In 2011, I compiled a list of my favorite books that explore and inform the rationalist Orthodox Jewish world and shared it around Chanukah time. A couple of years later, I compiled a list of my favorite books that are decidedly non-rationalist. People actually use these lists and that’s awesome.
Over the last couple of years, my personal journey has taken me from rationalist Judaism to something very different than rationalist Judaism. I am not sure what to call it, but I think it can be called Conscious Judaism. By this we mean to say that we engage with Judaism, its flaws, its beauty, its quirks, all of it, consciously. We do not seek to answer all the hard questions or claim that anything is perfect. Instead, we seek out the beauty and meaning in each aspect of our Jewish life and consciously choose to experience those moments as best as we can.
Along the way, I have read a lot of books. I have reread a lot of books in a new light too. I thought it might be useful to compile a new book list. This list would be a compilation of books that have influenced or inspired me along this journey. It might not be apparent how it all fits together, and that’s okay, but I assure you, these books all mean a lot to me.
Torah Umadda might be my favorite book about Judaism. It is almost certainly the most influential. But it’s not because of its content, which is amazing. It’s because of its author. Through his books and writings, Rabbi Norman Lamm has become my muse and inspiration. Torah Umadda is magnificent, but Derashot Ledorot and the online library of his sermons has changed me forever. The art of drash, the power of symbols, the willingness to stand alone, and the importance of precision and mastery over language in all Rabbi Lamm’s work, is profoundly meaningful to me and I think Torah Umadda is an excellent gateway into Rabbi Lamm’s universe.
Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by my friend Eric Kaplan does the unthinkable, it is book of philosophy, religion, culture, parenthood, and comedy that makes every single one of those subject more interesting than they would be on their own. That makes the book great, but the thing that gets that book onto this list is Kaplan’s ultimate point. I won’t ruin the book, but he argues that mysticism, and really all religion, is not meant to be the answer, rather they are meant to help us discover the answer. I agree. Leave it to a guy who writes lines for Sheldon Cooper to make sense out of everything.
The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim was recommended to me a bunch of years ago by a good friend. I was in my rationalist phase and thought there was no way it would be interesting to me to read about a Chasidic Rebbe. I am glad I was wrong but I am also glad I waited to read this book. It meant so much more to me now than it would have meant 5 years ago. In essence, Reb Simcha Bunim was the “anti-Rebbe Rebbe” who iconoclastically “wasn’t” a Rebbe for a massive following that he told not to follow him. He was a pharmacist and a philosopher who emphasized modern ideas like self-awareness and brutal honesty with oneself. A Millennial Rebbe.
The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is an absolute gem. Rabbi Heschel waxes eloquently about the beauty of Shabbos as a holy monument of time. The short book has inspired many people to appreciate the beauty of Shabbos and it was incredibly emotional to experience this great man’s feelings for Shabbos through his written word. The concepts and presentation have influenced me over the last few years. The Sabbath is very powerful and an indispensable text.
The Queen You Thought You Knew was reviewed on this site when it was released in 2011. It was my initial foray into the Torah of Rabbi David Fohrman and I was hooked immediately. Subsequent to the release of this book, Rabbi Fohrman launched Aleph-Beta Academy where he has unleashed his creative and ingenious text based interpretations of Torah and N’aCh. I enjoy Rabbi Fohrman’s commentary on Torah more than any other and I am a huge fan of Aleph-Beta. In a nutshell, Rabbi Forhman is hyper-focused on the text of the Torah which he unlocks in novel fashion by asking simple, yet piercing questions and using subtle hints in the text and clever connections in his mind, to retell the stories, customs, and laws in a whole new way. Rabbi Fohrman’s work is ground breaking and I admire his brilliance and courage. The Queen You Thought You Knew turned me on to Rabbi Fohrman with its fresh approach to the Purim story and I have a feeling it might do the self for you.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion was also reviewed on this site. I bought the book after I saw Alain de Botton’s TED Talk because I was hooked. He was saying everything I had been saying, just smarter and with a better accent. The book argues that non-believers can learn a lot from religions because the rites and rituals are an important part of the human condition. Even if one does not believe, one can benefit from religious experiences. This is music to my ears. I also believe that one can enjoy religious life and live a committed religious life, independent of religious belief. Further, it is valuable to seek out the universal or humanistic meaning in our religious experiences so that we can get the most out of religious life. Brilliant writer, brilliant book. My one word British review: Brilliant!
Between the Lines of the Bible, by my friend Rabbi Yitz Etshalom uses the Academic approach to the Biblical text in a religious way. The questions all sound like Academic questions and the answers sound just as Academic. But in between the lines, we are treated to Rabbi Etshalom’s original and compelling interpretations of the text. As a symbol, the book represents the idea that we can study Torah like the Bible critics and come out the other side even more turned on to Torah and Judaism.
Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations is another book that I reviewed on this site. It’s so frustrating that Orthodox Judaism relies so heavily on received wisdom and is so dismissive of data. Families and Faith has all the data you need and the conclusions of the epic study which is the subject of the book, are not necessarily intuitive (or received wisdom). But they are so important. I was inspired to gather data about our social issues, even if it is anecdotal data, just to have real information instead of speculation. More importantly, the book shed some valuable light on the most common area of speculation in the Orthodox Jewish community. The book actually answers the questions of why people stay and why people leave religion.
A friend gave me an early version of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture because he said I would appreciate it. I did. The concept of the book is that the Bible can be a vehicle to teach a sophisticated and important philosophy. But the more important thing for me is the book’s willingness to reinterpret the Bible with our modern eyes and the valuable lessons the Torah can teach us today. Too often, the student of the Bible must choose between taking the Bible seriously as a religious text that is primarily a book of revelation and treating the Bible like a giant hoax that fooled people for thousands of years. But the truth is that neither is correct. The truth is that the Torah has meaning beyond religious observance and whether it is a hoax or not, is irrelevant to obtaining wisdom from its tomes. I think you can see that this is a recurring theme.
The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis was recommended by a visitor to the Shul on the Beach after he heard one of my original interpretations in Genesis. I was told that this book was doing the same thing I was doing, but obviously on a more sophisticated level. So I bought the book last year after we finished reading Genesis for the year and promised myself I would dive into The Beginning of Wisdom when Genesis rolled around again. I reminded myself about the book all year and I spent hours looking for the book on Sukkos because my library was not set up in our new home and the books were still in stacks on the floor. I found it. I read it. I love it. The Beginning of Wisdom reads the Torah like literature, but really good literature, and tries to understand it on its own terms. I love the insights and innovative interpretations of the Genesis stories in this book and the book has quickly become an all-time favorite. I almost don’t want to finish reading it.
Frameworks, by Rabbi Matis Weinberg is the best modern commentary on Torah I have ever seen. Rabbi Weinberg is a genius and he reads everything so I think he knows more information than anyone else in the world. He knows all of Torah and so much of everything else that it would be hard to best his accumulated knowledge. I heard a lecture by Rabbi Weinberg when I was 9 years old and I will never forget how that one hour made me feel. I was mesmerized by the sheer brilliance of the lecture and how obvious it all seemed at the same time. The thing with Frameworks is that Rabbi Weinberg draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah as well as non-Torah wisdom and builds the most gorgeous, intricate interpretations of Torah I have ever seen. It’s not even possible to summarize his essays because they are already summaries of massive ideas that Rabbi Weinberg tries to shrink into palatable, bite-sized pieces. Yet, the essays are thousands of words long and almost clumsy sometimes. But Reb Matis’s Torah is the sweetest Torah of all. (I am vaguely aware that it is nearly impossible to find these volumes in print. I link to Amazon with hope that it will be in stock when you click.)
The Lonely Man of Faith is your bonus book. I am not a student of Yeshiva University and I am no Brisker. So imagine my surprise when several people told me that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith is basically an ode to “living in the tension” and acknowledging that “life is in the struggles,” ideas that we’ve been tossing around on this site and my Facebook page for a couple years now. I include it as a bonus because I believe these people but I have not yet read the book so I cannot say anything about the book based on my own experience. I own it. I will read it. Race you to see who reads it first?
So there you have eleven books that influenced and inspired me in the last couple of years plus one that does even though I didn’t read it. These are not rationalist books, nor are they non-rationalist Orthodox Judaism books. These are Conscious Judaism books. 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.
What did all this turn into? Glad you asked. It’s called the Shul on the Internet and you can Like our Page in the sidebar or footer of this site. Join us at shulontheinternet.com for a fusion of all these ideas and more. It’s the place where popular culture, Torah, and the Internet converge.
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