Category: Special Features

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.




YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2020

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.




YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2019

Last year when I moved my annual “Favorite Books” recap from social media to a blog post, I thought it would be a nice way to keep an archive and write a little more about more books. Unfortunately this year I have a little less to say. It’s not that I haven’t read as much. On the contrary, according to my Goodreads log, I’ve read 106 books this year which is about double my average from the past few years.1

The trouble is, while I read a lot of books I didn’t enjoy as many this year as I have in the past. In fact, out of those 106 books, I can only really recomend two.




YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2018

One of the things I still enjoy from social media is the book recommendations, either directly from friends or from reviews I see shared. Every now and again I get exposed to books or authors whom I otherwise would never have encountered, and this exposure has helped me expand my knowledge and perspective about many topics.

Since I enjoy book recommendations, a few years ago I started compiling my favorite books from the previous year, initially as a Facebook post, then a Twitter thread, and now that the blog is back up and running, I decided to start posting them here.

The following isn’t a comprehensive list of books I’ve read or even a ranking of the “best” books. Rather, these are the books I enjoyed reading the most. This does not even mean I agree with everything in these books, only that for various reasons I found myself more engaged and generally appreciated the experience of having read these.

Enjoy at your leisure!




The Sacred Slogans Series

Sacred Slogans

Over the summer of 2018, I resuscitated this site and undertook a personal writing project to finally address in long-form1 several topics which I feel have been intentionally oversimplified, in some cases to the point of distortion. The result is what I call the “Sacred Slogan Series,” including PDF source sheets, collected below for convenience.

Introducing “Sacred Slogans”
The introduction explains what I mean by “Sacred Slogans” and why I feel they are so important to explore in greater detail. I also define my methodologies and goals.

Tzelem Elokim / Imago Dei / Image of God
The idea that all human beings are created in the image of God is a core tenet of faith for universalist approaches to Judaism, but for Biblical and Rabbinic sources it’s far more complicated.

“70 Faces of Torah” and Eilu Va’Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayyim – The Limits of Pluralism
These two idioms are often cited in defense of pluralism, but in the original Rabbinic sources, they actually define the limits of pluralism.

Ohr Lagoyim / “Light unto the Nations”
Aside from the dubious origins of “Light unto the Nations” as a slogan, this entry addresses the extent to which Torah is concerned with how Jews are perceived by gentiles.

“A Jew is a Jew” – Identity vs. Inclusion
This entry addresses a modern-day Sacred Slogan in order to differentiate between one’s immutable status of being a Jew and one’s acceptance in Jewish communal life.

“Love the Stranger” – The Ger in Jewish Society
While the Biblical commandment to “love the stranger” is often invoked in the context of immigration and refugee policy, Torah comes with its own regulations.

Tikkun Olam
Tikkun Olam is the most ubiquitous of the Sacred Slogans. This entry discusses how Tikkun Olam was implemented by the tradition which coined the term.




Tikkun Olam

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals 
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Of the Sacred Slogans we have addressed so far, none are as socially significant as “tikkun olam.” Tikkun olam literally translates to “repairing the world,” which is ambitious as it is open to interpretation. Despite the fact that there is no commandment mandate anywhere in Biblical1 or Rabbinic literature for Jews to undertake tikkun olam,2 some have understood it as a universalist mandate for the Jewish people. For example, according to Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, “We cannot consider ourselves servants of the Divine King unless we take upon ourselves the task ‘to perfect the World under the Kingdom of the Almighty.”3 Nearly 60 years later, R. Richard Hirsch asserted, “God has chosen us for a sacred mission: Tikkun Olam, to complete the universe. This concept of Tikkun Olam as the collective mission of the Jewish people has permeated every movement in Jewish life.”4

To illustrate the pervasiveness of “tikkun olam,” Andrew Silow-Carroll and Jonathan Krasner both used Google’s NGram Viewer to find the frequency of “tikkun olam” in published books and found a huge spike in its usage starting in early 1980’s and continued with a consistent upward trend that continues to this day.

With the extensive literature discussing tikkun olam constantly growing, a discussion of how the term has evolved would be a worthy study in its own right.5 However, my focus here is what did the idiom mean in its original context, with a focus on its practical implementations.




“Love the Stranger” – The Ger in Jewish Society

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

As debates over US immigration and refugee policy continue, activists have taken to citing the Biblical commandments to love and protect the “ger,” popularly translated as the “stranger,” as the moral basis for their respective positions. Those who do not recognize Biblical authority can dismiss these commandments as easily as they would for anything else in the Bible. But for Jews, or at least those Jews who accept the Bible as representative of divine will, the Biblical commandments to protect the stranger ought to carry religious significance. Jewish activists who invoke the “stranger” in the context of immigration or refugees are thus asserting that the Biblical protections ought to be applied in such cases, and therefore Jews have a religious obligation to support (or oppose) government policies that run counter to God’s commandments.

Setting aside the question of if Jews should demand that civil policies follow Biblical (or Rabbinic) law, Torah has more to say about the relationship between the “stranger” and society than an unconditional obligation to provide support to whoever demands. 

Let me state explicitly that I have no desire to debate immigration or refugee policy as these complicated subjects are well beyond my expertise. The specific point I am addressing here is that if it is appropriate to extend the Torah’s model of the “stranger” to immigration and refugees, then we ought to consider more of the Torah’s laws and values to see if such analogies are truly warranted.1




“A Jew is a Jew” – Identity vs. Inclusion

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Not long after he accepted chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, former Israeli MK Isaac Herzog referred to intermarriage as a “plague” that required a “solution.” One might expect this sort of rhetoric out of an Orthodox rabbi, but not from the head of the Jewish Agency, whose mission is “to connect the global Jewish family.” Herzog subsequently clarified, “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter which stream he belongs to, if he wears a skullcap or not.”

While “a Jew is a Jew” does not appear in that exact form in traditional Jewish texts, the Rabbinic analogue can be found in the Talmud. Commenting on Joshua 7:11, R. Abba b. Zavda says, “even though he has sinned, he is still ‘Israel’”.1 Meaning, a Jew who sins is still part of the Jewish people. This is a fundamental concept for Jewish outreach among those who try to ignite the latent “Jewish spark” within all Jews.

At the same time, “a Jew is a Jew” hits at the core issues of inclusion and exclusion in the Jewish community. This is a particularly contentious issue in Israel where non-Orthodox denominations lobby for official recognition and legitimacy in the Jewish state. As discussed at length in a previous podcast series, the politics of exclusion has been a constant theme throughout Jewish history. And as we will see in this post, certain people may be halakhically Jewish, but may still be excluded from society due to their actions. The point of this entry is to differentiate between the status of one’s Jewish identity and one’s role in a Jewish society, in that the former does not guarantee the latter.2




Ohr Lagoyim / “Light unto the Nations”

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Much of the Torah is particularistic, that is, for or about Jews exclusively. For example, we find particularistic sentiments such as like the Jews being chosen by God to be a treasured nation over all others1 or God giving the Torah to the Jewish people to the exclusion of gentiles.2 At the same time, there are also expressions of universalism, where the scope of Torah extends to the entire world beyond the Jewish nation such as Isaiah 2:1-4.3 

Following in a universalist mindset, there are those who claim that Jews have a national mission to become exemplars to the rest of the world, however defined. The sacred slogan behind this claim is that the Jews ought to be, “ohr lagoyim” / “a light unto the nations.”




70 Faces of Torah and Eilu Va’Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayyim – The Limits of Pluralism

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

This post addresses two Sacred Slogans frequently employed in the name of pluralism. The first is that there are “70 faces of Torah,” referring to the multiplicity of possible interpretations, seen as the inspiration for religious blog names on Patheos and HuffPost. The second is “eilu va’eilu divrei elokim hayyim” – “these and those are the words of the living God.” Both of these Sacred Slogans are typically invoked to praise the institution of debate and to affirm that multiple – and sometimes contradictory – viewpoints can be equally valid.

When we examine the sources of these idioms we will find some affirmation of debates, but more significantly, we find their limitations.