July 20, 2024
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A Few Books I Enjoyed During Sukkot

Sukkot is called zman simchatenu. There were several books I was able to read that certainly added to that simcha.

The first of my reads this Yom Tov was “Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah,” by Rabbi Shmuel Phillips (Press. 2019. English. Hardcover. 632 pages. 978-1946351784). At over 600 pages, Phillips touches upon nearly every imaginable topic around Jewish philosophy. Structured around the weekly parsha, Phillips draws heavily from the Rambam and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

The book is exceptionally well-researched, with Phillips referencing the entire spectrum of traditional rabbinical sources and current ones in academia. While I started reading this long before Sukkot, it’s a deep and rich book that may take you more than eight days to read.

As to “reclaimed” in the title, Phillips is attempting to defend the Torah and Judaism. For example, he makes numerous references to “Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism” by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman. This is to observe that while there may be similarities between the Torah and other ancient works, it is essential, when analyzing any apparent similarities between the Torah and earlier or parallel sources, to ensure that one’s focus remains on the content and core message being imparted by the Torah, rather than by the terminology and phrases in which the messages are presented.

Phillips also quotes Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz several times. While Leibowitz is not as mainstream or conventional as his younger sister Nechama, Phillips is to be commended for bringing his interesting and often highly unique views to light here.

The only thing lacking in the book is an index. With the multitude of diverse topics discussed, the lack of an index makes it impossible to look up specific topics and subjects.

Phillips has written an interesting work that is extraordinarily broad, as it is deep in its scope. He covers some of the oldest philosophical questions around, in addition to contemporary ones. For those who have questions, Phillips is likely to have an answer.

While “Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah” is an intellectually intense book, “Thirteen Steps: Orthodox Judaism in America comes of Age: My Life and Times” by Rabbi Joseph Karasick (OU Press. 2018. English. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-0999500903) is a much lighter read. A full review of the book by Moshe Kinderlehrer appeared in The Jewish Link last year.

Rabbi Karasick was born almost a century ago, and his life story is a fascinating one. While everyone knows of the Orthodox Union, most don’t know about Karasick and his pivotal role within the organization. This is his story, written openly and honestly, that details his life and some of the many challenges he faced during a turbulent period. While Karasick may no longer be such a well-known figure, his story is an important one to be told. Moreover, this is not just a significant book, but a highly interesting and readable one also.

Rabbi David Silverstein wrote “Jewish Law as a Journey: Finding Meaning in Daily Jewish Practice” (Menorah Books. 2018. English. Hardcover. 296 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1940516752) with a central focus on the expansive power of halacha to facilitate profound divine encounters during the course of the day.

To that, he has done a remarkable job of showing how halacha and the commandments are complex regulations that represent the physical actualizations of a divine set of values and ideas.

Viewing halacha from a place of meaning and authority is crucial in order to facilitate commitment to Jewish law in its entirety. Silverstein shows how to extract that and to find that more profound meaning.

While the book is all about finding the meaning in things, Silverstein makes it eminently clear that halacha mandates the need to submit to it, even when the rationale of its statutes may not be clear.

Genesis time

As we are starting to read Sefer Bereishit, “Genesis: From Creation to Covenant” by Zvi Grumet (Maggid Books. 2017. English. Hardcover. 510 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592644773.) is a remarkable work. As Dov Greenwood reviewed the book in The Jewish Link, this is a fascinating book that will change the way you approach Genesis in general, and Biblical text in specific.

Another book that will change the way you approach Sefer Bereishit is the just-released “Explorations Expanded: Sefer Bereshis” by Rabbi Ari Kahn (Kodesh Press. 2019. English. Paperback. 351 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1947857292) . Similar to Grumet, Kahn does a remarkable job of showcasing the infinite depth and complexity of the text. Full review to follow.

By Ben Rothke

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