YUTOPIA’s “Essential” Modern Orthodox Reading List – The Fine Fifteen

A Facebook friend recently posted a “personal list of essential reading for a thinking Orthodox Jew.” These sorts of questions are fun exercises (especially for book geeks like myself) since it requires a degree of thought, introspection, and strategy. For a list to be useful to others it cannot be comprehensive; telling people to read everything is not terribly practical. 1 But there also has to be thought as to the criteria for the list. For example, there is a perpetual debate in professional sports over the Most Valuable Player award regarding whether it should it go to the “best” player or the one who contributes the most “value” to his team. Books are even more subjective in that what might be “essential” for one person might be irrelevant to someone else. In my capacity as a community Rav I was in a position where I could give targeted recommendations to individuals, accounting for their background, interests, and affinities. 2 The RCA has a reading list appropriate for prospective converts which may or may not be “good,” but they can service as decent “starting points” for future discussion.

Since this is my list I’m going to make my own rules and qualifications:

  • I’m limiting myself to 15 books. Why 15? Because that’s how many books I came up with.
  • Order does not matter.
  • All books will be in English because I’m simply more familiar with English books than those in other languages.
  • I’m ignoring “primary” works such as the Bible or Talmud on the grounds that these are too obvious for inclusion and someone interested in Judaism ought to be reading them anyway.
  • I’m assuming that readers have a more intellectual disposition which means more academic books than popular ones, though I give greater weight to books which are more accessible and “readable.”
  • My goal in compiling this list is not for basic literacy in Torah, but for understanding the Jewish religion, particularly the manifestations of Orthodox Judaism.
  • These books don’t simply represent books I like but the ones I’ve found myself citing, referencing, or recommending most often. Here I get to explain why.
  • Omissions from this list are not to be considered as a value judgement on those works.
  • All selections naturally reflect my personal biases, but I’m going to try to give a short explanation for each of my choices.

I’ll conclude the introduction by saying that if you only read these books to the exclusion of everything else, you will only be moderately less well-informed. Consider these books only as isolated moments on a lifelong journey of intellectual growth.

Now, let’s get to it…

1. Eight Theories of Religion – Daniel Pals
It may seem strange to include a book on comparative religion on this list, but through understanding how scholars approach religion, you may find strategies either of how to approach Judaism and possibly gain insight into primary sources. For just one example, the chapter on Mircea Eliade provides a useful framework for understanding R. Joseph B. Solveitchik, as they share similar intellectual traditions. In addition to summarizing theories, Pals provides substantive analysis and criticism, along with a helpful bibliography for further study. Pals’ writing style is academic, accessible, and occasionally irreverent. 3 Eight Theories of Religion may not give direct information about Judaism, but it can provide the discerning reader perspectives for deciphering Jewish sources.

2. A History of the Jewish People – H. H. (Haim Hillel) Ben-Sasson
The best single volume book on Jewish history of which I’m aware.

3. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies
This is an astounding “cheat sheet” for Jewish academic scholarship. Each chapter summarizes the major trends of research of various fields in Judaic Studies providing the reader with an instant literature review. While there has obviously been some further development since the book’s 2005 publication, you’d be hard pressed to find a more efficient introduction to Jewish academia.

4. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs – Ephraim E. Urbach
5. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised – Marc B. Shapiro

I actually read The Sages cover to cover my year in Gruss and it remains one of my favorite books. Urbach scours the breath of Rabbinic Literature and demonstrates that just as the Rabbinic Sages argued over Jewish Law they just as frequently disputed core theological concepts. After reading the multiplicity of Rabbinic opinions, the honest reader will be wary of anyone who attempts to present Judaism as a mono-dogmatic religion.

The two volume hardcover splits the text and footnotes into separate books, while the single volume paperback combines all into one codex (mine happens to be falling apart). I must include the caveat that all sources in the English version must be double checked in the original sources – I have found enough errors in citations to be cautious in this regard.

Of course, the plurality of Jewish theology is not limited to the Rabbinic Sages. While Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith have become the populist dogma of Orthodox Judaism, several of his core principles of faith were disputed or rejected by contemporaries and later thinkers, who with the help of revisionism and cognitive dissonance, remain included in the “Orthodox” tradition.

While Shapiro addresses a later time period, I often recommend this book as an alternative to Urbach; both demonstrate a theological plurality in Jewish thought, but I find Shapiro’s writing to be much more enjoyable.

6. Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity – Adam S. Ferziger
7. Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox – Marc B. Shapiro

I used both of these books extensively in my Politics of Exclusion class series with good reason. Both are historical works which discuss partisanship and schisms within the Jewish world. Ferziger’s study is more extensive whereas Shapiro focuses exclusively on the Orthodox rejection of Saul Lieberman after his appointment at JTS. Of these two books, I’d give a slight nod to Shapiro’s on the grounds that it’s smaller, cheaper, and it presents in clear unflattering detail that despite Orthodox claims to the contrary, Torah knowledge and religious observance are meaningless without allegiance to the establishment.

8. Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson – Elliot R. Wolfson
9. The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch – Sue Fishkoff

Both of these books are wonderful non-polemical surveys of Chabad Lubavitch, but their real value lies in their respective introductory chapters in which the authors explicate their methodologies. Fishkoff, a reporter by profession, acknowledges the controversies but remains focused on providing a descriptive ethnography of how Chabad operates in various environments. I personally found the later chapters repetitive but this would still not detract from the overall value of how a Jewish ethnography can and should be conducted.

Similarly, Wolfson carefully explains and defends his methodology for analyzing Chabad’s thought, in particular noting the errors which will result from viewing Chabad exclusively through its text or culture. Compared to his other technical and esoteric works, Open Secret is actually readable.

10. Untold Tales of Hassidim – David Assaf
As with my previous selections, the whole book is a fun read but the best stuff is in the introductory chapter. Judaism, Orthodox in particular, is a religion which to a large extent bases itself on perpetuating an unbroken chain of tradition. But what happens when the religious narrative contradicts actual historical facts? As Assaf meticulously demonstrates, some possibilities include historical revisionism and outright suppression of inconvenient data to the point where it is clear that certain “traditions” of Judaism are in fact perpetuations of lies. Read, and get really angry.

11. American Judaism: A History – Jonathan D. Sarna
One specific example of whitewashing religious history is the instance of Judaism in America. Sarna’s enlightening study explores the existing religious culture, the minhag hamakom if you will, of American Judaism before it was overrun and supplanted by Orthodox and Reform European immigrants.

12. Expanding the Palace of Torah – Tamar Ross
This is simply the best treatment of Orthodox Feminism one will find. Ross’ positions are well researched and documented and presented coherently. To the discerning reader, they are also wildly inconsistent 4 and deeply flawed. 5 Regardless if you find Ross convincing or not, anyone who wishes to argue intelligently on Orthodox Feminism must read this book.

13. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages – Jacob Katz
The Shabbes Goy: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility – Jacob Katz
I’m tempted to break one of my rules and just say read everything by Jacob Katz (he’s that good), but these two works are good enough introductions to Katz’s history of halakhic development in response to changing social realities.

15. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory – Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
An important meditation on meta-history or historiography.


  1. Though most enjoyable and highly recommended regardless.
  2. I had the great pleasure to do so for my pre-Aliyah “Raid the Rabbi” event where I invited fellow book geek friends to lighten my load. Compare the before and after pics. I have some wonderful friends.
  3. “On a somewhat less spiritual plane, [Eliade] then began an affair with his mentor’s daughter.”
  4. Of the most glaring problems is that Ross offhandedly dismisses those with whom she disagrees as “apologetics,” even when these voices are those of Orthodox women. See Frimer’s treatment here especially pages 11-12.
  5. Particularly her treatment of legal theory at the end of the book and her presumptions about how halakhah works.
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