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November is Jewish Book Month.
Since we are known as the “people of the book,” we asked some of the biggest Jewish bibliophiles we know (our clergy) to list five books they think everyone who wants to better understand Judaism should read.
Then, each selects their favorite and tell us why.
Top Pick: “The Red Tent”
One brief chapter in the book of Genesis shares the interlude that tells the story of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah. From thirty-one verses, Anita Diamant fashions a contemporary fulfillment of an ancient tradition, through which biblical women’s voices are heard; their stories imagined with a depth, breadth, and texture rarely found in Biblical tradition. Described as a novel, it is an exemplar of modern midrash. What actually happened to Dinah? What did she think? How did she feel? How did she react? A ground-breaking imagining of Biblical women’s lives, this book has generated a new tradition/genre of empowered women’s voices.
Top Pick: “A Letter in the Scroll”
For most of Jewish history, the big Jewish question was “how?” “How do I give tzedakah?” or “How do I raise a well-grounded child?” But now, we have to ask a more fundamental question — “why?” Centuries ago, Jews did not ask why. Why be Jewish? Because for Jews within the ghetto walls, you had no other option. “Why be Jewish?” would be like asking “Why does hair grow on your head?” It was just a part of who you are. But today is different. We live in a world increasingly distant from the sacred. Sacks’ book is a call back towards the wholeness and holiness we need now more than ever.
Top Pick: “Jewish Literacy”
I often go back to this book as a reference to many questions which come my way. Jewish Literacy is an encyclopedia that reads like a novel. It covers every aspect of Jewish life: Jewish Bible and Talmud, Holocaust, Israel, anti-Semitism, and Jewish ethics. It is a must read for every educated Jew.
Top Pick: The Bible
I believe every Jew must, at least once in their lifetime, read the Bible, the Five Books of Moses, from cover to cover. One of the most dramatic and inspiring pieces of literature, there is no subject it fails to address. From philosophy to theology, family relations to the basic tenets of society — the Ten Commandments, they’re all found in the Bible. The cornerstones of all civil society — equality, justice, and caring for the disadvantaged — all come from our Bible. If all humanity could live one line of the Bible, “In the image of God they are created,” imagine how different our world would be.
Top Pick: Midrash
Midrash is the text our ancestors and contemporaries create when they find holes in the Bible. Instead of simply commenting on the text, they create their own stories for the text to make sense for their time. Midrash teaches us that even before the Torah was codified, people were trying to figure out how the text worked, or did not work, with their lives. My favorite ancient midrash? Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, edited in Italy in the 9th century. Want something modern? Sisters at Sinai, by Jill Hammer.
Top Pick: “Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur”
I believe the most important book is our prayer book, Mishkan T’filah. Our prayers connect us to Jews of generations past, as well as to Jews of all denominations around the world today. The prayers and their order have remained largely unchanged since around the 9th century when Amram Gaon complied the first prayer book. For me, the prayers offer solace and comfort, and the ritual of their order is reassuring. The expressions of joy and gratitude are unparalleled, and the visions portrayed help me to relate to the world around me and the Divinity within me. I highly recommend an in-depth study of the prayers and the daily miracles they acknowledge.
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