Sunday, December 01, 2019

The 5 Most Important Books to Be an Educated Jew

Moment Magazine recently asked me to choose what I thought to be the five most important books to be an educated Jew. This was not an easy request and I took it seriously, going through my Jewish library several times and narrowing down the list. Obviously, the primary texts of our tradition, the Torah, the Talmud, Midrash, and the legal codes, are all necessary to be an educated member of the Jewish people, but I understood that Moment Magazine wanted me to extend beyond those texts.

I considered important books of Jewish history, books about the Holocaust, Jewish cooking books, and even books about Jewish athletes (an educated Jew must know about Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg). Ultimately, these are the five books I chose to recommend. Of course, I could have chosen hundreds more since we are the "People of the Book," but I think this is a good starting point.

The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, published The Sabbath as both about theology and spirituality as well about modern Jewish life and Jewish law. I first read this short yet eloquent book when participating in a discussion with other Jewish high school students.  At summer camp I recall that the study session brought much meaning and spirituality into my Shabbat experience. Heschel brilliantly explains how our faith is about balancing space and time, creation and rest. Originally published in 1951, Heschel’s words are just as powerful and meaningful today as they were almost seventy years ago.

As a Driven Leaf, by Rabbi Milton Steinberg

To understand the Talmud, one first must understand Jewish life in 2nd century CE. Certainly, this could be accomplished with history books, but it’s much more enjoyable to get this knowledge from Steinberg’s beautiful novel. The protagonist is Elisha ben Abuyah, a Talmudic rabbi who was excommunicated for heresy. Steinberg takes this little-known character and allows us to enter his confused head and heart. We become immersed in the community of scholars who gave voice to Rabbinic Judaism and we see the clash between religious faith and the modern, secular society of Rome. Steinberg’s novel is not only captivating but also a wonderful theological and philosophical work.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner

One cannot understand Jewish theology without reading Kushner’s well-known work. Published in 1981, less than five years after Kushner’s son died from an incurable genetic disease, the book addresses the problems of theodicy. If we believe that God creates and controls the world and is good, how are we to explain evil? Why is there pain and suffering if God loves us? Kushner offers his own theology.

Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish TextsEdited by Dr. Barry Holtz

Back to the Sources is more than a primer. The authors explain the text and then dissect examples to teach the reader how to learn that core text. Holtz, one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, believes that each text requires a different learning approach. In editing Back to the Sources, he found foremost scholars to explain the importance of the text and how it informs Judaism. I first used this book in college, referred to it again many times in rabbinical school and have recommended it to countless others.

Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

I was tempted to simply list five of Telushkin’s works here because one can learn just about everything there is to know about Judaism from his books: Jewish Literacy, Biblical Literacy, Jewish Ethics, Jewish Wisdom and Jewish Values. I chose Telushkin’s book about Jewish humor because these jokes teach us more about the Jews and Judaism than most history books. Telushkin chose the best Jewish jokes and then analyzed them to explain their source, why they are funny and why they’re accurate. The book is funny but is also an informative read on important topics like anti-Semitism and other faith’s view of the Jewish people.

This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine

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