A couple years back I compiled a list of my favorite books that explore and inform the rationalist Orthodox Jewish world. Many people have thanked me for the list, but I get the sense that people think I never read or never have read books that would not fit into the rationalist category. These would be books of Chasidus, stories of inspiration, and mystically influenced philosophy.
But I have read many of those books and many of them have influenced me in a very positive way. So I continue to recommend these books for people seeking more mainstream and less controversial paths within Orthodox Judaism. Some of the books on this list are just one of several favorites from a particular author and I simply chose one of many options. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in these books, but I do think that they are worth reading and they have all influenced my thinking at some time in my life.
The Committed Life: Principles for Good Living from Our Timeless Past is my favorite book from this genre. I recommend it at least once per week to people seeking to appreciate the soul of Judaism. This is emotional, relationship oriented Judaism at its best. Rebbetzin Jungreis shares wisdom, stories, humor, and love in this book. I probably read it a dozen times. It’s a must read.
Generation to Generation: Personal Recollections of a Chassidic Legacy is my favorite book of Chasidic stories. Rabbi Twerski weaves together lessons from his Chasidic pedigree into a book that is inspiring and educational. I’ve read this book a few times and don’t know of a better book in this genre.
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust is a famous collection of stories from the Holocaust. Yaffa Eliach wrote this book 25 years ago and it remains the premier book in this genre. I used to read it every Tisha B’Av. It’s a tough book but the stories are mostly hopeful and inspirational.
The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology: Illuminating Expositions on Jewish Thought and Practice is a great Aryeh Kaplan starter kit. So much as his work has become part of the basic philosophy of moderate Orthodox Judaism. His books are footnoted and very well researched. He takes a modern mystical approach to Torah and Mitzvos and gives compelling reasons and explanations for being an Orthodox Jew. He was a prolific writer and I recommend just about all of his books. “If You Were God” is one of my favorites so I chose this anthology. I’ve read this book a few times too.
The Jewish Self is a bit kiruvy, but I written on a very sophisticated level. Rabbi Kagan is known to be extremely intelligent and this book is not an easy read. It’s written to be intellectual. It succeeds in parts and was too obscure for me in others. But I recommend it because it is the opposite of “dumbing down” Judaism. It’s a challenge to read this book and it inspired me when I read it.
Pichifkes: Stories Heard on the Road and by the Way is my favorite Hanoch Teller book. The epitome of feel good, positive, Orthodox Jewish storytelling, this book has a bunch of really great stories. It’s a very light read, and clearly Teller is loose with the facts, and heavy on embellishments. But he is good at his craft and I must have read this book 8-10 times.
Worldmask changed my life when I read it in high school. I no longer subscribe to the views Rabbi Tatz teaches in this book, but for one who does, there is no better book on God’s place in our world. I devoured all of Rabbi Tatz’s writings in my teens and I read each of his books several times. I think Worldmask is his best work and aside from the stylistic issues that make it hard to read for some people, it’s an excellent book.
Reb Simcha Speaks: Rabbi Simcha Wasserman’s Insights and Teachings on Vital Principles of Life and Faith is the best Artscroll biography on the market. It’s actually co-authored by Rabbi Tatz and Yaakov Branfman, so Rabbi Tatz makes this list twice. The book tells the story of the great Rabbi Simcha Wasserman but mostly it makes one feel like they are hearing R’ Simcha speak, hence the title. It’s a collection of some of his very wise teachings. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but so much of my life was inspired by this book that it may have been one of the most influential reads of my entire life. I’ve read it about half a dozen times and my copy of the book has underlines and dog eared pages. It’s a good book.
Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last is Rabbi Lau’s story. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read of any genre and belongs on every Jewish bookshelf. It’s not really a Torah book per se, it’s much more of a memoir, but it’s very inspiring and I strongly recommend it.
So there you have eight books that influenced and inspired me at some point in my life. These are not rationalist books at all. They are the kinds of books your Rosh Yeshiva or rabbi would certainly endorse. So if you are looking for Chanukah gifts for a reader in your life you would appreciate some of the best writing within the more widely accepted views of Orthodox Judaism, you got it.
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