Rationalist Reading and Gift List

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In anticipation of the upcoming gift giving season I have compiled a short list of books that I think would make a great gift for the orthodox Jewish Rationalist in your life. If that happens to be you, ask for an Amazon gift card and buy these books for yourself! As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make Amazon purchases via links of this site.

Get a gift card here: Amazon Gift Cards

I have read all these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them. I have not done full reviews of most of these books on the blog but I have included a brief description and the rationalist significance of each of these books. I hope that if you have other books to recommend you will leave your suggestions in the comments.

The list:

The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised – Written by Marc Shapiro, this book, in convincing fashion, describes the myriad of opinions on matters of faith. Most people assume the Rambam’s 13 Principles have universal acceptance among Jewish thinkers throughout the millennium. Shapiro demonstrates that things are not so simple. Every meaningful point in this book is made with a traditional, accepted orthodox Jewish source.

Hashgachah Pratis: An Exploration of Divine Providence – Written by Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz, this book studies the various approaches to Hashgacha Pratis. There is a maximalist view that is prevalent in orthodox Judaism today. The rationalist is more likely to find meaning in the more minimalist views of the rishonim as they are documented in this book.

Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism – Written by Menachem Kellner, this book (without saying so) debunks a common oneaim made by contemporary orthodox Jews. The claim is that the Rambam would have been a mysticist if only he had received the Kabbalistic Tradition. This book shows that the Rambam specifically set out to forge a rationalist path of Judaism.

Masterplan: Judaism–Its Program, Meaning & Goals – Written by Rabbi Carmell, this book is based on R’ Hirsch’s Horeb. It gives a framework for understanding the structure of Judaism and its commandments. It does so without using a single passage from the mystical sources. It is excellent.

The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution – Written by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, this book is a rationalist explanation of Cosmology. This is a particularly difficult area of Torah to navigate without mysticism. Rabbi Slifkin does an excellent job in this book. All of Rabbi Slifkin’s books are excellent. This is the most crucial book for rationalists.

Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash – Also written by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, this book explains the various creatures that seem too fantastical to be real. Either they were real and magical creatures exist or they were not real and magical creatures do not exist. This book takes the latter position and explains many of these passages that have troubled rationalists.

DovBear on the Parsha – Written by DovBear, I did a review of this book here: Book Review | DovBear on the Parsha. This is a great book that opens the reader up to a world of pshat and medrash within our mesorah that does not embrace mystical interpretations. It also shows that with a little thinking and hard work, we can all contribute to Torah.

Bonus: In the Shadow of History – Written by Chacham Jose Faur, this is book that opens one up to a Chacham Faur’s writings. I could have chosen many of his articles and books. But I believe that this is the most thought provoking of his books and articles that I have read. It is not quite an indispensable rationalist text but Chacham Faur is indispensable so I have suggested at least one of his books in this list.

Double Bonus: Subscribe to Ḥakirah and read Rabbi Slifkin’s blog: Rationalist Judaism

  • awesome service rabbi fink. thanks.

  • RJM

    I disagree with your endorsement of “The Limits of Orthodox Theology”. As many reviews of the book pointed out, it essentially disproves its own thesis, demonstrating that it is indeed true that nearly all of the authorities whose names we would recognize did agree with the substance of Maimonides’ 13 principles. Many of the “sources” suggesting otherwise are written by obscure scholars who are only known for the fact that they believed something contrary to the 13 principles.

    • I don’t agree with that assessment. Many of the sources are just examples of not taking the 13 ikkerim as literally and seriously as we take them now. Further, it is still important to know that the 13 ikkerim are not as universal as we think. That is a good thing.

    • S.

      >Many of the “sources” suggesting otherwise are written by obscure scholars who are only known for the fact that they believed something contrary to the 13 principles

      But they are not heretics, and that is the point, the thesis of the book.

  • mord

    I think masterplan is out of print. (Can’t get hold of it in England. Unless anyone reading this has seen a copy at their local Jewish bookstore.)

  • Jonathan Baker

    might I suggest Rambam’s intro to the Mishnah commentary? I don;t know which translation is best, I struggled through the Hebrew. It, plus R’ Zvi Lampel’s “The Dynamics of an asteroid Dispute”, convinced me that a Divine-originated Oral Torah was plausible, despite the 3300-year telephone game.

    • I don’t love that book.

      • Jonathan Baker

        Oh, I don’t think R’ Lampel would necessarily approve of the conclusions I drew from his book. Online, he seems pretty conservative. But the sources he brings admit of more liberal readings than he uses them for.

        But the Rambam allows for Oral Torah minimalism – there’s no real need to accept more than the 37 listed Halachot Lemoshe Misinai as being necessarily part of the Divine Oral Torah. We assume that other material, e.g. some universally-agreed Hilchot Shabbat, and meat/milk, etc., must be Divine in origin, but Chazal still found drashot for most of them, so they don’t necessarily have to be.

        • Yes. I have written and talked extensively on this version of Oral Law.