Mayim Reviews

Who Wrote the Bible?, Richard Elliot Friedman (Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0060630353)

Richard Elliot Friedman is one of the foremost biblical scholars of the modern method; that is, analysing the text in the absence of any doctrine to attempt to uncover the identity, motives, and mindset of its authors. This book is essentially an account of the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits four biblical authors (J, E, P, D) and one editor/redactor (R). He outlines the logic behind the method, the history of the field, and the current viewpoint he holds about the identities of the authors of the five books of the Pentateuch and the early Prophets. The book is both a gripping detective story, and a fascinating picture of the world that produced the Bible. Although biblical criticism can be used as a weapon against religion, Friedman concludes by arguing that, in a broader sense, his work enables us to learn more from our foundational text, not less.

God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel (Noonday Pr; ISBN: 0374513317)

Heschel's works are often described as the pinnacle of inspiring Jewish religious literature. God in Search of Man, one of his two most important books, is a journey through the map of Heschel's Jewish faith. The three sections entitled "God", "Revelation" and "Response" paint a rich, intense, compassionate vision of belief in the Jewish God and Torah. However, this is no Bible-bashing barrage - Heschel blames religion for its own decline, accusing it in his opening words of having become "irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid." There is little doubt that his approach largely succeeds in countering this. Nonetheless, God in Search of Man is a difficult book to follow for those pursuing a purely rationalistic approach to the big questions. Instead, one needs to take a step back, enter Heschel's world, and try to engage with his vision of what he believes must ultimately remain a matter of faith.

Back to the Sources, edited by Barry W. Holtz (Summit Books; ISBN: 0671605968)

Jewish texts, of course, started with the Bible, but they've moved on a long way since then. There are commentaries on the Bible, commentaries on those commentaries, there's the Talmud (which is a commentary itself) and its commentaries, Jewish philosophy, mysticism (Kabbalah), Chasidic writings and the prayer book (Siddur) itself. It is a somewhat grand ambition to hope to cover almost 3000 years of religious literature in a single volume, however Back to the Sources succeeds with style. For each of ten categories of Jewish texts, a leading Jewish scholar gives a description of its content and context, and takes the reader through some detailed examples. Each section is easy to follow but by no means over-simplified, and finishes with a near-encyclopaedic list of brief reviews of books the reader may wish to read to pursue the topic further. Back to the Sources is a superb introduction to the millenial scope of Jewish literature, and is aimed both at individuals for whom the subject is new and anyone else wanting to fill in the gaps.

A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson (HarperCollins; ISBN: 0060915331)

Paul Johnson, a Christian historian, writes in his prologue : "No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny... The Jews therefore stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose." In a sense, the rest of the book can be seen as a footnote to this grandiose introduction, viewing Jewish history as a microcosm or template for human history as a whole. Johnson draws a comprehensive map, from the hazy beginnings with Abraham and the rest of Genesis' cast, through the development of legalistic religion, statehood, the priesthood, exile, the ghetto, emancipation, the Holocaust and modern-day Israel. He elegantly combines a critical honesty with a sympathetic stance - indeed, he might be accused of being more pro-Jewish than the average Jew! A History of the Jews is informative, and reads like a gripping novel, and is to be recommended for Jew and non-Jew alike as a most accessible introduction to a 4000-year roller-coaster ride.

The Harlot by the Side of the Road, Jonathan Kirsch (Ballantine Books; ISBN: 0345418824)

In between pretty stories of family love, national redemption and religious devotion, the Bible has plenty islands of evil, intriguing, all-too-human tales. Jonathan Kirsch takes seven of these; Lot throwing his daughters to the mob, the Rape of Dinah, Judah sleeping with his widowed daughter-in-law (from the title), Zipporah and her bridegroom of blood, Jephthah who kills his own daughter, a traveller sending his concubine to her death and the rape of David's daughter by her half-brother. For each, he first spins a convinving narrative around the biblical text, showing them in parallel, in almost-Midrashic style. He then spends a chapter discussing the story, its origins and implications and which message he feels the author of the text is trying to convey. If you never knew about such "forbidden tales of the Bible", or wish to start understanding them, The Harlot by the Side of the Road will be a fascinating and enjoyable read.

God - A Biography, Jack Miles (Vintage Books; ISBN: 0679743685)

It is rare in the field of Biblical study to come across an entirely new approach to an ancient Book but Jack Miles has achieved exactly that. He focusses on the central characters of the story, so often talked about but so rarely analysed in terms of his actual character - that is, God. Contrary to popular wisdom, the God of the Bible is a complex, subtle, fragmented character, moving between phases described by Miles as creator, liberator, redeemer, lawgiver, conqueror, father, executioner, wife, counselor, fiend, bystander and recluse. Miles' thesis is that the Biblical God is a confusing mixture of both ancient Near-Eastern deities and something more akin to Israel's awakening moral consciousness. In the process of developing it, he takes us on a whirlwind tour of the entire Biblical narrative, sometimes pausing at details and otherwise describing sweeping trends in the deity's biography and along the way there is much to learn about individual characters by how they relate to God. Miles' book, which won the Purlitzer prize for biography, is a fascinating and profound look at the foundations of any Bible-based theology.

Arab and Jew, David K. Shipler (Penguin USA; ISBN: 0140103767)

Subtitled "Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land", Arab and Jew is now over 10 years old, and as a guide to the macroscopic politics of the Palestinian-Israeli situation it is hopelessly out of date. However, as a picture of the conflict on a personal level, it is likely to remain relevant for decades to come. Shipler's approach is to portray the Palestinian and Israeli as mirror-images; both persecuted victims of history, unsure of the future, dogged by religious absolutism. Shipler divides his pages between external analysis and personal accounts, brilliantly demonstrating how Arabs' and Jews' stereotypes of each other are so similar as to invite ridicule. Arab and Jew is, above all, a sympathetic human portrayal of a complex, multi-faceted conflict, and will challenge any preconceptions the reader has, whichever side they take.

Halakhic Man, Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jewish Publication Society; ISBN: 0827603975)

It is often said that Rabbi Soloveitchik was the key defining force of the Modern Orthodox movement and reading Halakhic Man (or Ish HaHalakhah as it was called in its original Hebrew) one can see why. Instead of appealing half-heartedly to tradition, he comes out guns a-blazing, using the full spectrum of modern philosophical vocabulary to describe the psyche of a Halakhic man. For Soloveitchik, the Halakhah is a comprehensive rational system, defined and refined by the Talmudic method, which achieves its full force when taken out and applied to situations in the real world. It is a framework which structures and preserves the religious outlook while guarding against overwhelming mystical experience, which he comes out decidedly against. There is little question that the essay provides a strong defence of his own view on the world, however it is often questioned whether his erudite philosophical analysis is a genuine description of the reality of the Halakhic life. Nonetheless, Halakhic Man remains a cogent apologetic and is a must-read for anyone who considers the Halakhah an important part of Jewish life.

As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg (Behrman House; ISBN: 0874411033)

The Talmud contains several fascinating stories regarding the lives of some of its key characters; four Rabbis enter a "forest", one comes out mad, one dies, one comes out normal, and the other "tears up the leaves". Milton Steinberg, a Conservative rabbi, took this story along with several others and weaved them together into a brilliant tale of life in ancient Judea after the destruction of the Second Temple and leading up to the Bar Kochba revolution. The central character, Elisha ben Avuya, is a promising rabbi in the rabbinical court who cannot avoid becoming a heretic by his continued thoughts, reading and experiences. This book achieves three ends - it provides an engaging, exciting portrayal of life in ancient Israel, it demystifies and simulataneously reinvigorates our historical perspective on rabbinical Judaism, and lastly it conflates the clash of culture and values between Greek rationalism and Jewish faith into a moving personal tale. The book leaves thought-provoking questions regarding the limits of philosophy lingering in the mind.

Reading the Book, Burton L. Visotzky (Schocken Books; ISBN: 0805210725)

There are many different approaches to reading the Bible ("the Book"), and Visotzky splits this entertaining and highly-accessible text between three of them, leaping from one to the other as he sees fit. Firstly we read Biblical stories themselves, looking for hidden nuances, unusual phrases and things left unsaid, seeing what we can read between the lines. Then we turn to the riches of the Jewish Midrashic tradition (which is Visotzky's specialism) and see what they made of these incongruities - it is refreshingly surprising to see the weird, wonderful and wacky ideas they came up with, often combined with a devotional or ethical message. Lastly, we focus our criticism on these same rabbis, trying to understand what motivated them and what they were really trying to say. This book is an excellent introduction to Biblical narrative and its interpretation (traditional or otherwise), yet is aimed squarely at readers with an unabashedly modern perspective.

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© Mayim, 2005.