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Core of the culture

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The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, by Adam Kirsch, Norton, 432 pages, $28.95

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Although “People of the Book” is an Islamic term, Jews have embraced it to describe themselves.

“For most of Jewish history, books were not just one element in Jewish culture; they were the core of that culture, the binding force that sustained a civilization,” says Adam Kirsch’s preface to The People and the Books.


Kirsch, poet, literary critic and director of Columbia University’s Jewish studies master’s program, has opened to us “18 classics of Jewish literature” written across 2,500 years. Their questions remain relevant, some now even more troubling.

Most likely, more people are aware of writers such as Philo, Josephus and Moses Mendelssohn than have read their work.

Kirsch is struck by “the remarkable continuity of Jewish thought.… A few subjects preoccupy every kind of Jewish writer. They might be reduced to four central elements: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Kirsch’s 14 chapters start with Devarim (Deuteronomy) and end with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman series, which is much more than Fiddler on the Roof. Kirsch supplies overviews of the books’ times, contexts, ideas, author motivations, influence on Jewish thinking, and why they still matter.

A major theme is trying to reconcile faith and reason. Some thinkers draw very differing conclusions — for example 12th century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) of Egypt, for whom reason and faith are not contradictory, and the reverse from 17th century Baruch Spinoza, subsequently excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Another continuing concern appears in Esther, which Kirsch calls “the archetypal story of Jewish vulnerability,” illustrating “the precariousness of life in the Diaspora and the accommodations Jews must make to survive as an often-suspect minority.” Kirsch observes that Esther’s Jews learn that their most reliable protection is self-defense.

Greek-speaking Philo, living in Egypt about 15 BCE to 45 CE, sought “to reimagine the Torah as a rational and universal text.” His work is “a testimony of how difficult it was, and still is, to reconcile secular thought with the wisdom of Jewish tradition.”

Such ancient-yet-current concerns run throughout this clearly written, enlightening book. My notes of insights worth quoting could fill several reviews of this length.

Another angle is in “Choosing Life,” about Joseph ben Matthias, the captured Jewish rebel general turned Roman historian Flavius Josephus. His The Jewish War described the 66 CE rebellion ending with the loss of the second Temple and Jewish sovereignty. Josephus considered the revolt against the world’s greatest empire a suicidal act of religious passion and national pride that overwhelmed the “Jews who begged their fellows to see reason and live,” Kirsch says.

He says Josephus’ account is conflicted: wanting to praise the rebels’ courage, but carefully because he wrote while living in Emperor Vespasian’s house.

Instructive in a different way is a chapter based around the memoirs of 17th century Glückel of Hameln, Germany, “the best record we have of what it meant to be a Jewish woman in her time and place.” She would have read the Tsenerene, “a Yiddish retelling of the Torah incorporating traditional commentaries, myths, worldly advice and lessons in female virtue…for centuries the book that did most to shape Jewish women’s lives.” Published in the 1590s, when women weren’t taught Hebrew, Tsenerene remains in publication 400 years later as The Weekly Midrash, Kirsch says.

The People and the Books needn’t be read in consecutive sittings, but presentation is chronological, and Kirsch often compares writings. He calls the sayings and observations of Pirkei Avot, written down about 250 CE, “one of the world’s great documents of religious wisdom.” Other chapters include Benjamin of Tudela’s Itinerary and Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, “the most influential defense of Judaism ever written”; the Zohar; Autobiography by Solomon Maimon and Jerusalem by Mendelssohn, and Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State and Old New Land.

Kirsch finds it ironic that in America, “the most successfully assimilated Jews in history” have elevated Hanuka, a minor holiday near Christmas, to a gift-filled celebration. Hanuka, he notes, “was a violent attack on the idea of Jewish assimilation.”


Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.

(American Jewish World, 10.21.16)

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