Book Review By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, edited by Dr. Stuart W. Halpern, is the newest addition to the growing list of scholarly joint projects undertaken by Yeshiva University and Koren Publishers Jerusalem. Working in tandem over the past seven years, the partnership has released The Koren Yizkor: Memory and Meaning, the ultimate guide to Yizkor; a 20th-anniversary edition of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s acclaimed Torah Umadda, the Derashot LeDorot series, a selection of essays based on the weekly sermons delivered by Rabbi Lamm early in his rabbinical career; The Philosophical Quest: Of Philosophy, Ethics, Law, and Halakhah, a collection of essays by Rabbi J. David Bleich on a variety of topics relating to Jewish philosophical thought; a multivolume set on topics of contemporary Jewish law, authored by Yeshiva University’s roshei yeshiva; and five volumes of the Mi-tokh Ha-Ohel series, a collection of original essays on the parshiyos, haftaros, and weekday, Shabbos, and yom tov prayers, authored by rabbis and professors representing every division of Yeshiva University.
Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought presents ten foundational books written between the 10th and 20th centuries that have dramatically influenced the development of Jewish thought, examined by contemporary scholars of Jewish studies. Each scholar, a subject-matter expert in his or her field, revisits a particularly significant work and discusses its themes, its historical context, the circumstances and background of its author, and its relevance to contemporary society. Dr. Halpern has once again gifted us with an erudite volume that is sure to be treasured. Each of the scholars has crafted a masterwork that deserves to be reviewed individually.
Published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, Israel’s largest publisher, this book was published together with Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, of which Dr. Halpern served for two years as assistant director prior to assuming his current position as chief of staff to Yeshiva University’s new president, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.
“My hope is that this volume inspires the reader to make each of the works featured in its chapters a permanent part of his or her personal library, if they aren’t already, and if they are, to dust them off the shelf and revisit them with a new perspective,” said Dr. Halpern, who also served for two years as deputy managing editor of YU Press. “I fervently hope that this volume contextualizes while contemporizing, losing neither the vitality of the original works nor the concerns of today’s readers.”
His elegant work seeks to represent 1,000 years of Jewish thought, seen through the lens of modern thinkers, in one accessible volume. Major contributions from some of the leading philosophers of Jewish thought are competently discussed, beginning with Emunot VeDeot by the great Rav Saadia Gaon, whose work is explored by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Yerushalayim. Rabbi Blau discusses why the Gaon’s philosophy, although very different from that of the Rambam, remains relevant in our contemporary era.
Sefer HaKuzari, by the physician, poet, and philosopher Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is discussed by Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveitchik, rabbi of Shearith Israel, America’s first congregation, and director of YU’s Straus Center. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essay, which focuses on universalist ideas, includes a fascinating discussion on linking the time of Shabbos in Japan with Eretz Yisrael.
The essence of Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam’s major philosophical work, is revealed by Dr. Warren Zev Harvey, a noted scholar of Jewish philosophy and laureate of the Emet Prize. Dr. Harvey describes Moreh Nevuchim as “an enchanted book of puzzles.”
Known by the acronym Netziv, HaRav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin was rosh yeshiva of the acclaimed Volozhin Yeshiva, the largest citadel of Torah learning in Europe. The Netziv favored Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. The Netziv’s Ha’amek Davar is explored by Rabbi Dr. Gil S. Perl, chief academic officer of the Kohelet Foundation, head of school of the Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia, and the author of The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship.
This magnificent volume includes essays on the following works and authors:
- Rabbi Joseph Albo’s Sefer HaIkarrim, by Dr. Shira Weiss of Stern College for Women
- Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, by Rabbi Shalom Carmy of “Tradition”
- Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement and known as the Baal HaTanya, by Rabbi Dr. Ariel Evan Mayse, director of Jewish Studies and visiting assistant professor of Modern Jewish Thought in the Hebrew College in Boston
- Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, by Professor Jeremy Dauber
- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters on Judaism, by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Y. Miller, a professor of modern Jewish history
- Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, founder of Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav a major Jewish thinker, halakhist, Kabbalist, and a renowned Torah luminary who, in his youth, studied with the Netziv, by Dr. Daniel Rynhold, professor in modern Jewish philosophy at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University
- The “Rav,” Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the major American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, and modern Jewish philosopher, by Rav Reuven Ziegler, director of research at the Toras HoRav Foundation and chairman of the editorial board at Koren Publishers Jerusalem. Rav Ziegler is also founder and editor-in-chief of Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky’s Virtual Beit Midrash. A distinguished author, he presents a brilliant essay on the Rav’s “Halakhic Man,” describing the 1944 work as “a sprawling, dense, and riveting work,” contrasting it with Rav Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith,” written in 1965.
- Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, esteemed rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, authored the eight-volume Pachad Yitzchak. Rav Hutner’s philosophy is explored by Dr. Yaakov Elman, a polymath and rabbi.
In his foreword to the book, Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “These are the great-souled Jewish thinkers who scaled the mountain of thought and described the view from the heights. To be sure, you cannot live on a mountaintop, but no one, at least some time in his or her life, should miss the climb.
“So congratulations to Stuart Halpern for editing yet another outstanding collection of essays on Jewish thought by today’s modern masters, and to all the contributors themselves. This is a wonderfully enlightening work, testifying to the ongoing vitality of Yeshiva University as a center of contemporary Jewish thought at the highest level. This is where the work begun by Saadia ten centuries ago continues today: the dialogue between Judaism and the world, captured in books about the book that enlarge our intellectual horizons and lift our engagement with Gâ€‘d, our people, and the world.”
Dr. Halpern explained, “The mission of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought is to help develop Jewish thinkers and wisdom-seeking Jews by deepening their education in the best of the Jewish tradition, by exposing them to the richness of human thought and insight from across the ages and by confronting them with the great questions, moral, philosophical, and theological, of our age. This new volume accomplishes just that, by bringing the masterworks of Jewish thought to the masses.”
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative-media consultant, lecturer, and educator who writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. The author welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.