The Bookshelf

by Rabbi Neil Gillman

Democratizing Judaism by Jack J. Cohen, Academic Studies Press, 2010

Rabbi Cohen, longtime spokesperson for the Reconstructionist movement, has served, among other positions, as Hillel director at the Hebrew University and member of the faculty at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School. This volume is a summary of his more than 70-year association with Reconstructionism, his personal relationship with the movement’s founder, Mordecai M. Kaplan, and the wide-ranging moral and religious issues that he has encountered in his decadeslong work in Israel and that have engaged him in a very personal way. Cohen is endlessly engaging. His biographical notes on Kaplan’s life and teaching, his detailed and largely evenhanded discussion of the many criticisms leveled against his teacher, and his attempt to apply his personal thinking to the issues that rage within the state of Israel today are compelling. The snippets from Kaplan’s personal diary that illuminate his feelings and thinking are particularly fascinating.

The Bible and American Culture: A Sourcebook by Claudia Setzer and David A. Shefferman. Routledge, 2011

This is indeed a sourcebook, as the editors claim. (Setzer is professor and Shefferman is assistant professor of religious studies, both at Manhattan College.) It should be used as a sourcebook rather than read cover-tocover, but – and this is barely an exaggeration – it should be shared with all Americans, of all ages, who are involved in searching for particular biblical references, Jewish and Christian, that appear in American life and culture. Topics include the uses of biblical texts in the debates on slavery. Homosexuality, feminism and civil rights, and biblical sources that appear in art, fiction, music and poetry are all here. Lincoln’s biblical references in his second inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech before his assassination, and a poem by Emily Dickenson are included as well. A rich index facilitates the volume’s use. It belongs on the bookshelves of all knowledgeable Americans.

Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World, edited by Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz. Indiana University Press, 2012

The editors, both affiliated with the Hadassah- Brandeis Institute, where Reinharz is the director as well as a professor of sociology, have assembled a substantial anthology of personal testimonies about how young women from around the world reflect on their bat mitzvah experiences. The testimonies come from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, as well as from more familiar places, just around the corner from where we North American Jews live. The narratives may center around the bat mitzvah itself, but in the process we learn about Jewish life in widely different Jewish communities around the world, about what it means to become an adult woman, and most important, about the power of a ritual that far too many American Jewish families understand as simply an opportunity to have a party. The photos scattered throughout are endearing.

The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time by Eitan Fishbane. Jewish Lights, 2012

The core of this book is a series of texts drawn from the writings of chasidic masters on the various dimensions of the Sabbath experience. The selection, translation, and commentary on each text are by Fishbane, who teaches Jewish philosophy, mysticism, and chasidism at JTS. Readers who are familiar with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work on the Sabbath should benefit from Fishbane’s anthology. He has selected texts from throughout chasidic literature, his commentaries generally clarify texts that frequently are elusive, and his notes suggest further readings. But what is important is that these texts are not designed for study, or only for study. Rather they are in the form of meditations that should be absorbed slowly and with care and be allowed to permeate our own awareness as we too experience the Sabbath day.

Mortality and Morality: A Search for the God after Auschwitz by Hans Jonas, edited by Lawrence Vogel. Northwestern University Press, 1996

This generous selection of papers by one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century deals with moral, religious, and ethical issues in the wake of the Holocaust. Jonas, a German Jew who studied with and was a friend of philosophers Martin Heidegger, Rudolph Bultmann, and Hanah Arendt, was himself exiled by the Nazis, fought in World War II and the Israeli War of Independence, and ended up on the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York. The essays are suffused with his major concerns: the moral impulse, the meaning of a human life, and the possibility of faith in God after the Holocaust. These essays do not make for easy reading, but they are all rewarding and they open new vistas of thinking.

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