Book Review: One Hundred Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Key Jewish Conversation

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR in New York, talks to RJ's editors about his latest book, One Hundred Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Key Jewish Conversation (Bluebridge Press, 2011), which offers commentary on key Jewish writings from biblical times to our day, opening a window onto three millennia of Jewish dialogue and debate.

How did you conceive of a guide to the Jewish conversation?

Back in the 1970s, while serving as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame, I found myself in a conversation with a Catholic colleague who sought to describe an experience that had proved personally transforming. The next thing I knew, I was saying, "That was your life in Christ."

"Yes," he said, "Exactly!"

The problem was, I had no real idea what I had said. I had simply intuited the right conversational response. I was, as it were, learning to speak "Catholic." This was my first inchoate notion of life as a set of conversations.

Is Judaism a conversation?

Yes. We are what we talk about-or, better, what we talk about is what we are likely to become. Think about conversion. People raised as Jews internalize a Jewish conversation they take for granted. Converts are always playing catch-up-as are serious Jews who want to take the conversation deeper than what they learned as children.

What is the best entry point into the Jewish conversation?

I start with the Bible, particularly the Books of Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Genesis is the formative statement of human distinctiveness: our gift of self-consciousness, which evokes the existential question of who we are and what we ought to be. The prophet Isaiah demonstrates our ethical impulse-the outward expression of human self-consciousness toward others. The Psalms provide the other side of the coin-our interior life of prayer, spirituality, and connection to the Divine. But what if the goodness we perform amounts to nothing in the end? What if our ideals are illusions that evaporate into dust? That's the subject of Ecclesiastes. And Job personifies the equally disturbing problem of evil: how bad things happen to good people.

Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job together lay down the parameters of human conversation for all time: self consciousness, ethics, spirituality, and the twin threats of meaninglessness and mortality.

So far, the conversation sounds universal-not specifically Jewish.

Judaism is a "Jewish take" on the universal human predicament. The specifically Jewish version culminated in the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 6th-7th centuries C.E.). It is composed in conversational form, as if half a millennia of rabbis had somehow assembled for a lengthy debate on just about everything-without, however, any binding decision being reached at the end. It is perfectly normal to think your way through several pages of closely contested argument, only to find that you still do not know the answer to the question proposed in the first place. That openness provides grist for a conversational mill that has lasted all this time. Hillel and Shammai (c. 1st century B.C.E.) are paradigmatic opponents. For purposes of practice, we generally follow Hillel, but commentators continue to discuss the guiding principles of Shammai too, because Judaism is expansive, unafraid of contention, and inviting of curiosity and challenge. If I were banished to a desert island with a single book to take along, I'd choose the Talmud.

What are other essential Jewish texts that Jewish conversationalists should know?

Medieval Judaism continued the legal conversation in commentaries, codes of Jewish law (which themselves attract commentaries), and responsa (closely argued legal directives in response to life's challenges). From this period we also inherit our liturgical works-the siddur (prayer book for weekdays and Shabbat), machzor (prayer book for holidays), and the haggadah (the service for the Passover seder). The conversation also expanded to include the writings of prominent Jewish philosophers such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1141); the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar; the fascinating Jewish travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173), who explored Europe, Asia, and Africa; and ethical wills, letters to the next generation with advice parents wish they could provide their children.

How does Reform Judaism play into the Jewish conversation?

Reform Judaism arose in the 19th century, an outgrowth of the Enlightenment (the age of reason) and Emancipation (the process of being freed from ghettos). Both were epitomized by the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1724-1786), who introduced Jews to the wider conversation of Western culture. Ever since, Jews have straddled two conversations-their traditional conversation and the Christian-dominated, but increasingly secular, conversation of modernity.

One way to look at Reform, then, is to think of it as the means by which Jews learned to manage the two conversations without having to leave the Jewish one in order to adopt the dominant one.

But Mendelssohn lived before Reform Judaism came into existence.

That's right. Reform Judaism came into being after the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon, who insisted that Jews could belong in modern nation states only if they were a "religion." That was new for Jews, who had thought of themselves as something larger-a "people." The result was an intensive set of conversations about religious matters modified by the insights of history and science.

An alternative approach came from Eastern Europe. Napoleon didn't get that far, so Jews living in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires never thought of themselves as adherents of a religion, but as part of a patchwork quilt of ethnic peoples, such as the Ukrainians, Magyars, and Serbs. The Jewish equivalent for them was Zionism, a conversation on the revival of Hebrew and building a national home in the Land of Israel.

So Zionism and Reform Judaism are alternative conversational tracks bequeathed to us by modernity?

Exactly. They were rivals once, but have now come together as complementary parts of Jewish identity.

What has been the trajectory of the Jewish conversation in America, and what do you think lies ahead?

Reform Judaism arrived in the U.S. with 19th-century German immigration, but German Jews were quickly outnumbered by Eastern European immigrants who generally identified themselves in ethnic rather than religious terms. As a Western culture, however, America expected its citizens to be at least nominally religious-especially after World War II when Americans were fighting "Godless Communism"-so Jews built and joined the many suburban synagogues that dot our landscape today. But, not having been trained to think religiously, North American Jews largely conversed about ethnic matters-responding to antisemitism and vicariously living through Israel.

This conversation is growing tired, especially for the next generation of Jews who have no ethnic memories of Eastern Europe, Yiddish, and the days before the State of Israel was a reality. I believe our challenge today is to reshape the religious conversation into discussions about spirituality, human purpose, and the ultimate meaning of life.