that Moses, the offspring of a Levite husband and Levite wife, is "doubly descended from one who would kill to avenge injustice to his own," a reference to the earlier biblical story of Levi, the tribal patriarch's, avenging of the rape of his sister Dinah. When Moses is surprised to hear that word has gotten out about his slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster, Kass reassures the reader that while Moses' early stage actions were "not successful, we notice many fine qualities on display. He is a man of forceful deed and reasonable speech. He cares for the underdog, he cares for justice, he cares for peace."

As with any comprehensive commentary, some original interpretations are more convincing than others. Even when disagreeing with Kass' interpretive offerings, they remain food for thought.

Commenting on the genealogy in Exodus Chapter 6, Kass notes that, while Aaron's line is listed all the way to his grandson Phineas, Moses's children are not mentioned (though we do already know about their birth from earlier in the narrative). As Kass notes, "In this genealogy, Aaron is a father as well as a son; Moses is only a son. The tacit lesson is clear: Moses, and what he stands for, is genealogically a dead end. Aaron and what he stands for survive through the generations... What [Moses] brings either was not successfully transmitted or will no longer be needed." 

While no doubt, in the subsequent historical consciousness, Moses' biological children are a footnote in Israelite history, in the practical sense, one cannot compare the role played to this day by the Mosaic law to the role played by the priesthood, which, absent a Tabernacle or Temple, is purely symbolic, manifesting only in relatively minor ritual and liturgical contexts. So the boundaries of what Moses "brought" that is now considered moot are unclear.

Similarly, Kass suggests that until the story at the inn where God seems to try to strike down Moses (a notorious exegetical crux), there is a concern that Moses and Aaron are not yet covenantal brothers, whose relationship until then stood "on the natural plane of rivalry." While Kass is alluding to earlier stories of sibling rivalry in the Bible, the text does not seem to presume, here or in general, that all siblings are presumed to be in competition until proven otherwise. 

Independent of potential exegetical disagreements, Kass' latest magnum opus offers endless possibilities for considering Exodus and its teachings. Even the footnotes are ripe for unpacking. Quoting a discussion he was involved in with his Washington, D.C. Bible study group, he cites Yuval Levin's observation that "Biblical Israel will offer the world a great model for moral and spiritual living, but a very poor model for political living, for governing and self-government… it is simply not true that God will always provide. The community will have to provide for itself, and it is being kept from learning that in the desert. Perhaps they are meant to be less a nation, more a light unto the nations." An entire seminar (multiple seminars!) can be dedicated to unpacking this suggestion from the perspectives of biblical interpretation, Zionist history and political philosophy, and contemporary Israeli politics. 

Kass's robust reading of one of the West's most impactful texts is intellectually stimulating, philosophically nuanced, and spiritually edifying. Readers of all backgrounds will find in its pages the passionate and profound teachings of a masterful reader and teacher.

Good Neighbors
 

Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America

Nancy L. Rosenblum | Princeton University Press | 2016

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

“A close neighbor is better than a distant brother” (Proverbs 27:10)

In Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, Nancy L. Rosenblum, the Harvard University Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita, offers a comprehensive and nuanced analysis of the concept of being a neighbor. A previously neglected conceptual framework, Rosenblum sees in neighborliness democracy in microcosm, even an antidote to the often harsh and unyielding nature of larger-scale politics. As she observes, “When public life is unjust or beyond our capacity to influence, or so unappealing as to provoke retreat ... the democracy of everyday life is a hardy reminder. Not a substitute for political democracy and not a compensation for political disaster, but a saving remnant… treating one another as neighbors is available to us even when our government and we as citizens have fallen into evil or just fallen off the rails.” 

Originally inspired to undertake the project by a bullying neighbor, Rosenblum offers a moving, inspiring, and extensive consideration of all facets of the topic. “Neighbors,” after all, “are not just people living nearby. Neighbors are our environment. They are the backbone to our private lives at home” and impact our emotional and even material lives in our own homes. Through “mundane trespasses and kindnesses,” quotidian interactions with those who live nearby can impact us immensely.

The Bible, of course, commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Humankind for millennia has since wrestled with considering what this might require, who qualifies as a “neighbor,” and how conscious we should be of our disposition, generosity, and even decency to them.

America, Rosenblum notes, has long prided itself on its neighborliness. From John Winthrop’s positioning the colonists as residing in a “city on a hill” to today, Americans have often conceived of themselves as, as the author puts it, “a nation of volunteers who perform good works… a nation of public-spirited citizens.” Thus how we greet, rebuke, negotiate with, host, and monitor those who live close by offers a window into our individual and national character.

Rosenblum’s learned study draws on an impressive and diverse array of sources. She easily pivots from the Bible to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Philip Roth to Robert Frost to Mark Twain, fiction to the Crown Heights Riots. Even Sesame Street informs her argument. (After all, the show has long stood for the message that differences (including grouchiness!) must be interacted with, negotiated, and accepted for neighborhoods to function peacefully and joyously.)

Good Neighbors is a fascinating examination of reciprocity, aggression, human nature, privacy, forgiveness, religion, charity, loyalty, prejudice, and morality.

As Rosenblum’s book makes clear, our neighbors can offer us crushing betrayals and life-changing generosity. Some of humanity’s lowest immoral depths have occurred between neighbors (as her chapter on lynching devastatingly articulates), while natural disasters have led to astonishingly selfless acts of benevolence. After closing this book, one cannot help but be more sensitive to one’s interactions with the family next door. After all, “Good neighbors,” Rosenblum argues, “can provide aid and company, signal that we are safe with one another, offer gestures of recognition that enhance the quality of life,” and thereby “show us how to practice in the world.”

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha
 

The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills | Oxford University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

“The Lord honors a father, above his children, and he confirms a mother’s rights over her children. Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.”

If the above sounds vaguely biblical to you, you would not be mistaken. It comes from the third chapter Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes), more commonly known as “Ben Sira.” The book, originally composed around 180 BCE in Jerusalem (around a decade before the Hanukkah story took place), is cited by the rabbis of the Talmud, but was not included in the Jewish biblical canon. Ben Sira’s book, and many others not included in the Bible, receive new translations, a running commentary, and introductory and thematic essays in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, edited by Jonathan Klawans of Boston University and Lawrence M. Wills of Brown University. (“Apocrypha” comes from the Greek word for “hidden.”)

A gift to both lay readers and scholars interested in ancient Jewish literature, the volume’s scholarship covers works mostly unknown beyond specialists. Some titles might be familiar to traditional Jews. Many of those who observe Hanukkah might have heard of a “book of Maccabees,” but much fewer have read 1 Maccabees - 4 Maccabees. Others, however, are not so well known. Most who have heard the scroll of Esther read on Purim have probably not come across the Hellenistic-style “insertions.” These flowery, Greek additions include a dramatic prayer by Mordecai that reads, in part, 

“O Lord, Lord, you rule as King over all things, for the universe is in your power and there is no one who can oppose you when it is your will to save Israel, for you have made heaven and earth and every wonderful thing under heaven… And now, O Lord God and King, God of Abraham, spare your people; for the eyes of our foes are upon us to annihilate us.”

In the Masoretic text of Esther, of course, God is not mentioned, nor is prayer.

Other ancient works included in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha include the Book of Jubilees, which contains the earliest attestations of the idea, later appearing in the Talmud, that the forefathers kept the mitzvot. Jubilees is beloved by many scholars of Second Temple literature for its quirky, pre-midrashic rewritings of biblical stories, including its claim that all national holidays originated in pre-Sinaitic times. (For example, in Jubilees’ rendering, the holiday of Shavuot originated in God’s promise (Hebrew: shevua) not to destroy the world again after he had done so in the time of Noah.)

The excellent essays in the back of The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha provide helpful surveys of themes and history that inform one’s understanding of the apocryphal works. Albert Baumgarten on “Ancient Jewish Sectarianism,” Noah Bickart and Christine Hayes on “The Apocrypha in Rabbinic Literature,” and Aaron Panken’s contribution on “Hanukkah in the Apocrypha” are among the valuable pieces. As Klawans writes, “The books of the Apocrypha … preserve what we can hesitatingly refer to as theological ‘outliers’ - assertions that seem uncommon in relation to what we know from other reserved Jewish texts.” So while apocryphal works remain beneath the level of canonical Judaism, there is much to be gained by understanding their interpretive claims and appreciating their history.  

The Jewish Intellectual Tradition
 

The Jewish Intellectual Tradition: A History of Learning and Achievement

Alan Kadish, Michael A. Shmidman, and Simcha Fishbane | Academic Studies Press | 2021

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In The Jewish Intellectual Tradition: A History of Learning and Achievement, Touro University’s president, the dean of its graduate school of Jewish Studies, and one of its faculty members set out to trace the broad and sweeping history of Jewish study. As the authors explain, their aim is to explore “how the salient ideas and values of the Jewish intellectual tradition have not only stood the test of time but also - perhaps more importantly - have played a critical role in the shaping of traditional religious practices and customs, while also profoundly influencing contemporary non-Jewish Western culture.” They set out to do so through emphasizing how Jewish education stresses a respect for tradition while also encouraging “disruptive,” independent thinking; is a system of logical reasoning precise in its details and dedicated to the truth; and instills in its community members the value of living a mission-driven, purposeful life.

A thread throughout the work is the image of libraries, from Shmuel Ha-Nagid’s to Nobel Prize winner Robert Aumann’s. The motif is meant to represent the vast intellectual resources that continue to power Jews’ dedication to learning. The authors review how Jewish learning has intersected with other areas of thought (philosophy, science, and the like) and offer an accessible survey of major Jewish intellectual figures and schools of thought, occasionally stopping to connect the historical survey to their thesis. A representative example is in the discussion of Medieval Kabbalah, in which a discussion of a complex mystical text includes the following:

What message is heard by the mystic who actually stands before the throne of God - never actually seeing Him - in the seventh palace? Of central significance in the divine message is the idea, fundamental to the Jewish intellectual tradition, that we exist on earth for a purpose: to build and improve the world while perfecting ourselves…

The work touches upon the major themes one would expect when considering the nature of Jewish learning. The relationship between law and spirituality, faith and reason, poetry and the Hebrew language, engagement with secular thought, havruta study, Zionism, and emerging technologies all get their due, with fascinating details noted along the way. For example, quoting Professor Luis Garcia-Ballester, the authors note that prior to the persecution of Jews in Spain in the late 14th century, 20-30% of the medical practitioners in northeastern Spain who cared for the Christian population were Jewish. One of the more fascinating sections is the discussion of Shmidman's son using “big data” to parse S. Y. Agnon’s usage of post-Talmudic Hebrew.

The contributors’ passion for the material is clear. (In the discussion of R. Joseph Karo’s Maggid Mesharim, they exclaim, “Mystical ecstasy in the form of a classic code of law!”) Their combined expertise allows them to discuss ancient poetry as well as current models of Orthodox Jewry, which they helpfully classify as falling under “isolationist,” “engagement,” or “immersion” models.

The vastly broad goalposts of the thesis, however, sometimes leave one wondering what might be out of bounds. Aiming to maintain their argument through all the varied manifestations of Jewish writing and thought, little seems outside what they see as supporting their case. The discussion of a Reform commentary on the Torah raises the possibility that “the placement of the individual in the role of the absolute arbiter [which]... could conceivably entail the potential detour of idol worship in its most sophisticated expression: the molding of the divine into one’s own image,” then quickly pivots to stressing the commentary’s ethical ethos and the Reform community’s increased emphasis on traditional study and practice. Spinoza’s thought is discussed, but with the caveat that “when it comes to religious tradition, there are limits to the extent to which precedent can be overturned” despite Judaism’s emphasis on “creative thinking.” Einstein and Freud are said to represent Jewish “disruptive” mentality. In grouping together the art of Marc Chagall, the music of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and the fiction of Cynthia Ozick alongside more “monolithically rabbinic-based” thinkers like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as “clearly reflect[ing] key characteristics of the Jewish intellectual tradition," one gets a sense of how widely the book aims. 

Quibbles over the authors’ sweeping thesis aside, the volume is a comprehensive and thought-provoking examination of what stands behind Judaism’s intellectual emphasis. One can do no better than the British scholar Israel Abrahams, whose description of collective Jewish emphasis on learning the authors quote. “One must,” Abrahams writes, “enter that Holy of Holies, the library, with a grateful benediction on one’s lip, and humility and reverence and joy in one’s soul.”

Nahmanides
 

Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism

Moshe Halbertal | Yale University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

Moshe Halbertal’s Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism (translated by Daniel Tabak) provides a robust, nuanced study of one of Judaism’s most iconic medieval thinkers. Halbertal, a professor at both Hebrew University and NYU Law School and author of Maimonides: Life and Thought, among many other important works, summarizes and analyzes R. Moses b. Nahman’s (1194-1270) influences, insights, and impact.

The volume traces the prolific commentator and communal leader’s “psychological realism, moral sensitivity, and exegetical precision” through themes including his philosophy of law, the nature of God, miracles, history, and esotericism. As Halbertal’s learned study notes in its introduction, Nahmanides’ contributions to halakhah, kabbalah, and biblical interpretation each would have canonized him as a seminal Jewish thinker, and his ability to offer original contributions in all of these realms, coupled with impactful communal leadership (including a stalwart defense of Judaism in the Aragonese court), is truly extraordinary.

Only Maimonides’ lifelong impact rivals that of the work’s subject, and the two are often, in the minds of both scholars, laity, and this volume, compared and contrasted. Maimonides brought philosophical motifs into the heart of Jewish thought, while Nahmanides (who publicly defended Maimonides’ legacy) claimed that it was Kabbalah that constituted Judaism’s innermost essence. Nahmanides’ and Maimonides’ different conceptions of rabbinic law’s relationship to the Divine revelation at Sinai are detailed, among other topics, by Halbertal (Nahmanides felt that the Torah is a sequence of God’s names that encapsulates His essence and “trie[d] to include the entire halakhic system in the primary revelatory event,” while Maimonides strove to distinguish between what Moses had received and what the rabbis developed). 

While acknowledging that Nahmanides’ “tightlipped” esotericism makes fully understanding his cryptic mystical allusions a quixotic quest, Halbertal attempts to unpack the medievalist’s anomian conceptions of the World to Come, resurrection, and the nature of God’s “internal repair mechanism” that will constitute the eschaton. In Nahmanides’ view, free will, individuation, commandments, and even death itself will cease with the arrival of the Messiah.

Particularly informative is Halbertal’s analysis of Nahmanides’ understanding of the dichotomy between nature and miracles, as his view is more multilayered than the conventional presumption that Nahmanides didn’t believe in what is usually termed “nature.” As Halbertal summarizes, “Just as Shekhinah [sic] is eternal and not subject to the accidents of Nature, the same becomes true of the righteous person cleaving to and becoming identical to Shekhinah — ‘their becoming one entity’” — meaning some human beings (“the righteous”) merit particular providence, while others are subject to predictable natural events.

Other topics Halbertal analyzes include Nahmanides’ conception of four levels of prophecy, the exegetical principle that “everything that happened to the Forefathers is a sign for the progeny” (which most likely was borrowed from Christian exegetes), his willingness to criticize biblical figures, and his calculations of the year the Messiah would arrive. 

Throughout, Halbertal articulates Nahmanides’ complex mystical interpretations to the extent possible (for example, God’s mercy as expressed, after Noah’s flood, in the rainbow in the cloud, is a “divine...act of self-unification, it represents aspects of the Godhead interacting with one another and coming together.”) In Nahmanides’ view, contra the distinction suggested by Yehezkel Kaufmann between pagan magic and Judaism’s God who is unaffected by human action, human beings can, through the fulfilments of the commandments, have an impact upon God’s essence Itself. In Halbertal’s words, for Nahmanides, “As beings created in the divine image, humans are a kind of talisman for drawing Shekhinah into the world, and through their actions as signifiers of the Godhead they cause it to be emanated into the lower realms.”

Moshe Halbertal is a renowned scholar of Jewish law and philosophy, and in Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism he has contributed a definitive study of medieval Judaism’s most fascinating intellectual figures.

The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America
 

The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America

Paul C. Gutjahr | Oxford University Press | 2018

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, is an invaluable resource on the reception of the world’s best-seller in the United States. As the editor writes:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to dispute the claim that the Bible holds the place as the single most influential book in America’s history. So influential has been the Bible that early Americans denominated themselves as “People of the Book.” They saw themselves as inseparably tied to the Bible. Even today, it is estimated that the Bible remains the most owned, if not read, book in the United States. Some 88 percent of American households report owning at least one Bible.

In forty-two essays, the work examines different aspects of the Bible and how it has been translated, designed, produced, and distributed over the course of American history.

Highlights include a chapter on children’s Bibles. As contributor Russel Dalton details, throughout American history, many Christians and Jews have seen the Bible as the primary curriculum resource for Children’s religious education. Bibles for children, Dalton notes, have existed since 1170 and have been published in English at least since the seventeenth century. Early American settlers brought children’s Bibles with them. Especially popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were small three- to five-inch-tall thumb Bibles. These tiny books offered short summaries of key biblical characters and events.            

European missionaries arriving in the Americas translated the Bible into native languages and printed collections of catechisms, primers, and excerpts of the Bible into these indigenous tongues. During the American Revolution, people on both sides of the conflict turned to the Bible to define and defend their positions and to find higher meaning in the war. Later, both sides of the Civil War also turned to the Bible for support, as Abraham Lincoln famously noted in his Second Inaugural Address. 

Biblical typologies and rhetorical styles have appeared throughout the American story. In The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, the historian David Howard-Pitney traces prophetical social justice-oriented sermons in the writings of several African Americans, including Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818-1895), Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), Malcolm X (1925-1965), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968). Presidential addresses have often cited the Bible. George W. Bush consoled the nation by quoting from Psalms 23 in his address to the nation on September 11, 2001. Barack Obama began his remarks at the memorial for the five Dallas police officers slain during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016 with “Scripture tells us that in our sufferings there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Gal. 5:3-5).

Though biblical literacy has waned, and legal fights over its role in law and the public square have been fraught, there is no doubt the Bible will continue to play a large role in the civic language and collective ethos of the United States. As the volume concludes:

The Bible’s influence on American Education has shifted significantly since the nations’ colonial period. Once seen as central to the democratic project, the Bible is now seen as one of the chief obstacles to realizing a version of American Democracy that values diversity, equality, tolerance, and respect. Not only are religion and the Bible too often viewed as inimical to realizing true democratic equality and tolerance, but an increasingly technologically advanced and globalized world seems also to rule out the explanatory power of the Bible as a relevant curricular tool. Yet one thing remains evident: as instability in the name of religion continues to persist across the globe, American students continue to demonstrate a high degree of religious illiteracy, leading to concerns of their inability to understand current geopolitical situations which often have religious inflections. While we are less sanguine that the Bible would be particularly beneficial in helping bridge this illiteracy gap, we suggest that a less hostile, more inviting, consideration of the role of religion in public life more generally could lead to more tolerance, understanding, and respect.

Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism
 

Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism

Sarit Kattan Gribetz | Princeton University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

In her National Jewish Book Award-winning Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, Sarit Kattan Gribetz seeks to uncover the rabbinic conception of time. 

Starting with a charming anecdote about having to get passports in her family renewed at both the Swiss and Israeli consulates (Guess which one was more disorganized?), Gribetz, a professor at Fordham University, sets out to articulate how Jews have thought of time in unique ways. As she writes, "Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have contemplated whether time actually is (is time real? Is it an illusion?), what time is (is it a precondition of being? A part of an experience? A sense?), and how time functions (does it flow? Is it relative?)." 

Many of these questions were also considered by the ancient rabbis. Her volume argues that "the conceptualization and organization of time were mechanisms the late antique rabbis employed to construct various forms of difference and, occasionally, the mechanism through which they also unsettled such difference." Jews, of course, have considered the implications of time since the Bible. In later millennia, sectarian Jews at Qumran, far from the mainstream Temple in Jerusalem, saw the rhythms of the sacrificial and festival orders as templates for their own purity and prayer-focused communal life.

Once the Second Temple was destroyed, rabbinic reconfigurations of time enabled the rabbis to forge a future for Jewish living — not only in an era without a Temple, but in a crowded marketplace of minorities within an empire that had destroyed its sanctuary.

Rabbinic sources, as Lynn Kaye, who Gribetz cites, has noted, challenged the idea that time is exclusively linear and progressive (anyone who has been to a Passover Seder has experienced Judaism's unique mix of inhabiting a moment somehow past, present, and future all at once).

The calendar itself, also Gribetz notes, can "function as instruments of social, economic, religious, and political organization and control," particularly as it reinterprets occasions of the dominant culture (for example, but claiming Jewish origins for Roman festivals). Such an interpretive measure, Gribetz writes, "undermine[s] the greatness of the Roman past as well as to stimulate Jews to act according to rabbinic halakhah, maintain their distance and difference from the empire, and stop short of living comfortably as Romans, in roman society and adopting its temporal rhythms. "

Judaism's main unique contribution to the concept of time, the Shabbat, of course, receives due attention. Citing a Mekhilta that emphasizes that Jews' observance of the Sabbath signals their chosenness, Gribetz contrasts this with the Christian perspective. "Followers of Christ," she writes, "some of whom regarded Jewish Sabbath observance as a sign of Israel’s sinfulness and rejected it, read the biblical references to Sabbath rest as allusions to divine eschatological rest, and held that the day of the Sabbath was superseded by the Lord’s Day." The Mekhilta then can be read as an attempt by the rabbis to argue for Judaism's unique value proposition, a case for Judaism's belief in what day God mandates rest on.

Much of the volume focuses on how the Rabbis saw time as a marker of gender difference. Men's unique time-bound commandments are distinct from women's time-related ones, such as the laws of family purity. Gribetz also concentrates on the Talmudic interest in how God spends his time. As she writes: "The exercise of inquiring into God’s time, outlining God’s schedule, and determining God’s daily activities through rabbinic Torah study thus becomes, itself, a way of getting closer to God." Though rabbinic literature is thought by some to be" short on theological contemplation, when rabbinic texts did address the topic of God, they imagined their God in time. In fact, they portrayed God as having a daily and nightly routine and schedule defined by time as the rabbis knew it."

Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism is a thought-provoking, well-argued work from an emerging scholar. It will be of interest to all those who live a rhythm of Jewish life and learning centered on the unique way traditional Jewish thought has conceptualized how time works and how it can be spent meaningfully.

Three Rings
 

Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate

Daniel Mendelsohn | University of Virginia Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate is a moving and learned meditation on narrative and exile. 

The author begins by recounting his struggles to recover from the psychologically draining processing of writing about his family’s Holocaust history in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. “Having listened to tales of violence and destruction for five years without being able to assimilate them emotionally… I was now, my friend surmised, having a delayed reaction,” stifled creatively and emotionally. As a means of recovery, Mendelsohn took on a project “whose fantastical characters and settings and intricate construction would beguile and mistract my still-bruised mind.” The result,  An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, utilizes a Homeric ring structure, interweaving Mendelsohn’s teaching a seminar on the Odyssey (with his father as an auditor) within an analysis of the ancient classic itself. 

With a tone balancing between that of a journal and literary criticism, Three Rings utilizes a similar complex structure. One page offers the academic history of “ring composition” (a Dutch scholar named W. A. A. Van Otterlo published numerous studies on the subject), another discusses Aristotle’s Poetics, while another revisits the author's aforementioned struggles composing the earlier works. At roughly the start of every chapter, the motif of a stranger arriving in an unknown city reappears (“Who is he? He could be anyone in the past half century: A Syrian, a Bosnian, a Kurd, an Angolan, a Ugandan. A few decades before that he would likely have been a Jew”). Utilizing this conceit, Mendelsohn introduces the reader to the writing and wanderings of three authors whose seminal works were impacted by Homer’s - Eric Auerbach, François Fénélon, and W. G. Sebald. 

Auerbach, a German literary scholar and Jewish refugee, authored the renowned comparative literature volume Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature during the 1940s. Its first chapter, “Odysseus’s Scar,” compares Homer’s work to storytelling in the Bible, with a particular focus on the notoriously opaque Binding of Isaac in the book of Genesis. As Mendelsohn writes, “... Auerbach finds the narrative instructability in the text of Genesis persuasively realistic. Just as we do not in fact know everything about the events and people encountered in our lives - certainly not the way in which the ring composition in Book 19 of the Odyssey allows us to know them - so too with the biblical narrative, which grants us only partial vision… and, because of its fragmentary nature, its imperfection, feels real.”

François Fénélon, a French priest, centuries earlier, in 1699, composed a series of ethically instructive tales based on Homer’s Odyssey, which proved both immensely popular (selling more copies for 75 years after its publication than any work other than the Bible) and yet sealed his fall from grace in Versailles due to its not-too-thinly veiled criticisms of Louis XIV, whose grandson Fénélon had been tutoring. 

Winfried Georg Sebald, a German born after WWII, authored novels utilizing the ring structure as well. “But,” as Mendelsohn writes, “unlike the narrative rings, circles, digressions, and wandering we find in Homer, which seem designed to both illuminate and to enact a hidden unity in things, the ones we find in Sebald [in works like The Rings of Saturn], seem designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves.”

Readers interested in the theme of exile, the intellectual history of literature, and the reception history of Homer will particularly enjoy Three Rings. By way of background to this volume, and for a more popularly-aimed work, Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is highly recommended.

When Should Law Forgive
 

When Should Law Forgive?

Martha Minow | W. W. Norton | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

"Forgiveness encourages people to take the perspectives of others, to understand the larger pressures and structures affecting others' actions, and to prioritize creating a shared future over holding on to resentments from the past," writes Martha Minow in her When Should Law Forgive? Her fascinating study seeks to unpack the possibilities of forgiveness in the contemporary legal realm through an examination of forgiving youth, forgiving individual debt, and pardons.

In the book's introduction, Minow, a current university professor at Harvard Law School and its former dean, raises the volume's framing questions, including by what means law can forgive, how legal forgiveness differs from individual forgiveness, and what the limits of legal forgiveness should be. 

When it comes to forgiveness of young people’s crimes, Minow is inclined towards restorative justice, in which “the wrongdoer provides services or works to repair the damage he or she has caused.” Most complex are former child soldiers, since, as Minow notes, determining the extent of responsibility of those who become soldiers in their youth is quite difficult. Should they be forgiven because of their age? Should they be viewed solely as victims? What if they voluntarily joined rebel groups without being coerced or abducted? Perhaps, she suggests, “a new concept could be devised to acknowledge the complexity of individuals who have been both victims and perpetrators, who were abducted as children and then abducted other children.” International law has left these policies to individual nations, and the U.S. has given states individual discretion. As she cautions, potential non-prosecution policies would not amount to forgiveness, and forgiveness by definition would need to require an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Rather than offering blanket immunity, Minow suggests “giving a means to earn a livelihood and obtain medical assistance, having opportunities to denounce perpetrators safely and to document their departure from militia groups, and undergoing mediation with community and family members… use of the arts can also help develop empathetic connections, discover and express remorse and self-acceptance, and express desires for community understanding and acceptance.”

Alongside Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ argument that “the biblical institutions of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years [were] created specifically because of the danger of people being trapped by debt,” Minow cites Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, and the U.S. Constitution to inform her analysis of the possibilities of debt forgiveness. “When people borrow to build a business or renovate a house,” she writes, “they create value for the society as well as for themselves. For inventors and entrepreneurs, debt accompanies creativity, and debt forgiveness can encourage more creativity.” Noting the recent history of national and corporate debt forgiveness, Minow laments the absence of the encouragement of individual loan forgiveness, particularly student debt. As she concludes, “legal rules can and should preserve the governmental, economic, and communal environment that encourages risk-taking, acknowledges the realities of impoverishment, and recognizes the participation of actors on many sides of transactions in a world of risks, enterprise, and chance… when a government itself imposes fines and fees that make individuals into debtors - and threatens imprisonment for nonpayment - that government is blameworthy in ways that are difficult for any to forgive.”

In her discussion of pardons and amnesty, Minow notes that in 1986 President Reagan and Congress granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, allowing them to apply for jobs, open bank accounts, and buy homes. While analyzing presidents’ more ethically questionable pardons (Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich and Trump’s of Sheriff Arpaio, to cite two examples), she notes that conditional pardons, commutations, and expungements may reduce incentives for others to break the law, because unlike full pardons, they limit forgiveness. Citing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s calling for a revised pardon process because “a people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy,” Minow advises forgiveness within the law “exercised wisely and fairly,” in a way that will strengthen the law and justify citizens’ faith in it.

Ultimately, as the book concludes, forgiveness is a way of beckoning towards the future, as opposed to dwelling too long in the past. The possibilities of both individuals, and the law, to forgive are thus a crucial element in considering ways for a more promising tomorrow.

The Wondering Jew
 

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

Micah Goodman | Yale University Press | 2020

In his The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, Micah Goodman seeks to bridge the divide between religious and secular Israelis and chart a path that avoids the trappings of extremism.

Goodman, an Israeli public intellectual and the president of Beit Prat (a network of Israeli houses of study for young adults), argues that religious commitment can bring with it certain challenges. Those seeking full involvement with general society can often find their beliefs and practices bumping up against strict boundaries, clashing with humanistic values, or creating a sense of guilt.

Secularism is not without its own hurdles. As Goodman documents, secular people are on the whole less happy in their lives and more inclined to be individualistic. And secular Israelis’ identity doesn’t seem to mark a continuation of the Jewish story if they refuse to see themselves as continuing to it in the first place. 

Furthermore, the current, divided Israeli population finds itself amidst the historical irony of a nation founded by secular Zionists that enshrines modes of religious coercion in its laws.

Goodman traces the philosophical underpinnings of the present moment. The pre-state Zionists “dreamed of a liberated Jew, independent and fulfilled… Halakha [these Zionists] believed, trained Jews to be obedient, the opposite of Zionism’s intent.” For thinkers like Ahad Ha’Am, however, Goodman argues, religious Jews’ “slavish” devotion to their past and rebellious secularists’ renunciation of the Jewish past represented a break in Jews’ relationship with history. Hayim Nahman Bialik, a student of Ahad Ha’Am, argued that “even if we need to create a new foundation, we should take the foundation stone from the foundation of tradition.”

Following in their footsteps, Goodman argues for a bridge through shared conversations within the tradition and its texts and ideas. “[P]articipating in a tradition means taking part in a conversation about the tradition [without] confessional conditions for such participation.” As the recent book #IsraeliJudaism shows, most Israelis actually share a common religious language and common practices (e.g., lighting Shabbat candles, celebrating Hanukkah and experiencing a Pesach seder). In Israel, Jews can return to living Jewishly without God and without obedience to halakha — “to return to tradition without turning to religion.”

Using “the Mizrahi style of religion” as a framework, Goodman argues that it “presents an alternative to the hardline, legalistic form of Judaism…[and thereby] an alternative to the rebellious version of secularism,” allowing Jews who might identify as “secular” to feel faithful to the past without feeling controlled by it. Urging a “self-confidence” on the part of both sides, Goodman hopes for a more open-minded, tolerant religious population, “attuned to their own sense of morality,” alongside a “secular” population willing to be excited about opening up a page of Talmud and learning in a beit midrash.

Summarizing his argument, Goodman urges a shared middle ground. Such a space could accommodate Religious Zionists, whose Zionism opens up fresh possibilities for Judaism, and secular Zionists, who are open to reconnecting with the past and their own terms. “Together,” he writes, “they are paving a new path to a way of life that contains tradition but no certainty.”

Goodman ends by raising the possibility of Shabbat as a means of commonality between religious and secular. As he writes, Shabbat, independent of one’s degree of fealty to its laws, reminds of the possibility of “islands of time… the Sabbath creates a space that allows our minds to be present where our bodies are. The greater our awareness of the vital need to repair the relationship between people and technology, the more relevant the Sabbath will become.” And on the whole, as The Wondering Jew makes clear, greater awareness of the tradition and joint learning together stands to bridge the divide between Israel’s religious and secular population.

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