June 20, 2024
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The Five Best Books of 5781

The oft-used term People of the Book, which sounds much better in Hebrew, Am HaSefer, is an apt term. Walk into any Jewish book store, and new titles are arriving almost daily. And that says a lot.

The year 5781 is coming to a close, and the year was blessed with many truly excellent books. To wit, this is my list of the top five books of the year, most of which were reviewed in this fine publication.

Book of the year: “Illuminating Jewish Thought: Faith, Philosophy, and Knowledge of God-Volume 1” by Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank. Maggid. 2020. English. Hardcover. 798 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592645480.

As reviewed this week, “Illuminating Jewish Thought” is an incredible sefer. Wiederblank takes the kaleidoscope of Jewish thought and puts it into an organized and readable format. He covers the core areas of the Jewish faith, the ABCs of what we need to know. Like Volume 2 of his trilogy, when Wiederblank writes, it is something you must read. This is the proverbial desert island book that deserves a place in every Jewish home.

Runners up:

2. “Places in the Parasha: Biblical Geography and Its Meaning” by Professor Yoel Elitzur. Maggid. 2020. English. Hardcover. 872 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592644865.

Nearly every reader here knows where Monsey, Bergenfield, Roemer Avenue and Passaic are. However, could they identify Goshen, Paran, Gerar or Goren Ha’atad on a map? These are just a few of hundreds of places that have deep meaning in Tanach. In ”Places in the Parasha: Biblical Geography and Its Meaning,” Yoel Elitzur of the Land of Israel Studies Department at Herzog College has written a remarkable book detailing many of the places in Tanach. This fascinating work will undoubtedly add meaning and depth when you come across these place names and know where to pinpoint them on a map.

3. “Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World” by Dr. Yael Ziegler. Maggid. 2021. English. Hardcover. 556 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592645558.

My friend Nadav Serling sings in “Dig Deep,” “but I better dig deep, or I’ll never tap my well.” In “Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World,” Yael Ziegler digs extremely deep into the book of Lamentations. Here, she taps into her bottomless well of insights and provides the reader with a profound awareness of one of the most untapped wells of meaning in all of Tanach.

4. “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Maggid. 2020.  English. Hardcover. 334 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592645527.

It is almost a year since the passing of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l and his void is still felt. In his final work, “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas,” his genius comes out in every chapter. Rabbi Sacks brought a unique sensitivity and sophistication to the Jewish world. His loss is already felt, and it is hard to find an adequate replacement for him. He leaves the world with scores of books that will last evermore. “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” is a testament to his greatness.

5. “Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things” by Dr. Jeremy England. Basic Books. 2020. English. Hardcover. 272 pages.
ISBN-13: 978-1541699014.

When it comes to books on science and religion, “Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things” by Jeremy England is a title that stands alone. In the book, England does not try to overpower the reader with massive numbers or complex statistics, but uses a gentle and sophisticated approach to make his point. He proposes some fascinating and provocative ideas. With his idea of dissipative adaptation, he believes that he has found the fundamental physics that explains life’s origin and how life has evolved.

In this brilliant work, England has raised the bar so high in the field of integration of science and religion, that he is the only one there.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke.

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