Author: <span class="vcard">Josh</span>

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…

Notes:

  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.

Jewish Culture

After several weeks of intense fighting in Israel and Tisha B’Av fast approaching celebrations will be be more subdued this year. In a sense it’s kind of fitting given how…

Personal

Current Jewish Questions

Since I became a pulpit Rabbi I have rarely posted my sermons. In part this is because with the exception of the High Holidays I don’t write out my sermons word for word, preferring to deliver my sermons with a more conversational tone rather than a monologue. 1 However, given that this was my last Shabbat as Rav of The Stanton St. Shul, I had requests to share my final sermon to the congregation. Even when I do write out sermons in advance, I use my text less as a “published” document and more as a guideline in to ensure my focus. Consequently, the actual sermon I actually deliver occasionally deviates from the text in front of me, not in its essence or point, but in terms of word choices or spur of the moment editorials to include or exclude some material.

I hesitate to call my final sermon a “classic,” but I can say that this is fairly typical of the sermons I would give with its crucial elements being:

  1. A close read of a text, usually as in this case the Bible, but occasionally a Rabbinic teaching.
  2. A message or point based off of the text, presented as a “suggestion” or “possibility” and hopefully relevant to the congregation.
  3. Explicit and/or subtle references to outside works. 2
  4. Optional: explicit or subtle puns, usually bad.
  5. Do all of the above in 10-15 minutes.

Without further ado, the working notes from my final sermon at The Stanton Street Shul, with annotations.

Notes:

  1. Although I was trained to give very formal sermons, I realized early on that not only did that style take substantially more time to prepare, but the extra effort would not have mattered to the congregation. I found the conversational style worked best in my synagogue to communicate ideas, and it allowed the freedom to adlib and respond to hecklers. For the High Holidays when I had to focus my mental energies on managing the service as well as meeting higher expectations, writing out the entire sermon was essential.
  2. I also don’t title my sermons, but if I had to for this one, I’d have used this one, taken from the series finale of ST:TNG.

Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah

With the current violence in Israel continuing without a clear end in sight, Israel is once again receiving support and criticism for its policies. One common refrain found among Israel’s supporters is that the inordinate amount of criticism levied against Israel is actually a form of anti-Semitism. When “anti-Israel” protesters reportedly shout “Kill the Jews” while looting Jewish businesses, it is easy to reach this conclusion. But aside from these violent outbreaks, is there any validity to the argument that the more civil rhetorical attacks against Israel are rooted in anti-Semitism? In her Remarks Before 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal offers criteria for distinction:

Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized. These cases are not disagreements with a policy of Israel, this is anti-Semitism.[Emphasis added]

Writing for the New York Times in 2002, Thomas Friedman offered a similar contrast:

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

There are no doubt other opinions and qualifications which answer this question, but I believe that for the Liberal Left – whose members tend to be some of Israel’s most vocal and vitriolic critics – the definitions cited above are justifiable based on how it views discrimination in other contexts, particularly regarding the US criminal justice system.

Israel

Podcasts

The exciting conclusion to Rabbi Yuter’s class series on Maimonides’ Laws of Shabbat. Laws of Shabbat 22 – Review and Conclusion

Laws of Shabbat

Rabbi Yuter’s Laws of Shabbat series discusses Chapter 30 of Rambam’s Laws of Shabbat. Laws of Shabbat 21 – Chapter 30

Laws of Shabbat

One of the great joys I’ve had in my time as the Rav of The Stanton St. Shul is the opportunity not just to teach Torah, but to do so in ways which may be more meaningful and relevant to people than they’ve previously encountered. The intent behind my Current Jewish Questions series was to start with real-world examples and explore some laws or ideas particular relevant to an actual situation. In this way, even obscure or difficult texts become accessible and relatable.

None of these classes were intended to be comprehensive – I’m constantly updating my own source sheets as I come across new material – but I hope they can serve as a useful introduction to many of the questions Jews encounter while living in the modern world, even if we cannot provide (or intentionally avoid) giving definitive answers.

Below is the complete list of all the Current Jewish Questions classes from my time at The Stanton St. Shul. 1 Please enjoy listening to the audio, following along with the source sheets, and feel free to adapt and modify these classes as you see fit for your own educational needs.

Notes:

  1. More classes were given though not all were uploaded for technical or quality reasons, hence the inconsistency in numbering. Either that or I simply can’t count.

Current Jewish Questions

Current Jewish Questions