It’s the end of 2020. You know what kind of year it’s been, I know what kind of year it’s been, let’s move on.
This is not a comprehensive list of the books I read or a ranking of what I think are the “best” books. Instead, I prefer to share the books I enjoyed reading the most in the hopes that maybe someone will find and enjoy something they otherwise might not have. Enjoyment for me doesn’t imply agreement, only that the book resonated in a profound way.
According to Goodreads, I read 62 books this year, which is a dropoff from the 106 books I read in 2019. On the plus side, whereas in 2019 I only enjoyed 2 of them to make the annual list, this year fared much better in terms of my reading enjoyment.
Without further ado, here is my list for YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books of 2020, ordered by date of completion. Maybe you’ll find something interesting and enjoyable here too.
Talmudic Law and the Modern State – Moshe Silberg
I have a soft spot for older scholarship. I’m not sure if it’s because I disagree with the ideological directions of scholarship or because I have the impression that contemporary scholars often pale in comparison when it comes to knowledge and literacy of the primary texts they research. Published in 1973, this book is one of the best treatments discussing the relationship of Talmudic law and ethics with that of a secular state. His interpretation of Bava Metzia 83a is the most attentive (and, in my opinion, accurate) that I’ve seen and would be enough reason to make this list by itself.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed – Lori Gottlieb
I’m usually on the fence about memoirs, but this one spoke to me for two reasons. First, it’s brilliantly written with a perfect amount of humor and pathos. Second, a question that often comes up in the rabbinate is who is the rabbi to the rabbis? More specifically, what happens when the issue isn’t necessarily a lack of knowledge, but the difficulty in applying one’s academic wisdom to one’s personal struggles. Gottlieb leads by example showing how hard genuine introspection actually is.
The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism – Kenneth Wald
Wald’s thesis is that the early liberalism of American Jews intentionally avoided appeals to religion, at least based on certain organizations. I’m not yet convinced of the scope of the argument; I suspect that further research of rabbinic sermons and statements would yield appeals to religion in the name of liberalism, but I will leave this to professional historians. Still, even if the extent of Wald’s observations might not be as broad as presented, they are certainly indicative of a shift in Jewish political rhetoric to contemporary activists whose liberalism is explicitly grounded in religious material.
Charity in Rabbinic Judaism: Atonement, Rewards, and Righteousness – Alyssa Gray
Gray’s book reminds me of “old-school” rabbinic scholarship, and I mean this is the best way possible. It is a well-organized presentation of massive amounts of rabbinic material, along with interpretations that are supported by the textual data. In terms of content, Gray methodically demonstrates that independent of charity’s economics or social benefits, rabbinic Judaism treats charity as a fundamentally religious obligation.
Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought – Jonathan Rauch
First published in 1993, Kindly Inquisitors is no less relevant in today’s environment of “cancel culture.” Rauch thoughtfully discusses the parameters of censorship, which ideas are deemed acceptable for society and how such judgments are made. Rauch cites for comparison the 1989 fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie to demonstrate that censorship functions similarly, only differing the details. It is noteworthy that when Harper Magazine published, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in July, it was signed by Salman Rushdie himself.
Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces – Radley Balko
The rise of the Black Lives Matter protests in response to police violence (among other things) were a major story in 2020. Independent of issues pertaining systemic racism, Balko describes how police departments came to shift their attitude from “protect and serve” to a more combative approach to policing. As an aside, I once heard Jocko Willink observe that the police departments that embraced a more military model only adopted the superficial trappings of the military in terms of acquiring more advanced (and violent) equipment rather than cultivating the mental discipline of the military in terms of the rigorous training needed to maintain level-headedness in stressful (and potentially life-threatening) situations.
Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World – Phillip Wexler, Eli Rubin, Michael Wexler
Some of you may know I’ve dabbled in the sociology of religion, earning a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. A major problem I had with the field is that sociologists of Judaism are not always literate in the traditions which they study. The contributions of each of the three authors is readily apparent with Phillip Wexler handling the sociology, Eli Rubin providing encyclopedic expertise of R. Schneerson’s vast oeuvre (Eli Rubin), all weaved together with the accessible narrative storytelling of Michael Wexler. At times I found Social Vision veering towards intellectual hagiography and there are some big questions left unanswered.1 Still, it’s one of the best interdisciplinary works of social sciences and religion that I’ve encountered in a very long time.
The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy – Viktor Frankl
Many people are familiar with Frankl’s story and his more popular book, Man’s Search for Meaning. I found The Will to Meaning to be powerful in its own right due to its focus on putting the ideas into practice as well as Frankl’s honest admission that like any therapy, logotherapy will not be effective for everyone.
Sin-A-Gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought – David Bashevkin
I’m always a fan of substantive books that also manage to be readable. In Sin-A-Gogue, Bashevkin isn’t just readable, but engaging as he works his way through an important theological question with attention to both philology and philosophy. Furthermore, a good test I use if an author is on to something is the extent ideas are supported or contradicted by data not included in the book. Reading Sin-A-Gogue, I found at least a dozen examples where I thought of additional supporting sources or parallels. This shouldn’t be taken as a critique or even a quibble. If anything, Bashevkin has the wisdom to prioritize reader engagement over an excessive bibliography, and is able to do so without compromising integrity or taking intellectual shortcuts.
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America – Richard Rorty
This was recommended to me by my friend and rabbinic colleague Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, and to whom I’m most grateful. Achieving our Country is an example of a firm believer in an ideology willing to examine core beliefs critically and thoroughly. I’m sure others exist on a range of issues, but in an age of hyper-partisanship, I found Rorty’s introspection refreshing.
The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land – Lev Grossman
I tend not to read much fiction, but when I got married, my lovely wife brought with her an impressive collection of novels, mostly in the fantasy genre. She’s also been very good with her recommendations. Of the books in her library, I greatly enjoyed Grossman’s Magician’s trilogy as being a smarter, darker, and in an odd way more realistic amalgam of Harry Potter and Narnia. I’d recommend just getting the boxed set
I Am for My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples – David Ribner, Talli Rosenbaum
This relatively short read should be on every rabbi’s shelf. Were I still in a pastoral position to give marital counseling, I would be grateful that I Am for My Beloved exists such that I could recommend it to them. It is a feat of impressive erudition and insight that the authors managed to discuss such an intimate subject with nuance, maturity, and respect for both human psychology and the religious tradition. While I enjoyed all the books on this list, I Am for My Beloved is the only one where I felt the need to personally thank the author for having written the book.
What Is Good, and What God Demands: Normative Structures in Tannaitic Literature – Tzvi Novick
This is an excellent study comparing various languages of obligation in Tannaitic literature and their implications. For a subject that could easily venture into moralizing, Novick sticks with how terms are used in their specific contexts. While I enjoyed it immensely, it is by no means written for a popular audience. And being published by Brill, it’s also prohibitively expensive (unless you find a used copy like I did).
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – Rebecca Goldstein
I found this to be an exceptionally clever book. As someone who has spent much time in the worlds of rabbinics and academia, I probably picked up more of the details and academic references than the typical reader. Setting aside the plot of the novel itself, the appendix summarizing 36 arguments for God and their logical fallacies is alone worth the cost of the book and I’d have no problem including it in an introduction to theology syllabus.