Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought

Dr. Stu­art W. Halpern, ed.
  • Review
By – February 8, 2017

Books of the Peo­ple is a col­lec­tion of twelve essays, each of which is devot­ed to a sem­i­nal work of Jew­ish thought from a thou­sand-year peri­od between the tenth and twen­ti­eth centuries. 

The authors of the orig­i­nal works orga­nized their ideas in dif­fer­ent ways. Emu­not VeDeot, Guide for the Per­plexed, Sefer HaIkkarim, and Tania are all ency­clo­pe­dic works that attempt to define Jew­ish beliefs and prac­tices in a self-con­scious and orga­nized fash­ion. The Kuzari and Nine­teen Let­ters take the form of polem­i­cal inter­ac­tions between a knowl­edge­able rep­re­sen­ta­tive of obser­vant Judaism and indi­vid­u­als whose abun­dant ques­tions serve as a foil for dis­cussing great Jew­ish ideas. Gevurot HaShem is devot­ed to an expli­ca­tion of Midrash and Aggadah asso­ci­at­ed with Passover. Rab­bi The Tales are fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ries, rem­i­nis­cent of fairy tales, unac­com­pa­nied by an author­i­ta­tive author’s expla­na­tions of their reli­gious sym­bol­ism. Haamek Davar is a run­ning com­men­tary on the bible. Orot HaTeshu­va is a Tal­mu­dic and mys­ti­cal appre­ci­a­tion of the cen­tral­i­ty of repen­tance in Jew­ish thought. Halakhic Man is the devel­op­ment of a spe­cif­ic human typol­o­gy where­by the reli­gious indi­vid­ual attempts to incor­po­rate Divine prin­ci­ples into this-world­ly exis­tence. And Pachad Yitzchak is a col­lec­tion of pub­lic address­es that are struc­tured accord­ing to the Jew­ish hol­i­days and cham­pi­on the indi­vid­ual and his creativity.

The authors of the essays help the read­er under­stand how each of these works was the prod­uct not only of a great mind, but also one was con­scious of and influ­enced by his back­ground and sur­round­ings. Con­se­quent­ly, Rab­bi Saa­dia Gaon was respond­ing to cri­tiques of the bal­ance between rea­son and rev­e­la­tion, the pur­pose of the Com­mand­ments, eth­i­cal the­o­ry, and human free­dom; Yehu­da HaLe­vi ana­lyzed the dialec­tic between Jew­ish eter­ni­ty and the numer­ous per­se­cu­tions that the Jew­ish peo­ple expe­ri­enced; Mai­monides, accord­ing to one view, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly had in mind four dif­fer­ent read­ers: the dog­mat­ic the­olo­gian, the ortho­dox Aris­totelian, the crit­i­cal Aris­totelian, and the intel­lec­tu­al­ist mys­tic. Rab­bi Joseph Albo was bent on defend­ing Judaism from Chris­t­ian den­i­gra­tion; Mahar­al wished to demon­strate that the­o­log­i­cal truths can be derived not only from the Bible, but also from Rab­binic lit­er­a­ture; Rab­bi Shneur Zal­man of Liady wrote an orga­nized the­ol­o­gy of Chas­sidut in response to attacks by Mit­nagdim; Rab­bi Nach­man of Brat­slav uti­lized appar­ent­ly sim­ple sto­ries told in Yid­dish to dis­cuss deep­er, alle­gor­i­cal mat­ters; Rab­bi Naf­tali Tzvi Yehu­da Berlin wished to apply the tools of analy­sis used in poet­ry to the expli­ca­tion of the bible; Rab­bi S.Rabbi Hirsch addressed the younger, post-Enlight­en­ment gen­er­a­tion that was reject­ing reli­gious tra­di­tion; Rab­bi Kook applied the fea­tures of the rad­i­cal rebel­lion against reli­gion to fuel his argu­ment regard­ing how a return to reli­gious obser­vance will ulti­mate­ly take place; Rab­bi Solovetchik respond­ed to Kant’s cri­tique of tra­di­tion­al reli­gion by demon­strat­ing how a devo­tion to Halacha could allow for auton­o­my and cre­ativ­i­ty; and Rab­bi Isaac Hut­ner com­bined the pro­found per­son­al teach­ings of the Mus­sar Move­ment with the spir­i­tu­al-mys­ti­cal teach­ings asso­ci­at­ed with Rab­bi Kook.

Final­ly, while each essay can be read on its own terms, it is inter­est­ing to con­sid­er the book as a sin­gle unit, reflect­ing the evo­lu­tion and grad­ual refine­ment of Jew­ish thought as it react­ed to soci­etal trends and con­cerns. Books of the Peo­ple offers much food for thought to the seri­ous stu­dent of Judaism. 

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions