Archives For Judaism



Today (Dec. 23) marks the anniversary of the death of noted Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

In honor of the occasion, we offer a series video clips that introduce Heschel’s life and work…

*** Books by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Introductory Clip
from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly:

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Prophet of Self-Transcendence

A Review of

Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence
Shai Held

Hardback: Indiana UP, 2013.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]   [ Kindle ]


Reviewed by Alden Bass
Many of us first encountered the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel through his work The Prophets, a title which, despite its 1962 publication date, continues to surface in seminaries and theology courses. Prophets was unique not only because of its vivid prose, but because in the midst of an academy ruled by historical criticism, the book returned our attention to the ancient prophets themselves, granting them new voice and making them present to us once again. Moreover, Heschel himself, with his great white Gandalf beard and oracular prose, embodied the venerable tradition of the schola prophetarum through his activism and scholarship.

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I and Thou and Thou

A Review of

My Friendship with Martin Buber
Maurice Friedman

Hardback: Syracuse UP, 2013
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Review by Michial Farmer


All Americans who love the work of the great German-Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber owe an immense debt of gratitude to Maurice Friedman, whose 1956 analysis of Buber’s work, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, was the first book of its sort. Friedman was the first translator of many of Buber’s best-loved essays, including most of those published in 1952’s The Eclipse of God; these essays were read and loved by many of the most important theologians of mid-century America, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Here are a few new book releases from this week that are worth checking out:

(Where possible, we have also tried to include a review/interview related to the book…)

See a book here that you’d like to review for us?
Contact us, and we’ll talk about the possibility of a review.

> > > >
Next Book

Jesus: First-Century Rabbi

By Rabbi David Zaslow

Watch the book trailer here

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New American Haggadah - Jonathan Safran Foer [Review]A Beautiful, Bountiful Passover Table

New American Haggadah

Jonathan Safran Foer, editor

Hardcover: Little, Brown &Co., 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon

As I read through The New American Haggadah, I had the distinct sense that I was at a beautiful, bountiful Passover table with a lively mix of friends old and new.  Together we journeyed through the ritual retelling of the story of God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from the oppression of Pharaoh. Exodus 1-13 contains the account of this deliverance, and a Haggadah (which means “narration”) offers a guide by which Jewish people can gather around a table and obey the command in Leviticus 23:4-8 to celebrate this sacred feast.

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“The ongoing dilemmas of every human heart

A review of

Quiet Americans: Stories.
By Erika Dreifus.

Review by Rebecca Henderson.

QUIET AMERICANS - Erika DreifusQuiet Americans: Stories.
By Erika Dreifus.

Paperback: Last Light Studio, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon – Paperback ]
[ Amazon – Kindle ]

The real and lasting effects of war and genocide are more vividly portrayed in the personal stories of individual lives than in the timelines and statistics of history books. In Quiet Americans, her first book of fiction, Erika Dreifus explores the continuing impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families, while delving into her characters’ relationships with both their loved ones and their aggressors. Quiet Americans is a book of historical detail combined with the intimacy and emotion of everyday happenings in the days, years, and decades after tragedy.

Past and future, death and birth, memories and hope, the themes of Dreifus’s stories engage the reader on a level that connects the extraordinary events of a devastating period of history to the ongoing dilemmas of every human heart. How do victims of atrocity, whose deep wounds may no longer throb but have turned to jagged scars, handle the humanity of their attackers? When given a choice of doing good or turning away from an enemy in time of need, how do they retain their own compassion, while not excusing the wicked done against them—especially when millions of others weren’t given that choice? How do they honor their family members who endured unspeakable suffering, never forgetting the past that shapes them, but finding ways to live in the present, to enjoy the closeness of loved ones in this moment, and to rebuild a “normal” life for future generations?

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A Brief Review of

A Covenant of Creatures:
Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism
Michael Fagenblat.
Stanford University Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed By Shaun C. Brown.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) was a Lithuanian born, French educated philosopher and Talmudic commentator.  Levinas also studied for a short time at Freiburg University in Germany under phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.  While there, Levinas also attended a seminar with Martin Heidegger.  Levinas published some of the first works in French pertaining to the work of Husserl and Heidegger (due to Heidegger’s later support of the Nazis, Levinas grew increasingly critical of Heidegger).

Despite his Jewish upbringing and education and his confessional writings, Levinas argued, “I am not a particularly Jewish thinker, I am just a thinker.”  To distance his philosophical work from his confessional writings, Levinas published both with different presses and denied “in several published interviews and discussions, that his philosophy was in any way based on faith” (xiv).  Fagenblat argues, “Denying the Jewish element of his thought was quite simply the price of its admission into the arena of French philosophy” (xiv).  Fagenblat also argues that Levinas’s Judaism cannot be separated from his philosophy, even in his two major philosophical writings for largely non-Jewish audiences, Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being.  Fagenblat acknowledges that his perspective is not unique.  Gabriel Marcel and Paul Ricoeur both “suggested that Levinas secretes his Judaism amid his philosophy” (2).

Throughout A Covenant of Creatures, Fagenblat discusses Levinas’s philosophy of Judaism in dialogue with two figures, Maimonides, a twelfth century Jewish philosopher, and despite their differences, Heidegger.

Levinas focused upon ethics as “first philosophy.”  Levinas’s ethics were in a sense based upon Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, but rather than centering the imperative upon Reason as Kant did, Levinas developed a phenomenology of the moral imperative focusing upon “the face of the Other” (xix).  In the earlier Levinas (which Fagenblat calls Levinas 1), the face of the Other is “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” while “Levinas 2 abandons the attempt to base ethics on a descriptive account of the character of the other” (99).  Levinas believed that theology should not justify evil, but instead respond to evil with covenantal faithfulness to the Other.

Fagenblat argues that Levinas, like Heidegger, viewed philosophy as hermeneutics, “situated within a tradition that determines the very horizons of thought,” rather than in a search for an “atemporal field of knowledge” (15).  This led Levinas to critique metaphysics and develop an ethical negative theology which binds a person to the other.

Fagenblat argues that Levinas privileged religion and orthopraxy over theology and orthodoxy.  Using the Hebrew word emunah, the Greek pistis, and the Latin fides, which can be translated “faith,” “belief,” or “trust,” Levinas and Fagenblat argue that a person of faith should “trust and be trustworthy” (147).  While they are correct that faith involves more than intellectual assent to propositions, Levinas and Fagenblat neglect the ways in which beliefs impact the way people live.  Fagenblat even says, “Nothing that I have said suggests that the ethics of faith implies belief in God” (169).

Throughout Covenant of Creatures, Fagenblat notes the ways in which Levinas’s philosophy was not independent of his faith as a Jew, which is a helpful concept in this post-secular world.  At the same time, however, Fagenblat largely focuses on the ways in which Levinas universalized or secularized his Judaism.  Many Christians would reject a move to secularize Christianity, and thus would not follow Fagenblat to his conclusions.  At the same time, Christians have much to learn from A Covenant of Creatures.

A Covenant of Creatures is not written for a general audience.  A background in continental philosophy and Judaism would be helpful for interested readers.


Shaun C. Brown is Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, where he lives with his wife Cassandra and cat Tonks.


191208: The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation A Review of

The Complete Psalms:
The Book of Prayer Songs
in a New Translation

Translated by Pamela Greenberg.
Hardback: Bloomsbury, 2010.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith.

For thousands of years, the Psalms have been the heartbeat that pulsed life and kept rhythm for the people of God, but sometimes their familiarity can subtly breed mindlessness; we mouth the familiar words and yet miss the power of their words to engage with the oft-brutal realities of living in a fallen world and to transform our hearts and minds.  Out of this familiar milieu emerges Pamela Greenberg’s delightful new translation, The Complete Psalms, which breathes the crisp air of new life into these liturgical songs.  Indeed, Greenberg identifies the compelling force behind her translation as “the impulse of shiru l’Adonai shir chadash, the imperative to sing to God a new song” (xvii).  Her translation process flowed from the tension between the poetic, an attempt “to replicate the emotional passion of the psalms,” and the literal, which in the end resulted in a [dialogical] “middle ground between strict literality and poetic engagement, with the hopes of awakening for the reader new possibilities for speaking with God.”

Consider her verdant translation of the familiar Psalm 100:

Shout out with joy, all who live on earth.

Serve the Holy One with rejoicing.

Come before the Upholder with a ringing cry.

Know that God is a source of wonder.

You created us, and it is to our Creator we belong.

We are shepherded by heavenly guidance.

Come into the divine gates with thankfulness,

the holy courtyards shining with praise.

Be thankful, awed by the Holy Name.

For God is good;

your kindness is toward the world.

From generation to generation, you remain faithful.

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Brief Reviews of

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion.
Herman Wouk.
Audiobook:  Hachette Audio, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street,
One Sleepover at a Time
Peter Lovenheim.
Hardback: Perigee Books, 2010.
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Novelist Herman Wouk is best known for The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, his epic two-volume account of individuals caught up in the terrors of World War II. Wouk, soon to turn ninety-six, has lived an extraordinary life: his father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia; Wouk got his start as a radio dramatist and gag writer for Fred Allen and other comedians; he served as an officer on two destroyer minesweepers in the Pacific during World War II, experience that he turned into his novel The Caine Mutiny, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into both a play and a film; and most of his subsequent career has been spent writing well-received novels.

      Less well-known about Wouk is that he has been an observing Orthodox Jew most of his life. In the flush of his early success he led a secular lifestyle, but, inspired by his grandmother, he turned back to his faith in his mid-20s. On board ship during the war he would lay his tefillin for saying his morning prayers. In his 1959 survey of Judaism, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, Wouk recounts how religion permeates his life, that observing times for prayer and study and kashrut are not onerous, but just one more, or mere, part of life. As Wouk remarks, many of his secular friends were amazed that he could grill a tasty rare steak.

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A brief review of

Memories of Eden: A Journey Through Jewish Baghdad.
Violette Shamash.
Hardback: Northwestern University Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon (

Most of us are likely familiar with Kristallnacht, the nights of violence unleashed by the Nazi regime in 1938 against Jews in Germany and Austria. But did you know that more Jews lost their lives during the Farhud, the anti-Semitic pogrom that took place in Baghdad in June, 1941?

It was the beginning of the end of a vibrant Jewish community that had existed in what is now modern Iraq for 2,500 years, since the time of the Babylonian captivity described in the Old Testament. Within a decade of the Farhud, almost the entire Jewish community, hundreds of thousands Iraqi citizens once an integral part of the life and culture of the region, had fled the country.

Violette Shamash (1912-2006) created a first-person memoir of a Baghdad most of us can scarcely imagine. Shamash penned her stories of her upper-class Jewish childhood and young adulthood in the years prior to the Farhud. She put pen to paper over a span of about twenty years in order to ensure that these rich memories would be passed on to her children. Her daughter and son-in-law shaped her remembrances into a fascinating read about a vanished way of life.

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