Rating four new books on Torah
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
There are a number of books that have been recently written concerning the weekly Torah portion. Some are better than others. I am recommending the books according to a four-star rating.
The Lion Cub of Prague: Thought Kabbala, Hashkafa from Gur Aryeh—The Maharal of Prague by Dr. Moshe David Kuhr; Gefen Publishing, Jerusalem, 2012; ISBN-10: 9652295612; 236 pages; $21.95.
Dr. Moshe David Kuhr’s The Lion Cub of Prague: Thought Kabbala, Hashkafa from Gur Aryeh—The Maharal of Prague introduces to the Jewish public one of the 16th century’s greatest Jewish mystics and exegetes, Rabbi Yehuda Lowe of Prague (1525-1609), who is better known as “Maharal” of Prague. For those of you who are familiar with the famous Golem legend, Rabbi Lowe created an artificial being, called the “Golem,” who protected the Jewish community from anti-Semites. Maharal ‘s writings reveal him as an original thinker and theologian. The Maharal also proved to be a brilliant expositor of Rashi, and he also wrote a didactic exposition of Rashi’s work, which he called Gur Aryeh (The Lion Cub.)
To understand Dr. Kuhr’s exposition, it helps to be familiar with Rashi’s commentary. However, even if you are unfamiliar with his commentaries, the author wisely chooses passages from Rashi along with the Maharal’s exposition that should make sense to a new student of Rashi. Here is one passage that I enjoyed reading:
- The people, therefore, took their dough before it was leavened, in their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks on their shoulders. (Exodus 12:34)
Rashi notes, “The Egyptians did not allow them time to let their dough leaven.” Gur Aryeh adds, “One might think they did not allow the bread to rise in order to avoid the prohibition of leaven on Pesach, about which they had already been commanded (cf. Exod. 12:15,19). This prohibition, however, applies to the future generations, not to the first Pesach in Egypt after midnight. They were in fact starting to bake their bread for the trip when they were jolted unexpectedly by Egyptians, who suffering the sudden death of their firstborn sons, came upon them, imploring them to depart immediately. The power of the miracle was such that they were forced to collect their dough before it rose. That is why matza and the leaven prohibition are embedded in our national consciousness.”
The Lion Cub of Prague contains many charming passages and as an educated reader, I enjoyed his insights. Some expositions were a bit harder to follow than others, but on the whole, I think the author did a fine job assembling his favorite portions. Incidentally, the study of Rashi’s commentary has been experiencing a remarkable Renaissance over the past 30 years. Kuhr’s Lion Cub of Prague is a good primer for students interested in deepening Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch. In Israel, Rabbi David Yehoshua Hartman’s critical edition of the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh supracommentary (i.e., a commentary on a commentary), is an outstanding contribution to rabbinical scholarship on Rashi and Kuhr makes good use of this resource in his book. However, the book is a little difficult to read from cover to cover. I suggest the reader pick and choose whatever section that seems most appealing. Personally, I found some of the selections suffered from too much pilpul (didactic hair-splitting) and
pilpul is really designed for contortionists.
I would give this book 3-star rating out of 4
* * *
Fifty-Four Pick Up: Fifteen-Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons by Rabbi Shmuel Hertfeld. Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2012; ISBN-10: 9652295582; 256 pages; $26.95.
To begin with, this is a wonderful book. The title of the book is a little confusing. At first sight, I did not realize this was a book on the weekly parsha. “Fifty-Four Pick Up” sounds more like a card game for children than a book on Jewish learning.
Rabbi Hetzfeld is a student or Rabbi Avi Weiss, who happens to be one of the country’s most innovative Modern Orthodox rabbis (Hurray!). Rabbi Hertzfeld is a dynamic exponent of Rabbi Weiss’s liberal approach to Halacha. With great interest, I read most of his book.
The author does not shy away from speaking about gender rights and expanding the interpretive boundaries of Halacha. He gets upset at the fact that Israeli authorities arrested a woman at the Western Wall for wearing a tallit (p. 239) and then criticizes Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef for calling the practice “deviant.” He then cites a number of modern Halachic works dealing with how the medieval scholars allowed women to wear the tallit, who differed with Maimonides’ view that women should not say the blessing over a time-bound precept” (MT Hilchot Tzitzit 3:9).
I have personally written about this topic many times. It is delightful to see a young Modern Orthodox rabbi making a case for expanding women’s participation.
His emphasis on the importance of moral excellence and personal integrity (p. 3-6) are messages that certainly pertain to all denominations of Judaism, but especially to the Orthodox community, which recently has suffered from an endless sea of scandals involving the misuse of money.
The author dazzles his reader with a plethora of rabbinical scholars and weaves their insights into a very contemporary message.
I wish the author would have used the sections in Achrei Mot to talk about the serious problem of incest and pedophilia that has scorched the headlines of Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers around the country. Silence is complicity and I think Rabbi Hertfeld needs to boldly take this challenge and call upon the Orthodox community to take a zero-tolerance position against the Haredi, Chabad, and other Hassidic groups who try to deny the existence of this particular problem in their communities.
The author’s sympathy for gay Jews and rabbis is touching, but he falls short of the kind of re-visioning of Halacha that is really needed today. Where there is a Halachic will, there is always a Halachic way to change the status quo’s treatment of transgender, gay and lesbian Jews—which ultimately is a privacy issue that people of all denominations and faith must respect.
All in all, this is a wonderful book to read over a Shabbat.
I give this book a rating of 4 stars out of 4–it was the best written of the books I reviewed for this article.
The Choice to Be: A Jewish Pathway to Self and Spirituality by Rabbi Jeremy Kagan; New York: Feldheim Publishers, 2011. ISBN 9781598268218. 452 Pages; $24.99.
In many ways, this was the most interesting of the books here reviewed. Rabbi Kagan’s book was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award 2011 for the Modern Jewish Thought and Experience. This accomplishment speaks well of his book.
Rabbi Kagan has a Yale University background and the title and substance of his book reminds me a lot of Paul Tillich’s famous book, The Courage to Be. Both books are existential expositions of faith. Tillich deals with faith from a Christian perspective, Kagan deals with faith from a Jewish perspective. However, the reader may find much of the material theologically obtuse. It is not the kind of book one can read from cover to cover, but it is a book that offers many profound thoughts worth studying. Issues such as good vs. evil; the purpose of mitzvoth; the nature of the God-human relationship; alienation; and the absence of miracles in our lives are some of the thought-provoking ideas the author grapples with—and so should we. The author concerns himself with the evolution of human consciousness as articulated in Jewish tradition. Admittedly, it took me a while to find the time to really get into his book, but once I did, I found a kindred spirit whose ideas I share.
I give this book a 3.5 star rating out of 4.
The Taryag Companion by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Xlibris, Bloomington, IN. 2012; ISBN-10: 1469192101; Pages 694; $23.99.
Many books have been written about the 613 precepts of the Torah. They vary considerably from one another. One book deals with the rationale of the precepts as understood by the classical medieval commentaries. Others contain in-depth Halachic expositions that can bore even the most dedicated reader.
Abramowitz writes like a skilled educator. Having worked with Orthodox teens in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), his writing style is crisp, funny, clear and precise. Distilled books on such complicated subjects are very important for today’s young people.
However, if you thought you were getting just a breakdown of Maimonides’s classification of the mitzvoth, think again! He also included the views of Maimonides’s critics—and they are many—e.g., Ramban and R. Avraham Ibn Daud. His appendices deal with the various rabbinical methods of deriving Jewish Law, as well his methodological exposition on Maimonides’s approach to making sense.
Some of the humor is sometimes a bit too corny and juvenile. For example, some of the subtitles include: Mitzvah 173 regarding the purification of the leper, “Here I come to Shave the Day!)” Mitzvah Count 210: Beast of Burden: The Prohibition against bestiality (pp. 240-241); or Mitzvah 209. “Politically Incorrect: The prohibition against homosexuality” (p. 239). I am not against the use of humor, but only when it is in good taste. I realize everyone has a different appreciation for humor—but most of the time, I thought the author did a fine job with his witty introductions. As rabbis, we must remember that most of us are not standup comics.
The section on the Noahide commandments deserved more attention than the author was willing to give. For example, in the seventh Noahide precept pertaining to justice, the author might have showed how it serves to amplify the extent of the Noahide’s responsibility to take the precept of justice seriously.
The first category of the Noachide Law is Justice, which covers twenty of the 613 commandments: (P= Positive Precept, N = Negative Precept)
1. (176) to appoint judges and officers in each and every community (P);
2. (177) to treat litigants equally before the law (P);
3. (178) to testify in court (P);
4. (179) to inquire diligently into the testimony of a witness (P);
5. (226) for the courts to administer the death penalty by the sword (P);
6. (273) against wanton miscarriage of justice by a court (N);
7. (274) against the judge accepting a bribe or gift from a litigant (N);
8. (275) against a judge showing marks of honor to only one litigant (N);
9. (276) against a judge acting in fear of a litigant or of a litigant’s threat (N);
10. (277) against a judge acting out of compassion and favor for a poor litigant because he is poor (N);
11. (278) against a judge acting out of discrimination against a litigant, because the litigant is a sinner (N);
12. (279) against a judge acting out of a softness and putting aside the penalty of a murderer or killer (N);
13. (280) against a judge discriminating against a stranger or orphan (N);
14. (281) against a judge hearing one litigant in the absence of the other (N);
15. (284) against appointing a judge who lacks knowledge of the law (N);
16. (285) against testifying falsely (N);
17. (289) against the court killing an innocent man (N);
18. (290) against incrimination by circumstantial evidence (N);
19. (292) against anyone taking the law into one’s own hands to kill someone guilty of capital punishment (N);
20. (294) against punishing for a crime committed under duress (N).
When dealing with Noahide laws, it is helpful to show how expansive these laws actually are; in that sense they resemble the precepts of the Decalogue. I was also surprised the author did not add an index after working so laboriously on this very interesting book. There will always be a need for this kind of book—especially for young people.
I give this book 3.5 stars out of 4.
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista, California. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Short URL: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/?p=29198