YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2021

In what has become an annual tradition, every December I review the books I read in the past year and pick out my favorites to share with other avid readers.

This is not a comprehensive list of all the books I read, nor is this a ranking of these books as the “best” of anything. 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 encountered. Enjoyment does not imply agreement with or an endorsement of their arguments, only that I found their contents stimulating and engaging.

According to Goodreads, I read 63 books in 2021. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most.

Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles Vol. 1-4 – Menachem Elon

I’ve been reading this set off and on for the past several years as my Shabbat reading and finally finished it in 2021. Originally written in Hebrew,1 this is an excellent and accessible translation of a magisterial work that shaped an entire academic field.

One part I found particularly fascinating was the fourth volume that discusses the role halakhah ought to play in the State of Israel. Elon is remarkably optimistic about the integrity of the Rabbanut which leads him to make some sweeping claims. Nevertheless, whoever has the knowledge and acumen to write the first three volumes has more than earned the right to opine in the fourth.

In short, I think this set belongs on the shelf of any practicing rabbi or anyone who pontificates about Jewish law and the halakhic process and I’d even say it ought to be required reading of all rabbinical students.

What’s Wrong With Morality?: A Social-Psychological Perspective – C. Daniel Batson

While researching for a project, I came across the scholarship of C. Daniel Batson, a social psychologist who has written extensively on morality. In one sense, What’s Wrong With Morality summarizes Batson’s research, but it also shows Batson wrestling with the disturbing implications of his findings. While I find his answers unconvincing, the questions he poses are critical for understanding how people understand, practice, and invoke morality.

 

The Study of Judaism: Authenticity, Identity, Scholarship – Aaron Hughes

Another theme in my reading this year has been questions of legitimacy and authenticity, something I’ve been thinking about for at least 15 years. The Study of Judaism is less an academic work than a polemic against the current state of Judaic Studies in academia. Specifically, Hughes questions outside influences on academic institutions that seek to define authentic Jewish identity in ways that suit them. Hughes’ own preferences are no less subjective and suspect than those he rejects, but he asks important questions that are worthy of consideration.

The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science – Michael Strevens

A great survey of the history of science and a fun read for anyone interested in epistemology. 

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction – Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic

Critical Race Theory is currently one of the most controversial issues in America. This book, co-authored by one of CRT’s founding scholars, provides an excellent overview of what CRT is and how CRT scholars view the world. While it is in no way comprehensive, it’s a far better representation of CRT than most of what you’ll find in the media such that if you’re going to formulate an opinion about CRT, it’s a great starting point. 

Walden – Henry David Thoreau

I picked this up because my wife has many classic leather-bound editions. First published in 1854, much of Thoreau’s message of minimalism and simplicity resonates today.

Jewish Identity: Who is a Jew? – Baruch Litvin

In 1950, Israeli President David Ben-Gurion solicited opinions from rabbis and academics all over the world to answer the question, “Who is a Jew?” Jewish Identity collects the wide variety of answers given from legendary figures of contemporary Jewish history. 

Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships – Alan Page Fiske, Tage Shakti Rai

For another entry in the moral philosophy department, Virtuous Violence offers a theory of morality as a means of maintaining social relationships. This approach explains why individuals may commit violent acts not in spite of their moral principles, but because of them. 

Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide – John Cleese

Shifting gears, this is a fun little book about trying to be creative, written by a legendary comedian. 

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed – James C. Scott 

According to one school of thought, the government has the mandate (if not obligation) to improve the lives of its citizens through its unique position of centralized power. However, such attempts inevitably come at costs, some more severe than others. Scott provides a theory, backed with several examples, explaining why government intervention can fail, and in some cases fail miserably. Seeing Like a State is not a case for Libertarianism as much a series of cautionary tales for those who advocate for government intervention. In theory, those who are aware of how things can go wrong and why can take preventative measures when crafting policy.

In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic – Peter Singer, Anton Zijderveld

Peter Singer is no stranger to controversial positions and the subsequent attacks because of them. Any book that tries to take things down a notch is welcome reading these days.

My Larger Education – Booker T. Washington

I’m genuinely curious about how Washington would perceive contemporary society and how he would be received by it. My Larger Education isn’t merely biographical, but it outlines Washington’s approach to racial reconciliation based on the realities on the ground and with more than a little contempt for academics and intelligentsia. There are several notable quotes in this book, but more importantly, I think it provides some lost wisdom essential for addressing our most intractable problems.

In what has become an annual tradition, every December I review the books I read in the past year and pick out my favorites to share with other avid readers.

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Notes

  1. One major advantage of the Hebrew edition is that the citations are all in the original language as well.
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