Stand Tall

Stand Tall by Rhona Lewis (Tfutza Publications, 2020)

Reviewed by Shira Yael Klein

This book was captivating. I read most of it in one sitting. (It’s a good thing someone called and I had to get up to get the phone. I was supposed to be working!)

The book focuses on the characters’ moral conflicts, moral choices, and quests to discover their true identities and goals. The question of what to do with something non-conventional in your past is explored at length through two characters. Do you hide it, flaunt it, or something in between? How will people react? The book gave the topic a nuanced and realistic treatment. (Hint: not everyone reacts the same).

There are at least two bona fide three-dimensional characters. I was actually most captivated by a secondary character, Rivka. I loved how while she essentially doesn’t rise to the real challenge, she is none the less working tremendously hard, with unflagging determination and genuine inner strength, at what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing. And she even succeeds. Sort of. Things go right even though she’s wrong. Interesting. Complex. The way real life is.

There’s a great makolet (neighborhood grocery store) scene, where two characters clash while doing their morning shopping. The author got it so right. I loved the contrast between the homey and familiar shopping experience and the understated tension between the characters.
I liked that while the book ended on a positive note, it wasn’t a Perfectly Happy (read, utterly unrealistic) ending. The book was well written (and edited — I’m an editor, shout out to the editors and proofreaders).

One minor quibble: I don’t know that the “perfect girl” was really so perfect for the “shtark yeshiva bachur” son. Perfect for his mother, yes, but for him? She might actually be too much of a nonconformist. If I’m feeling cynical, I could say that “really” this was her “flaw” which made her family “settle” for a boy with an “undesirable” background. See? The characters are real enough to me that I’m thinking that they “should have” acted differently.

Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah

Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology inthe Torah (Mosaica Press, 2019), by Shmuel Phillips

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this outstanding book, Shmuel Phillips examines various facets of Torah and Judaism from the so-called “rationalist” viewpoint. He puts that approach to Judaism in perspective by offering an uncensored presentation of Maimonides’ views without cherry-picking passages to match a certain preconceived notion of what Jewish rationalism ought to be. In doing so, Phillips offers a fair and open-minded analysis of Maimonidean thought.

Many critics of mainstream contemporary Judaism have misappropriated rationalism to support their own whims. As Rabbi Micha Berger so eloquently put it, "The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached." In his work, Shmuel Phillips shows that rationalism does not necessarily entail rejecting traditional Judaism and actually dovetails nicely with it. He demonstrates how even Maimonides—the hero of so-called “Rational Judaism”—did not endorse free-standing rationalism, but rather a rationalism grounded in certain immutable truths, which the mature scholar can only absorb through rigorous character development and the study of both the Written and Oral Torah.

This heavy book (both in terms of its physical weight and the weighty nature of its discussions) calmly provides the reader with a rationalist view of the Torah’s attitude to such sensitive topics as homosexuality, polygamy, rape, eshet yefat toar (“comfort women” in war zones), and gender roles.. He tackles raging controversial topics like slavery and genocide (i.e. wiping out Amalek) in the Torah, and the ubiquitous questions of objective morality and how to reconcile Torah and Science. Phillips also gives logical and rational justifications for such occurrences as halachic loopholes, ritual law, anti-Semitism, miracles, and prophecy.

Phillips takes on Biblical criticism by citing such scholars as Prof. Joshua Berman who explain away linguistic—and even thematic—similarities between the Bible and other ancient writings by invoking the notion that the Torah writes in the way that people spoke and could be most easily understood and internalized by its original audience. While following this approach, Phillips convincingly argues that this approach is entirely in line with Maimonidean thought. In doing so, Phillips’ tone remains authoritative and non-apologetic, and his arguments are conservative, yet cogent. Phillips invokes Rav Hirsch to quell the concerns of Bible Critics by characterizing the Written Torah as written in a sort of code that can only be deciphered through the Oral Torah. This, of course, accounts for all sorts of stylistic and thematic inconsistencies and redundancies.

Phillips also expounds on the Torah’s Universalist message by following Rav Hirsch in characterizing the struggle between Noah’s three sons as an allusion to the fight between unbridled violence (Ham), the culture of aesthetics (Japheth), and spiritual enlightenment through Godliness and morality (Shem). The ramifications of this three-way conflict continue to reverberate throughout the world as it stands as the basis for the contemporary clash of cultures.

This book also broaches the topic of how to view Aggadic Midrashim. More Kabbalistically-inclined authorities tend to take these aggadot at face value and understand them as the intended meaning of the texts which they interpret. However, rationalists in the mold of Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and—to some extent—Radak beg to differ. They maintain that the tradition of aggadot ought to be treated separately from the texts upon which they nominally expound, and said texts should only be understood in their simplest, literal sense. While some have understood that the rationalists reject aggadot, Phillips demonstrates that they simply compartmentalize aggadot and create a clear barrier between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, without rejecting the latter. Moreover, Phillips demonstrates that even some of the Kabbalists, like Maharal and possibly Rashi, maintain that while all exegeses are connected to the Torah's text (which must contain the totality of all truths), they can sometimes be interpreted as referring to the spiritual dynamics which underpin the plain meaning.

Each chapter takes the reader on a masterfully-written journey through the rationalistic perspective on a different topic. Truth is, you can probably write an entire book for each chapter, but given the framework, this exceptional work does an excellent job at concisely treating each issue with much erudition.

Phillips has a knack for “turning a phrase” in a way that clarifies complex ideas in just a few words. His skilled use of subtle humor and witty alliteration make the subtitles in each chapter almost as fun as reading the content itself. He is clearly a talented writer who has the ability to write up complicated philosophical/theological arguments in an easy-to-read English, without sacrificing accuracy or complexity.

This reviewer respectfully disagrees with Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks’ approbation which characterizes Philips’ book as providing “a remarkable new philosophical approach to Torah and Jewish faith…” In this reviewer’s opinion, Phillips has offered the reader nothing new other than an unbiased presentation of the theosophies of Rambam, R. Yehuda HaLevi, Rav Hirsch, and R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk—essentially allowing the timeless words of these great luminaries to speak for themselves. Phillip does update the presentation of those philosophies in order to express them in more contemporary terms, but he is certainly not offering anything radically new. He essentially presents the ideas behind the rationalist stream of traditional Judaism in a sophisticated and contemporary way, and for this alone he deserves to be commended.

The Emperors and the Jews

The Emperors and the Jews (Mosaica Press, 2019), by Ari Lieberman

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This book is actually comprised of three different parts which are seamlessly woven together to present one picture: Firstly, it profiles important Greek and Roman rulers from the perspective of secular historians. Secondly, it draws from rabbinic literature to offer biographical sketches of the important Jewish figures who interfaced with those Greco-Roman rulers. Finally, it offers traditional Jewish insights and explanations to the stories of those Greco-Roman leaders, and their significance from a Jewish perspective.

Lieberman opens his book with an elaborate description of the Greek king Alexander the Great of Macedonia. After painting a vivid picture of Alexander’s upbringing and tutelage, Lieberman follows the stories of Alexander’s military conquests all the way until his death. Lieberman then segues into Talmudic stories in which Alexander makes appearances, including his interactions with the Jewish sages of his day, such as Shimon HaTzaddik, The Elders of the South, and Geviha ben Pesisa.

As is well-known, after Alexander’s death, the Greek empire split into four kingdoms, which Lieberman shows is a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecies concerning the Third Kingdom. Continuing in the historical narrative, Lieberman focuses on the first two Ptolemaic kings in Egypt. After presenting the historical facts about the Ptolemys, the focus shifts to Rabbinic accounts of the translation of the Torah into Greek which was said to be commissioned by Ptolemy. Lieberman draws from many Jewish sources to analyze this episode, considering whether this development ought to be viewed in a positively or negatively, and whether there is Biblical precedent for translating the Torah.

The next section of Lieberman’s anthology deals with the Flavian emperors of Rome—Vespasian and his son Titus. Lieberman provides us with the historical background behind Vespasian’s rise to power and why the Romans waged war against the Jews. He then introduces us to the Jewish leader at time, the holy Tanna Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who foresaw Vespasian’s ascend to the throne. At that fateful meeting, the holy Tanna negotiated with Vespasian to ensure the continuation of the Jewish People even after Jerusalem was to be sacked by the Romans and the Holy Temple be burnt to the ground. Lieberman also discusses the Talmud’s account of the Temple’s destruction and how Titus was duly punished for his role.

The last section of Lieberman’s book is dedicated to the Roman emperor Antoninus and his relationship with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. Although the exact identity of Antoninus mentioned in the Talmud is unclear, Lieberman narrows it down to Marcus Aurelius or Antoninus Pius and gives us the biography of both of those figures. He then provides a bio of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi—the famous redactor of the Mishnah, known in the Talmud as simply “Rebbi”. Afterwards, Lieberman offers an elaborate analysis of the enigmatic, yet enchanting bond between these two unlikely companions. Many of the sources which Lieberman cites connect this relationship to that of Jacob and Esau, with Rebbi representing Jacob and Antoninus representing Esau.

At the end of the book, Lieberman wrote two helpful appendices: The first provides a running list of the changes that the Sages introduced when translating the Torah from Hebrew into Greek. This appendix is related to his discussion on the Ptolemys and their role in that undertaking. Lieberman draws from a plethora of sources to explain the need for each change, and the implications of those changes. The second appendix deals with the concept of the Four Kingdoms which are destined to dominate the Jewish People, and documents various allusions to these Four Kingdoms in the most unlikely passages.

Lieberman’s work boasts of two different types of notes: Footnotes are marked by Arabic numerals, and generally refer the reader to sources and/or links to websites with much of the relevant primary and secondary sources. Endnotes are marked by Roman numerals which provide the reader with all full Hebrew sources cited in their original.

In addition to drawing from historians who wrote about ancient Greece and Rome, Lieberman’s impressive library includes the Talmud, Midrashim, Rashi, R. Bachaya, Maharsha, Maharal, the Aggadic works of the Ben Ish Chai, and much more. He also make use of traditional Jewish works of history, such as Shalshelet HaKabbalah, Tzemach David, Seder HaDorot, and Dorot HaRishonim.
As alluded to above, Lieberman does not suffice with just reporting the facts, he also provides the reader with more practical lessons and insights. His work is chockful of advice and guidance for potential shtadlanim and askanim gleaned from lessons learned in the past.

All in all, Ari Lieberman’s book is very easy to read and does not get bogged down in tedious details. His liberal use of adjectives make his descriptions come alive, and his masterful use of bullet points both summarize his major arguments and make fresh succinct observations without dwelling on them. Despite engaging with secular historians, Lieberman’s work remains true to Chazal and the spirit of tradition as befits an apparent Torah Scholar like himself. As the venerable Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz observes, “Rabbi Ari Lieberman has written a truly fascinating book on a largely unstudied topic” and in the words of Rabbi Berel Wein, “it belongs in the home of every Jew interested in our tradition and history”.