Building a Jewish Library

If you want to discover anew or delve further into the fascinating history, culture and religion of the Jewish people there is a bewildering array of books on all kinds of Jewish topics available, especially online. Generally, only a limited range of books on Jewish topics will be be found on the shelf in High Street bookshops. The following is a suggested list of books which represent a modern approach to Judaism, covering a wide range of Jewish history, belief and practice.

An excellent place to start exploring Jewish life, culture and religion is Judaism: A Very Short Introduction by Norman Solomon, published by Oxford University Press. Try to get the second edition, published in 2014. This small book is very clearly written and is a very good introduction to Jewish life today, in the 21st century as well as in the past.

Another recent general introduction to the history, culture and religion of the Jewish people in a single volume is An Introduction to Judaism by Nicholas De Lange. This has also appeared in a second edition in 2010. It is published by Cambridge University Press. The work focuses especially on Jewish life in the past 200 years.

The Jewish population in the world is hard to estimate as the question ‘who counts as Jewish?’ is difficult to answer. Many estimates settle on around 20 million. This is a much smaller community than the estimated 1.5 billion Christians in the world. It is therefore not surprising that so many books on the ‘Bible’ tend to be aimed at the Christian reading public and therefore reflect a Christian view of what the Bible is. However, there are good books on the Bible written from a Jewish perspective and, increasingly, books on the Jewish history and culture which, though written by non-Jewish authors, give a fair representation of their subject matter which will not offend most Jewish readers.

TANAKH THE HOLY SCRIPTURES: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society, 1985 & 1999.

This is one of the best of the Jewish translations of the Bible into English. It is available in hardback and soft covers and is not an expensive translation. There is also a JPS Bible which has both the Hebrew text and English translation at a higher price. See the JPS website for a fascinating range of excellent books on a broad range of topics.

The Jewish Study Bible by Adele BerlinMarc Zvi Brettler and Michael Fishbane (editors) Oxford University Press, second edition 2014. Available as a kindle book.

The Oxford University Press has produced an outstanding single volume published as The Jewish Study Bible. This work contains the most up to date English translation of the entire TaNaKh, or Hebrew Bible. Each book of the Bible is given its own introduction by a leading scholar in the field. There is a wide-ranging running commentary in the margin which draws upon the best of ancient, medieval and modern insights into the text. This is necessary because the Bible is not a collection of books which can simply be read, they must be studied in order to enter and appreciate the multi-faceted worlds in which this literature was created.

If this were all that there was to recommend the Jewish Study Bible, it would be a very fine investment, worth every cent. However, at towards the end of the volume there are hundreds of pages of essays on virtually every scholarly topic in modern Biblical studies. These essays are a superb collection of the very best in today’s research. They cover subjects such as: how Jews have interpreted and understood the Bible from ancient times through to today’s leading-edge scholarship; how Jews have used the Bible in Jewish thought and in practice; how we can understand the Bible in its historical background, its concepts and ideas, its languages and textual transmission.

To help the reader further there are numerous black and white maps and diagrams, plus other full-colour maps, charts and diagrams, tables and chronologies, a calendar and a timeline. The combination of all of this material in one volume makes it an unrivalled and source book of the Bible and about the Bible.

Etz Hayim is a publication of the (American) Conservative movement, produced through a joint venture of The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and The Jewish Publication Society.

Etz Hayim contains the whole text of the Torah, divided according to the fifty-four weekly synagogue readings of the one year cycle. It contains two types of commentary: the peshat commentary, adapted from the larger, five-volume JPS Torah Commentary. The aim of this type of commentary is to explain the basic meaning of the text.

The second type of commentary is the derash commentary, which presents insights from the history of Jewish Torah study, including selected passages from the Talmud and Midrash, the teachings of the Sages, comments by Rashi, Hasidic teachers, and readings by contemporary rabbis and scholars, including feminist scholarship.

The commentary to the weekly haftarot, the selections drawn from the books of the prophets, is by Michael Fishbane from his single-volume JPS Bible Commentary on the Haftarot.

Etz Hayim includes a special feature entitled halakhah l’ma-aseh, which indicates where Jewish laws are based on biblical passages. The volume includes essays on a wide range of topics relating to Jewish life as reflected in the Torah, blessings for the Torah and haftarot, full-color maps, a glossary, and a timeline of biblical events, and comprehensive indexes.

The JPS has published a commentary on the haftarot which is a good companion to Etz Hayim.

W. Gunther Plaut (Editor) The Torah: A Modern Commentary New York: Union for Reform Judaism, revised edition 2005.

Like Etz Hayim, this single volume contains the whole text of the Torah, divided according to the fifty-four weekly readings of the one year cycle, together with haftarot, with essays and commentary, both modern and traditional. The revised edition is designed for easier use in synagogue services and study than the first edition which sub-divided the weekly readings according to subject matter.

This volume has an accompanying volume The Haftarah Commentary (1996) giving extensive detailed analysis and information relating to the synagogue readings from the prophetic books.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok Judaism, History, Belief and Practice, Routledge, 2003 (soft cover; hardback also available).

This is a book written by a Progressive Rabbi who was also a Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wales. Not surprisingly, therefore it is a textbook suitable for young adult students learning about Judaism for the first time. The publisher describes it as ‘an unrivalled guide to the history, beliefs and practices of Judaism’. It may not be ‘unrivalled’ but it is a very comprehensive introduction to Judaism covering Jewish history from the earliest beginnings in the ancient Middle East (or Near East) to the present day. Jewish beliefs including God, Torah, Israel, Prayer, Messiah and Afterlife, and Jewish practices including the life-cycle, calendar of festivals and kashrut, Shabbat and conversion.

The textbook style, and the wide range of subjects covered, result in a book with ninety short chapters each introducing a separate topic. Each chapter includes quotations from important original sources and suggestions for further reading. There is a good index and a glossary of terms, plus many maps and photographs.

Christine Pilkington or C.M. Hoffman and Jonathan Gorsky Judaism (Teach Yourself series) Fourth Edition 2008.

The fact that this book has been published in four editions is a testament to its popularity and its usefulness as a general introduction to Judaism. Authors of all editions are very experienced professional educators. Early editions are by Christine Pilkington, an experienced university lecturer in Judaism, and Jonathan Gorsky is educational advisor to the Council of Christians and Jews. It is especially good in that this book is written by authors who know the British Jewish scene very well. The range of topics covered is extensive and there are very good suggestions for further reading. There are plenty of secondhand copies at low prices and a kindle edition.

Louis Jacobs The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995 (hardback). Still in print, but pricey. Plenty of good secondhand copies available.

Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs was one of the UK’s greatest Jewish scholars. This single volume dictionary of Judaism is packed with a wealth of information on hundreds of subjects written in very clear language. Rabbi Jacobs employs a relaxed writing style including many fascinating asides. The best one volume reference book of its type.

Dr Ian Barnes and Josephine Bacon The Historical Atlas of Judaism, Chartwell Books, 2011.

Jewish history spans more than three millennia and most parts of the world. It is an extraordinary saga set forth pictorially in this comprehensive and richly illustrated volume. With brilliantly detailed maps, photos, and drawings, and chronologies and commentaries by leading experts, this revised edition is a very engaging read. Virtually all the key elements of Jewish history and culture are examined: from pre-history through the Biblical period, exile and diaspora to the modern Middle East.

Each pair of pages covers a single topic or two related topics, clearly indicated in page titles. The editors have struck a very fine balance between text and illustrations. There is sufficient written material to give the reader a brief, but adequate, outline of each topic. This text is balanced and enhanced by a very thoughtful selection of illustrations.

The volume has an extensive index and a very useful glossary to help the reader with unfamiliar terms. Oddly, the three-page table of contents is at the back of the book rather than at the front.

British Jewish history in recent centuries is covered by Geoffrey Alderman’s Modern British Jewry (second edition 1998) from Oxford University Press. Professor Alderman is a historian of politics and his insightful feeling for political issues in Jewish community life shines through in this book.

If you are interested in denominations in Judaism, you will need a good guide.

A good introduction is The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Jewish Lights Publishing 2006. Dr Fishman traces the history of the development of Jewish groups and movements over the past two hundred years. Though written from an American perspective most of what is said helps to understand the background to British Judaism today.

Two books which give a perspective on Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism in the UK are Jonathan Romain and Anne J. Kershen Tradition and Change: History of Reform Judaism in Britain, 1840-1995, published by Vallentine Mitchell in 1995. The authors tell the story of the origin and development of Reform Judaism in Britain. Twenty-four families broke away from the Orthodox establishment in 1840 to found their own independent congregation. In time Reform Judaism became the second largest synagogue movement in the UK today. Over the past 150 years it has weathered religious and political traumas affecting all British Jews including the fight for Jewish rights in the nineteenth century, the destruction of Jewish communities in the Second World War, and the struggle for equal participation in Jewish life by women.

A smaller but also vigorous denomination is Liberal Judaism whose story is told by Lawrence Rigal and Rosita Rosenberg in Liberal Judaism: The First Hundred Years London: Liberal Judaism, 2004 (hardback).

Beginning with the setting up of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902 (becoming Liberal Judaism in 1911) the book traces the history of Liberal Judaism up to 2002. Fascinating characters populate the story and debates and issues crop up which go to the very heart of what it means to be both liberal and religious.

Liberal Judaism has also recently published a valuable insight into its beliefs, values and practices. Pete TobiasLiberal Judaism: A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century (2013).

Jewish religious practice can often puzzle outsiders. A comprehensive one (big) volume offering comprehensive coverage of almost everything one might inquire about is Ronald Eisenberg The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, Jewish Publication Society, 2004 (hardcover & paperback available).

The publisher’s introduction printed on the dust jacket of this book asks: Have you ever wondered …

Why ten people are required for a minyan?

Why a wedding ceremony is conducted under a chuppah?

Why the kaddish became an important part of the service?

Why the mezuzah is affixed to the door at an angle?

What is the traditional Jewish view on euthanasia and assisted suicide?

This book is part of the acclaimed Jewish Publication Society Desk Reference series.

It is divided into four sections:

1. Life cycle Events

2. Sabbath and Festivals

3. Synagogue and Prayer

4. Miscellany (includes food, animals, magic and superstition).

The surprising fact about this excellent, complete single volume reference book about Jewish traditions, beliefs and attitudes is that it was not written by a rabbi or a university academic. Ronald Eisenberg is a radiologist and a qualified attorney. But I defy you to find a more clearly written book, which is particularly valuable because it reflects a range of Jewish views, Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive.

Arthur Waskow Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, Boston: Beacon Press 1990 (originally published 1982).

This is a superb book on the Jewish calendar and Jewish celebrations. It is a very comprehensive survey of the calendar of Jewish festivals and more. It introduces the reader to the history and traditional observances associated with each festival and goes on to offer modern interpretations where appropriate. It even includes recipes for foods eaten at each festival. Despite being written nearly forty years ago, the book does not seem in the least dated.

If, after reading some of the above recommendations, your appetite is whetted for something a little deeper and from writers with excellent scholarly credentials who cover a very full range of Jewish cultures, the following may be of interest.

Nicholas De Lange and Miri Freud-Kandel (editors) Modern Judaism, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press.

Judith R Baskin and Kenneth Seeskin (editors) The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

David Biale (editor) Cultures of the Jews, Schocken Books, 2002 (three paperback volumes).

Are you looking for some guidance or have questions about
the Jewish faith?