When people ask me what books I think offer the best understanding of what Jews believe and care most about, I’m often stymied because there are so many.
Nevertheless, as an exercise, I tried this week to make a list of my top ten. All of these have moved me, informed me, changed me, and taught me wisdom, inspired me, and given me insight not only into the Jewish heart, mind, and soul, but into what it means to be a human being and a mensch.
Here are my top ten:
- The Five Books of Moses – The Hebrew Bible is the foundational text in Judaism. Among the best modern commentaries that I’ve found is Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, edited by Rabbi David L. Lieber and published by the Conservative movement.
- Covenant & Conversation – Numbers: The Wilderness Years by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a brilliant commentary and exploration into the fourth of the five books of Moses. Rabbi Sacks brings the Biblical past into the present and shows how the Book of Numbers is among the world’s most important literary works.
- A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson – There are many fine Jewish histories. I chose Johnson’s because it is both descriptive and inspirational. For example, he wrote: “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny … The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”
- Pirkei Avot – Sayings of the Sages – An ethical tractate stuck in the middle of a 2nd century legal code, this series of teachings and maxims is a guide to behavior, attitudes, civility, honor, integrity, faith, aspiration, kindness, peace, humility, generosity, patience, fairness, and the proper use of speech. Of the many commentaries, my favorite is one that comes out of the Orthodox world – Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers – The Sages’ Guide to Living published by Artscroll.
- Sefer Ha-Hinukh – Book of Education is attributed to the 13th century Rabbi Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (in 5 volumes). This work explains each of the Torah’s 613 commandments in order of appearance. Intended most likely as a text for students to learn the purpose of the commandments and how to live in line with the spirit and values of Torah, it is a superb introduction to Biblical law.
- Opening The Tanya, Learning the Tanya, and Understanding the Tanya (3 volumes) was written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Lubavitch Chassidism. This three volume text with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explores the complexities, doubts, and drives at the core of the struggle between the Godly and animal souls. Though more than two centuries old, the teachings here are as relevant today as they were when they were written at the end of the eighteenth century.
- Between God and Man – An Interpretation of Judaism is a selection of writings by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, among the greatest Jewish scholars, thinkers, theologians, social activists, teachers, and leaders of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel is a poet of the soul and this work opens the heart, mind, and soul to the relationship between humankind and God as few great thinkers can do.
- One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them is by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (Reform) and Rabbi Yosef Reinman (Haredi Orthodox). These two rabbis entered into an 18-month email correspondence after being introduced by a mutual friend on the fundamental principles of Jewish faith and practice. What resulted is “an honest, intelligent, no-holds-barred discussion of virtually every hot-button issue on which Reform and Orthodox Jews differ, among them the existence of a Supreme Being, the origins and authenticity of the Bible and the Oral Law, the role of women, assimilation, the value of secular culture, and Israel.” (the publisher) This dialogue is unprecedented. In the end these two rabbis from very different religious streams found that they not only liked each other but respected each other as well.
- Not in God’s Name – Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores how religious extremism and violence in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities worldwide are corruptions of our respective religious texts and our shared monotheistic tradition.
- Fragile Dialogue: The New Voices of Liberal Zionism, edited by Rabbis Stanley Davids, Larry Englander, and Hara Person and published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, includes the reflections of close to forty teachers and thinkers who struggle with a variety of approaches to liberal Zionism that are emerging in the 21st century. Israel has become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish community resulting in a serious challenge to Jewish unity and the alienation of many Jews from the State of Israel and the Jewish people. This work is an attempt to address those tensions within modern Jewish life and bring clarity to the conversation (to be published in early Fall, 2017).
People often ask me where to begin. It really doesn’t matter. Just begin where you are most interested and allow your heart, mind and soul to carry you forward.