Books of the People

Israel's Book Week (Shavua Hasefer) begins June 7th. The tens of thousands who fill the outdoor book fairs are invited to discover the thinkers who have influenced generations of their people - and still do.

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Rochel Sylvetsky,

Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky

The Jews have called themselves the "People of The Book" for centuries, alluding to their receiving G-d's Torah, the Book of Books, at Mount Sinai, at a time in history when, to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, other nations' ancestors were still swinging from trees.

The Torah, both written and oral (only written down when there was a danger it would be forgotten) was a springboard for countless writings and thousands of weighty books of analysis, interpretation of texts and details of commandments, testifying to the aptness of the title (Muslims, by the way, called both Jews and Christians by that name).

The nature of faith in G-d and His commandments led to philosophic, mystic and – later – hassidic thought, giving rise to the many works that dealt with different approaches to ethics, free will, redemption, how to get close to G-d and other issues under the umbrella-like rubric of "Jewish Thought." 

Jews tended to work at keeping the Torah's commandments and if they had intellectual leanings, spent their lives studying Torah, less on philosophy and more on analyzing the details of the precepts revealed at Sinai, the very belief in Revelation precluding a desire for philosophy on the part of many.

Today, however, young adults are much involved in Jewish thought, reading philosophy and seeking mysticism .This may be the reason that Maggid Publishers, an imprint of Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, decided to publish a book in cooperation with Yeshiva University and edited by Stuart W. Halpern, that brings an analysis of major works of Jewish thought to those who do not want to delve into the original works – yet - but would like to be introduced to them. Ten contemporary essays on ten major Jewish works of lasting influence on Jewish thought justify turning the classic phrase around and calling the resulting volume "Books of the People."

Halpern's list is excellent and representative. Each work is presented to the reader by a modern day Jewish Torah scholar/academic whose analysis of a chosen work includes the writer's biography and an attempt to show the relevance of his works to the present time. The reader who is not familiar with some of the thinkers should be aware that he will be introduced to them in the way the person writing the article sees them. Hopefully, writes Dr. Halpern, his curiosity will be whetted and the original books will find their way to his shelves – or be dusted off, if already there.

While each of the writers is thoroughly familiar with his subject, their approaches vary. Some of the writing seems "from within" – not  that the writer on Tanya need be a Lubavitcher hassid, but that it is clear that he is someone who understands, admires, perhaps has been influenced by what he reads and doesn't see himself only as an erudite academic looking in from the outside (or should I say looking down from above?).

Rabbi Nachman's tales and his Likutei Maran have thousands of people close reading them 200 years after his death. What is the significance of psychological suppositions about his childhood?  Why conjure up the possible external influences on Rabbi Nachman, or on Rabbi Kook – or how their childhood affected them, that is, in the modern writer's opinion? These are people who influence thousands today – they are not exhibit A.

After all, since these ten thinkers wanted to affect people's minds and lives, and still do, doing them justice necessitates writers who can strike a balance –  can analyze the writings and have the reader join in feeling  their profound influence.  Most, but not all, of the book's writers were able to do this.

As a young adult, I lived in New York. We  heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe  at Chabad "fabrengen,"  studied Tanya with one of our teachers once a week, went to hear shiurim given by one of  the central Breslav figures of the time, the late Rabbi Rosenfeld, read and heard the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), knew well the awe that Chaim Berlin students had for Rav Hutner.  I married a YU alumnus, have a son teaching Talmud in Yeshivat Merkaz Harav Kook. Each thinker, his guidance and way of life added to our spiritual beings. We merited experiencing them firsthand, but that effect continues on through their writings and turned them into fundamental Judaic texts. Getting that across is the challenge facing the book being reviewed here.

In its Shavuot edition, Israeli newpaper Makor Rishon featured nine well known observant Israeli writers/artists/educators who were asked which book in the Torah library "accompanies" their lives. Three chose thinkers included in this book:  Tanya, Pachad Yitzchak (Rabbi Hutner), Rabbi Kook's Orot Hateshuva. (Philosophy Professor Shalom Rosenfeld chose the Book of Psalms and recently bereaved father of an IDF soldier Rav Ohad Taharlev chose the siddur). Reading their page long personal reasons for reading and rereading those works made one want to join them.

In "Books of the People," some of the chapters, such as the ones on Rabbi Joseph Albo, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Rabbi Soloveichik and Rabbi Hutner (chosen because I enjoyed these the most) do the same and the reader feels the writer's involvement in addition to his erudition.  Not all the articles reach this level, however.

In fact, it took me a long time to decide how to write about "Books of the People" because I read and reread it chapter by chapter, pondering  where the truth lies in analyses of the works of brilliant religious thinkers who, naturally, are not able to comment on  a necessarily subjective effort. Of course, there are hundreds of papers on Jewish thinkers, and there is no shortage of differences of opinion on what a writer meant to say, not only on the part of academics but even more by followers of that figure's 'directions' for life.

So reading ten such different classics discussed by ten different personalities was a not-so-simple experience. That aside, "Books of the People", with its beautiful foreword by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, is an excellent way to form an initial idea of works you should be reading in the original and lead you to choose the ones you want to meet on your own.

It is a book about reading other books, but then this is only an article about a book about reading other books...

Review of "Books of the People, Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought," edited by Dr. Stuart W. Halpern, Maggid Books Straus Cener for Torah and Western Thought and Yeshiva University. Sent to Rochel Sylvetsky, Senior Consultant and Op-ed and Judaism Editor, ArutzSheva English site, by the publisher.