One Hundred Great Jewish Books

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Introduction: The Jewish Conversation

Judaism is more than a religion. But what else is it? Despite the existence of the State of Israel, it is not a nationality, because not all Jews are Israelis, and not all Israelis are Jews; Jews have inhabited many countries over the centuries, and where permitted to do so, have identified as citizens of them. Nor is Judaism a single culture, ethnicity, or way of life, since Jews have lived differently through the ages, and continue to do so even today; most North American Jews have roots in eastern Europe, while most Jews in Israel hail from countries in the Mediterranean.

Recognizing all this, the great twentieth-century American Jewish philosopher Mordecai Kaplan defined Judaism as a civilization, more specifically as a "religious civilization" --- and indeed, for Jews in Boston, Berlin, or Buenos Aires, religion does seem central. But most Israeli Jews would disagree. For the majority of Jews in Israel, religion is associated with Jewish fundamentalism and its ultra-Orthodox political parties that would return Judaism to the Middle Ages if they could. So most Jewish Israelis say they are secular.

Whatever Judaism might be, however, it has consistently demonstrated a particular fondness for books. Since books are nothing if not records of things said, Judaism may be best defined as an ongoing conversation. It evolved from barely recognizable origins in a tiny plot of land we now call Israel and spread from there, over some three to four millennia, mostly throughout Europe and the Americas, but in some form or other to every other continent as well.

Only people have conversations, of course, and as it happens, the traditional way Jews have defined themselves is as a people, the Jewish People (am yisra'el) --- not an easy category to imagine today, at least not in the West. Ever since Napoleon, we have been taught to think in terms of nation-states and religions --- hence the notion of Judaism as a religion, which is what Napoleon wanted Jews to be. Seen as a religion, they could fit nicely into his empire --- as loyal French citizens by nationality, and as a Jewish version of that citizenry by religion.

Two centuries have passed since Napoleon, however, and Jews no longer have to prove their loyalty to the countries in which they live. There is no reason, therefore, not to return to the original Jewish notion of peoplehood. Jews are a people, albeit a people where religion has played an extraordinary role, and what makes them a people is the conversation they all share. This book is an introduction to the written record of this distinctive Jewish conversation, a judicious (but naturally subjective) selection from a massive literature reaching back some three thousand years.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is, therefore, an altogether new kind of introduction to Judaism, intended to enrich the explanations of Jewish history, thought, and practice that other books provide. It opens the door to three millennia of dialogue and debate, sometimes philosophical but more often down-to-earth, in line with the biblical exhortation (Deut. 30:11-14) that ultimate wisdom "is not too baffling [. . .] nor beyond reach. It is neither in the heavens [. . . nor] beyond the sea [. . .] No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart." Welcome to the heartfelt Jewish conversation about life and death and everything in between!

From the earliest of times, Jews have valued literacy. In fact, Hebrew --- the Jewish language par excellence and the original language of the Bible --- invented the first vowel system that made reading and writing possible beyond the limited ranks of a priestly elite. The conversation, therefore, made it into book form very early: the Hebrew Bible was already being composed about 1000-900 BCE and was sealed as a finished creation sometime in the second century CE. (Jews tend to prefer BCE [Before the Common Era] to BC [Before Christ], and CE [Common Era] to AD [Anno Domini, i.e., in the year of the Lord].) The final state of these Scriptures was canonized by the Rabbis --- leaders and thinkers from late antiquity who gave us rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that all Jews follow today, in one form or another. The Rabbis left us their own library of classics, and from there, the conversation took off in a thousand different directions.

Over the centuries, pretty much nothing has been off-limits: Jews have attended to much more than idealized piety. The Talmud, the most important compendium of post-biblical thought and the pinnacle contribution of the Rabbis, discusses virtually everything --- not just formally religious matters such as God and prayer, but issues as diverse as business law on one hand, and eating practices on the other. There are very wide parameters for what counts as conversation that is legitimately Jewish.

This book allows readers to traverse time and space and listen in on the conversation as it has expanded. Part One provides several key books from the Hebrew Bible. Part Two introduces the pivotal period of the Rabbis, whose major works reach from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. Part Three looks at the age of medieval philosophy and mysticism, a set of books that build upon the rabbinic masterpieces, expanding the Jewish attitude on matters of life and death, God and the world, good and evil, and everyday matters of human relationships --- familial, sexual, commercial, ideological, interreligious, and otherwise. It includes obvious religious treatises but also personal diaries, theological histories, and messianic travelogues.

All these literary, conversational strains feed into Parts Four to Nine, which address the cauldron of change we call modernity --- beginning with the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that culminated a century later in the Jewish emancipation: the transformation of medieval, ghetto-based Jews into citizens of modern states and stakeholders in national and world affairs. In the 1800s, for the first time ever, Jews could easily leave the Jewish conversation (if they wished to do so), just as non-Jews could freely join it, without fear of church reprisals, governmental restrictions, and social stigma. The conversation adapted to this dramatic change by expanding into Jewish versions of more general themes such as socialism (Jewish Marxism), nationalism (Zionism), and modern religion (synagogue denominations). Part Seven of this book pays special attention to the two most critical events in modern Jewish history --- the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel --- while Part Nine addresses the seething questions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Included in these pages are artists and poets, historians and theologians, men and women from around the world who advocate every kind of Judaism imaginable, encouraging readers to add their own voice to this ancient yet forever new conversation, and to take their own authentic stand on the subjects that move them to passion.

For newcomers to Judaism, this book is a unique synopsis of the things Jews talk about --- and the sources Jews cite when they do the talking. For veterans of the Jewish conversation, it will fill in gaps in their knowledge by identifying critical books and the worthies who wrote them.

This selection of one hundred great books was of necessity somewhat personal --- reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience. So to some extent, these are the books that I have found highly compelling, as I have gone through a lifetime of Jewish conversing. But I have also consulted others whose reading makes us soul mates: professors, publishers, rabbis, and pretty much any avid Jewish reader I could talk to. I made sure they were religiously diverse (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, and people who say they are "just Jewish"). I talked to women and men, North Americans and Europeans, Diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel, and people of all ages: my teachers, now in their seventies and older; my own generation (I was born just before the baby boomers); my students and even my students' students, i.e., Jews in their twenties and thirties.

I had to ask myself, what in fact constitutes a great book? Among other things, I looked for:

(1) influence: books that have been insightful forays into new territory, breakthroughs that influenced whole generations and thereby earned a place on the list of Jewish books that truly matter;

(2) enjoyment: whenever possible, reading should be engaging, so I looked for books that are entrancing. To be sure, some great books are not so much read as they are slogged through, and I did include some of those, too --- but I explained them sufficiently for readers to understand their importance without necessarily consulting them page by page;

(3) availability: ancient Jewish classics are in Hebrew, the language of the Bible and of modern Israel; or they are in Aramaic, the language spoken in the time of Jesus and the literary preference of the Rabbis who lived in late antiquity. These, and medieval classics, too, are largely inaccessible to contemporary readers, but the ones included here are available in translation;

(4) comprehensiveness: a volume like this should represent more than a single stream of conversation --- it should include fiction and non-fiction, poetry and art, humor and satire, the old and the new, religionists and agnostics, nationalists and socialists, and as many points of view as one is likely to encounter in the Jewish conversation today;

(5) particular and universal appeal: the great books included here have shaped the Jewish character, but one need not be Jewish to appreciate the Jewish struggle with history. Judaism emphasizes both particularism (the uniquely Jewish story) and universalism (the general human predicament). Both perspectives are captured here;

(6) "the classics": books that many readers likely have heard of and probably consulted (at least in part);

(7) author diversity: I allowed any author included here just one book (or set of books). At times, this decision proved difficult to follow, but I stuck to it. I included one series that I have edited, but I chose it because it is a collection of the views of many others. I trust that teachers, colleagues, and friends whose books are not here will sympathize with the enormous difficulty I had in making my selections. Many of the finest books could not be squeezed into an overview of just one hundred, especially given all the other necessary constraints that I have listed here.

Reading this book should be like reading the minutes of a thousand Jewish conversations over time, an encounter with the Jewish experience in all its sensitivity and genius, but also its failures and foibles. May you find it enjoyable, challenging, and informative; may it exercise the mind, touch the heart, and stir the soul --- at least a little.




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