“Judaism remains a dazzlingly original way of thinking about life,” Rabbi Sacks suggests in the Introduction to this collection of weekly readings on the Torah. In Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas: A Weekly Reading of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the author of over thirty books, and an internationally recognized teacher, offers an anthology of essays that probe the life-changing ideas found in each Torah portion. Bari Weiss, in her Foreword, asserts that the longevity of the Jewish people, who “should have disappeared long ago, a civilization only capable of being recalled, like those others, on Wikipedia,” has survived not through political power or physical strength but because of its core ideas.
Each chapter of Rabbi Sacks’s anthology is dedicated to a single Torah portion and concludes with a summarized idea for further reflection. These biblical themes are connected to sources, both Jewish and secular, which will lead the reader into deeper exploration. In the chapter Vayehi, the final portion of Genesis, which recounts Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers, Rabbi Sacks explores the perennial challenge of offering and accepting forgiveness. He distinguishes Joseph’s attitude toward his brothers’ mistreatment of him to the meeting between Jacob and Esau several chapters before. Jacob’s actions are understood to be more an act of appeasement than forgiveness. While Joseph’s brothers fear reprisal, Joseph makes it clear (Genesis 50:19 – 21) that he seeks to forgive as he “reassures them and speaks kindly to them.” Joseph’s generosity of spirit, Rabbi Sacks suggests, is possible because Joseph has come to recognize that God’s providence was behind everything that transpired.
Rabbi Sacks’s analysis does not end there. He also recognizes that the Joseph narrative introduces a different way of dealing with conflict, stating that “Judaism represents, for the first time in history, a morality of guilt rather than shame.” In shame-based cultures, wrongdoing is understood as a permanent stain on the offender and representative of his or her immutable flaw which cannot be forgiven. In guilt-based cultures, a separation is made between a person and their actions, allowing the offender to express remorse, seek forgiveness, make amends, and change for the better. Rabbi Sacks’s analysis of Vayehi continues with a critique of a contemporary Western society that has regressed to a shame culture, despite its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The chapter concludes by articulating “Life-Changing Idea #12: Judaism allows us to inhabit a culture of grace and hope. If we work hard enough on ourselves, we can be forgiven.”
Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas is a thought-provoking book that could be read in a single sitting. However, it is probably best read by devoting one week to each chapter as the Torah is read. This allows the reader to digest its important messages throughout the year and provides an accessible path for exploring Judaism’s greatest ideas and ideals.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.