In recent years there have been a plethora of popular books on the Talmud, but few treat the subject with as much reverence and attention to beauty as Liel Leibovitz’s latest work, How the Talmud Can Change Your Life. Telling the story of rabbinic Judaism through the few dominant personalities of each era of rabbinic history, Leibovitz takes his readers through the development of the Mishnah and Talmud, highlighting important themes like friendship, community, and love which appear in each time period.
In order to make these Talmudic discussions more relevant to our modern-day world, Leibovitz begins each chapter with a secular anecdote that links to the Talmudic themes he will discuss. In one chapter, he uses the friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein as a yardstick in which to assess the friendship of Rabbis Yochanan and Reish Lakish. In another chapter, he begins his discussion of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, who wrote and arranged the Mishnah, by analyzing modern America’s great cataloger, Melvil Dewey — the inventor of the Dewey Decimal system. These anecdotes ground the chapter’s themes, and demonstrate why ancient topics of Talmudic discussion can speak to our pressing concerns today.
It is, however, in Leibovitz’s analysis of Talmudic personalities where he shines. Leiboviz not only respects the great rabbis of Jewish history, but feels deeply for them. He sees their struggles as an echo of their humanity and writes with great pathos, making so his subjects leap off the page. It’s clear that Leibovitz is a master of the written word.
Despite the title, this is not a self-help book. Rather than tell us how to use the Talmud to grow, Leibovitz shows us what we can gain from studying it. He writes in his epilogue about how he found the Talmud anew as an adult during a particularly difficult point in his life. During that challenging era, these rabbis became important teachers and companions to him. The book does not read like a sales pitch forTalmud study; rather, it invites readers to dig deeper into the beauty and humanity of the rabbis.
The artistry of How the Talmud Can Change Your Life is that it tells us just enough history, and introduces us to just enough talmudic personalities and rabbinic tales to whet our appetite and make us want to find out more. Leibovitz knows that his prose can prod us toward our own personal exploration of the Talmud, and that it might just change our lives as well.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.