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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

Nahmanides

Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism

Moshe Halbertal | Yale University Press | 2020

READ MORE

Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism

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. READ MORE

The First Inauguration

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

Stephen Howard Browne Penn State University Press | 2020

READ MORE

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

Stephen Howard Browne, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, offers, in this fascinating volume, the first full-length treatment of George Washington's first inaugural address. 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. READ MORE

The Bible in American Law and Politics

The Bible in American Law and Politics

John R. VileRowman & Littlefield | 2020

READ MORE

The Bible in American Law and Politics

As John R. Vile demonstrates in his encyclopedia, The Bible in American Law and Politics, John Quincy 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. READ MORE

Three Rings

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

Daniel Mendelsohn | University of Virginia Press | 2020

READ MORE

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

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. READ MORE

When Should Law Forgive

When Should Law Forgive?

Martha Minow | W. W. Norton | 2020

READ MORE

When Should Law Forgive?

"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. READ MORE

https://www.yu.edu/straus/reviews#bibliaamericana

Biblia Americana

Cotton Mather Mohr Siebeck | 2019

READ MORE

Biblia Americana

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. READ MORE

Nahmanides

Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism

Moshe Halbertal | Yale University Press | 2020

READ MORE

Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism

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. READ MORE

The First Inauguration

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

Stephen Howard Browne Penn State University Press | 2020

READ MORE

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

Stephen Howard Browne, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, offers, in this fascinating volume, the first full-length treatment of George Washington's first inaugural address. 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. READ MORE

The Bible in American Law and Politics

The Bible in American Law and Politics

John R. VileRowman & Littlefield | 2020

READ MORE

The Bible in American Law and Politics

As John R. Vile demonstrates in his encyclopedia, The Bible in American Law and Politics, John Quincy 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. READ MORE

Three Rings

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

Daniel Mendelsohn | University of Virginia Press | 2020

READ MORE

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

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. READ MORE

When Should Law Forgive

When Should Law Forgive?

Martha Minow | W. W. Norton | 2020

READ MORE

When Should Law Forgive?

"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. READ MORE

https://www.yu.edu/straus/reviews#bibliaamericana

Biblia Americana

Cotton Mather Mohr Siebeck | 2019

READ MORE

Biblia Americana

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. 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.

 

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.”

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.

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.

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