Zimzum: God and the Origin of the World


Zimzum: God and the Origin of the World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023), by Christoph Schulte

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

This scholarly work is an intellectual history of the reception of the concept of tzimtzum in various circles. The concept of Tzimtzum refers to the Kabbalistic notion of Divine “contraction” or “withdrawal.” In Lurianic Kabbalah, it is fundamental for understanding how the infinite Divine essence interacts with the finite world. According to this concept, before creation, God — often referred to in Kabbalistic literature as the Ein Sof (“infinite”) — filled all of existence, such that in order for creation of the finite world to occur, God needed to make space for creation by “withdrawing” or “contracting” His infinite presence. This withdrawal created a void or space, which resulted in a “place” for the finite world to come into existence outside of God Himself. Various emanations typified by the partzufim and the sefirot percolate from this highly spiritual “place” down to the material world which we occupy. The first and most supernal of these emanations is known in Kabbalah as Adam Kadmon, and it is from that realm that everything in creation emanates.

The first chapter discusses the emergence of the concept of tzimtzum in the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534–1572), known as Arizal. That chapter shows how even in the first generation after the Arizal, the correct interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah became subject to dispute, as the Arizal’s prime disciples Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620) and Rabbi Yisrael Sarug (d. 1610) disagreed over whether their master’s teaching was meant to be taken literally, or was merely a metaphoric way of relating a concept that actually lies beyond human comprehension. This difference of opinion continued into later generations and the debate engaged such important figures as Rabbi Menachem Azariah da Fano (1548-1620) Rabbi Avraham Cohen de Herrera (1570-1635), Rabbi Yishaya Horowitz (1558-1630), Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo of Candia (1591-1655), Rabbi Yosef Ergas (1685-1730), and Rabbi Immanual Chai Ricci (1688-1743).

The way Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746) — known as the Ramchal — explains the idea of tzimtzum follows the traditional Kabbalistic view of identifying the Ein Sof with God Himself. Accordingly, he explains that because at the level of Ein Sof, God is infinite and unlimited, He therefore has no particular “goal” or “purpose,” because such objectives would, by definition, necessarily limit Him. Yet, because in His eternal benevolence, He wanted to create the world, He sought to "reign in" His infiniteness through tzimtzum, which allowed Him to create the world and achieve His goal of being ever-beneficent to something outside of Himself. This means that although He himself is limitless, He consciously chose to put constraints on Himself in order to create the finite world as we know it. When discussing Luzzatto, the author does not explore the idea found elsewhere in Ramchal’s writings that God’s tzimtzum was integral for man’s freewill.

An entire chapter of this book is devoted to how the concept of tzitzum was received in early Hassidic thought. In that chapter, the author focuses on how one of the foremost students of the Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch (1704-1772) — known as the Maggid of Mezritch — took the concept of tzimtzum as instructive in how man can accomplish imitatio dei by likewise “retreating” from worldly pleasures and focusing as much as humanly possible on immaterial, spiritual matters. Although this ascetic approach did not become a cornerstone for all Hassidic sects, it certainly influenced many later Hassidic Tzaddikim. Other Hassidic thinkers that this book treats are Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov (1772-1810), who also used the concept of tzimtzum in their respective Hassidic theosophies.

In the century after the Arizal’s passing, a Christian scholar named Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) translated some important texts of Kabbalah into Latin, and his popular work brought the ideas of tzimtzum to a wider audience. From there, knowledge of tzimtzum spread to many Christian Hebraists and so-called Cabalists. As the author documents, there were varied reactions to these ideas in Christian circles. Some scholars took the ideas of Kabbalah, and particularly of tzimtzum, as universal ideas taught by Judaism and used that to look upon Judaism and the Jewish people more favorable as purveyors of these universal truths. Others offered Christological reinterpretations of the doctrine of tzimtzum, conflating Adam Kadmon (which does not actually refer to a person) as referring to none other than Christ himself.

Some Christian interpreters associated the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum with the heresy of pantheism, that is, the belief that God is equal to nature. In doing so, they painted all Jews in a bad light as though Kabbalists were followers of Spinoza, using that as fodder for the furtherance of anti-Semitism. One figure particularly associated with this approach is Johann Georg Wachter (1673–1757), who translated some Kabbalistic texts into German. It is actually his visual depiction of tzimtzum that appears on this book’s cover. Another figure who wrote something similar was the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), who accused his fellow philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) of holding views in line with Kabbalah and Spinozism, seeing the two as interchangeable. Of course, the traditional Jewish approach to Kabbalistic cosmology sees God as encompassing the entirety of creation but also surpassing it, rather than equaling it (see responsa Chacham Tzvi §18).

Interestingly, the author shows how the famous German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) incorporated elements of the idea of tzimtzum into his Trinitarian way of explaining the contraction of the Divine (although the author admits that Schelling never actually used the word tzimtzum and seems to not have had any direct engagement with Kabbalah texts written in Hebrew).

Christians were not the only ones to reappropriate the Lurianic concept of tzimtzum for their own ideological purposes. In the writings of Sabbatian theologists like Abraham Miguel Cardozo (1627-1706) and Nechemia Chiyya Chayun (1650-1730), the concept of tzimtzum is presented in a different way. In contrast to the standard reading of Kabbalah that equates the Ein Sof with God, these Sabbatians used the concept of tzimtzum to support their contention that the Ein Sof is somehow something from which the God of Israel is born in a quasi-mythological way through tzimtzum, but is not equal to Him. This is important for Sabbatian antinomianism, as these Sabbatians recognize that the God of Israel gave the Torah which contains certain commandments and strictures, but they argue that the will of the ultimate Ein Sof might not always line up with that of the God of Israel, which according to their theology justifies their abrogating the Torah’s laws.

Other chapters in the book explore how tzimtzum is depicted in secular art and literature in more recent times. If I properly understood the author’s intent, he sees an example of a sort of secular deistic reading of tzimtzum in private letters written by the late scholar of Kabbalah Dr. Gershom Scholem (1897–1982). It seems that Scholem understood God’s apparent absence from This World as a reflection of His purposeful minimizing His presence through tzimtzum and retreating to allow nature to run its course.

Other recent appearances of tzimtzum that the author does not discuss include Hareidi pop culture, like Naftali Kempeh’s recent song Ohr Ein Sof, whose lyrics are drawn from Rabbi Chaim Vital’s account of tzimtzum. Similarly, Avinoam Fraenkel’s 2015 work Nefesh HaTzimtzum is a digest on Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChaim and how it differs from Hassidic conceptions of tzimtzum. The author acknowledges Fraenkel’s work in his introduction, but does not actually engage with it.

In conclusion, Zimzum: God and the Origin of the World offers an insightful exploration into the intricate realm of tzimtzum, providing invaluable snippets of historical context that enrich the understanding of its diverse integrations across various contexts. Because this book is a translation from the author's earlier German study, it occasionally suffers from awkward verbiage and slightly inaccurate translations. However, these pitfalls should not detract from the reader's overall experience, as the depth of knowledge and the scholarly analysis presented within its pages offer a commendable resource for those delving into the nuanced complexities of tzimtzum and how it has been presented over the ages.

The Choice to Believe & Reason to Believe

The Choice to Believe: Based on the shiurim of Rav Moshe Shapiro, z"l (Mosaica Press, 2023), by Rabbi Aryeh Feldman

Reason to Believe (Mosaica Press, 2017), by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

Although both of these books have similar titles and are ultimately aimed at bringing the reader to believe in the same thing — namely, the tenets of Judaism — these two books take quite different approaches towards that end. Both authors agree that there is no such a thing as an ironclad logical proof that can demonstrate the existence of God in the way of a mathematical theorem. But how each author advocates for belief in God despite this admitted limitation widely differs.

Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb, a philosopher of science and former professor, uses philosophical/logical arguments to make his case that there is ample reason for a person to believe in Judaism. He is always careful not to claim that he is “proving” Judaism, but rather shows the reader that deciding to believe in Judaism is not at all an illogical or irrational choice. In doing so, Gottlieb uses Socratic maneuvering to force the reader to admit that his arguments are sound and logical.

In the beginning of the book, Gottlieb focuses a lot on epistemology with discussions about how people “know” things and what threshold of evidence is typically acceptable in what sorts of circumstances.

To summarize Gottlieb’s main two points: one aspect of the believability of Judaism lies in its predictive effectiveness, as the Torah already supplied a plausible reason for Jewish Survival and what factors could lead to upending the Jewish presence in the Holy Land before the events that eventually caused the exile and dispersal to happen actually occurred. After surveying all the possible natural reasons for Jewish Survival and rejecting them, Gottlieb concludes that this phenomenon can be nothing short of a Divine miracle.

The second aspect is what Gottlieb calls the Kuzari Principle, which essentially states that a National Experiential Tradition must be true and since there is a tradition that when the Jews accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, they underwent such an experience, it is perforce true. Rabbi Gottlieb elaborates on exactly how to define the Kuzari Principle and under what circumstances it is or is not relevant. As opposed to other religions which were based on the testimony of only a few individuals claiming to have been privy to Divine revelations.

In general, Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb provides very specific examples to sharpen his points. His argumentation is very well thought-out and the core of his argument has clearly been refined and reworked over the years to be very specific. Of course, the author is a well-known public speaker and long-time educator Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, so he has had much chance to debate interlocutors on these questions, and those critiques (which he often cites verbatim) has given him the opportunities to hone his craft. In his footnotes, Gottlieb often refers the reader to supplementary “appendices” to his book that are available on his website and go into more detail about the various claims and arguments that he makes.

On the other hand, Rabbi Feldman takes a totally different approach. His book presents the teachings of his esteemed father-in-law Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935–2017), under whom he studied for over forty years. His book presupposes that the reader already believes in Judaism and its basic dogmas and practices. What Rabbi Feldman does is presents the reader with a metaphysical framework by which the observant Jew can conceptualize his Jewish theosophy and practices.

Rabbi Feldman devotes much discussion to the duality of God’s revelation in the physical world (through Creation) and in the spiritual world (through the Torah). He sees parallels between these two worlds in various aspects, like numerology (the physical world was created through ten utterances, just like the spiritual world of the Torah can be summed up in Ten Commandments) and the like. In doing so, Rabbi Feldman explains how Emunah (“belief”) in God is the quintessential mitzvah that bridges these two worlds and reveals God’s presence in the physical world. Following this, he teaches that in the future, purely spiritual concepts (like the holiness of the Sabbath vis-à-vis other days of the week) will be manifestly visible in the physical world.

One of the most common terms that Rabbi Feldman uses is “greater existence” which points to the notion that man is not at the center of everything. Rather, it is incumbent upon man to recognize that his very existence hinges on God and God’s will. This entails making the proper decision to view life and existence in that way. A person must see himself as obligated to believe in God and follow His commandments due to him being totally dependent on God for everything. With such an attitude in place, a person can more easily take his Emunah to the nth degree and be willing to even sacrifice his life for the sake of God — after all, it is God who gives him life in the first place.

This weltanschauung contrasts with the approach always taken by idolators, heretics, and evildoers who put man at the center of everything and deny that they are dependent on anything else but themselves. The demand for empirical or logical proof of God’s existence is itself a symptom of the idolatrous attitude that sees man as the ultimate arbiter of reality. As Rabbi Feldman shows, it takes a person with a special knack to connect to things outside of himself to be able to buck this trend. He calls this skill daas, usually translated as “knowledge,” but sometimes meant in the sense of “connection.” Although, Rabbi Feldman also warns about a false sense of daas whereby one is selfishly motivated to consume news and other media information under the guise of connecting to a greater existence, while actually doing so merely for one’s own benefit.

A major theme discussed throughout Rabbi Feldman’s book is what made Abraham so special and how we can learn from the level of Emunah that Abraham achieved. Abraham was the perfect foil to the generation of the Tower of Babel that viewed all of creation as something meant to serve them. Instead, Abraham introduced the paradigm shift that taught that God is at the center of creation and creation’s role is to serve Him — not vice versa.

As Rabbi Feldman clarifies, whatever a person chooses to believe will always be reinforced by what he sees in the world, so if a person chooses to believe in God as his starting point, he will see proofs to God’s existence time and time again. And conversely, if a person chooses to disbelieve in God as his starting point, he will see apparent proofs to support that view because he has already defined the world as something devoid of God.

Besides for the general approach and content, these two books differ from each other in terms of tone, as well. Gottlieb’s book maintains the tone of a teacher who is speaking directly to his student/reader and trying to convince them of his arguments. To do so, he often uses slightly less formal language and tries to summarize information and bring it down to the reader’s level. In contrast, Rabbi Feldman always maintains a very formal tone of writing that resembles the style of a preacher who is very careful with his words in trying to get his message out. Rabbi Feldman is also somewhat more repetitive in trying to hammer in certain key ideas, rather than trying to build an overarching argument like Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb. On the other hand, while Gottlieb spends a lot of time exploring alternate explanations and debunking possible refutations to his arguments, Rabbi Feldman simply asserts things to be as they are, without even seriously entertaining the rival theories.

What both books have in common is that they are masterfully decorated with the stunning cover designs and pleasant typesetting that has become Mosaica Press’ signature in the Jewish Book World.

3 Book Reviews

Temptation Transformed: The Story of How the Forbidden Fruit Became an Apple (The University of Chicago Press, 2022), by Azzan Yadin-Israel

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel's latest work is a fascinating exploration that delves into the evolution of a concept taken for granted in popular discourse. The Biblical account of Adam and Eve consuming the Forbidden Fruit leaves the specific identity of this fruit shrouded in the generic term pri, which simply means "fruit" in Hebrew. However, over time, this “fruit” has been widely perceived as an apple in pop culture. In this work, Yadin-Israel meticulously unravels the roots of this prevalent notion through an in-depth scholarly investigation.

Conventional wisdom says that the apple came to be understood as the Forbidden Fruit because the Latin word malum means “evil,” and its homonym malum (cognate with the English word melon) means “apple.” The popular theory goes that since Adam and Eve sinning by eating this fruit wrought evil upon the world, the very fruit in question must have been an apple which is linguistically associated with “evil,” i.e. the apple — because of the aforementioned homonym.

However, Yadin-Israel decisively debunks this theory by showing that it remains unsubstantial when one studies early Latin commentators to the Bible. Through a masterful grasp of textual, literary, visual, and artistic references to the Fall of Man, the author eruditely navigates through proofs and counter-proofs, while conclusively discrediting the unsubstantiated Latin-based understanding.

The one attractive point of the malum theory is that the tradition associating the fruit with the apple is unknown in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek sources — thus lending credit to the notion that it must have sprung up from something related to Latin. However, the author rejects this point by noting that early Latin authors rarely referred to the Forbidden Fruit by the Latin term malum, instead using more generic words like fructus (“fruit”).

After rejecting this folk explanation, the author harnesses a wide array of sources in order to pinpoint exactly when and where the notion that Forbidden Fruit was an apple came into existence. At that point, he shifts the focus to iconographic and artistic representations of the Fall of Man, tracing the emergence of the apple in such depictions to 12th-century France. Prior to this period, visual portrayals of the Forbidden Fruit simply did not feature apples.

Yadin-Israel intriguingly connects the rise of the apple theory in 12th-century France to the evolving semantic meaning of the French word pomme, transitioning from a generic term for "fruit" to specifically denoting an "apple." Similar semantic shifts later occurred in Germanic languages like German and English, whereby apple/apfel transitioned from a generic word for “fruit” to a word that specifically means “apple.” The author makes the strong case that it was these internal semantic shifts within various European languages that actually lead to the widespread misconception regarding the Forbidden Fruit's identity. In other words, once the word for “fruit” came to specifically mean “apple,” people began to think that “forbidden fruit” actually just meant “forbidden apple.”

Before the apple theory gained traction and wide acceptance, there were earlier traditions that identify the fruit as something else. For example, various Jewish traditions (found in rabbinic sources, as well as in apocryphal literature) identify the Forbidden Fruit as either a grape, fig, wheat, or citron. These traditions were also adopted by early Christian sources, who further conjectured that the fruit in question might have been a pomegranate (a word incidentally cognate with the French pomme mentioned above). Yadin-Israel meticulously documents these and other alternative theories as to the identity of the fruit in question, including less popular suggestions like the date and the banana.

This book is a testament to the value of rigorous scholarship, highlighting that nothing should be taken for granted, but rather all assumptions could and should be called into question. It also illustrates the idea that scholarship should not be confined to a single field, but rather flourishes in multi-disciplinary milieu. Yet, this book is written in easy English rather than dense academic jargon. It is also relatively short — I read it in one sitting. Indeed, this book presents a fascinating scholarly narrative that reads like a mystery novel, with the author acting like a detective uncovering the origins of the popular wisdom.

This book also includes beautiful pictures from various libraries that make up some of the iconographic evidence from which the author draws. Accompanying these stunning visuals are extensive endnotes and a bibliography that aid the reader in delving further into the topic.  Moreover, the book goes beyond its pages, offering a companion website, https://treeofknowledgeart.com/ where the author has collated hundreds of additional iconographic depictions of the Tree of Knowledge, enriching the reader's exploration further.

In essence, Temptation Transformed invites readers on a journey through the annals of history, challenging preconceived notions, and revealing the intricate story behind the genesis of a pervasive cultural belief.

The Musaf Prayer: Background and Commentary (Mosaica Press, 2023), by Rabbi Elchanan Adler

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

Rabbi Elchanan Adler, a distinguished Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary for over a quarter-century, brings his erudition to life in this insightful exploration of the Musaf prayer recited on Shabbat. The author has already written many books in English and Hebrew, and holds degrees in Psychology and Education. But in his newest work, Rabbi Adler offers a fascinating adaptation of his earlier Hebrew work dedicated to this very topic.

Tapping into the rich background of the Musaf prayer's history, the book touches on the history of the text of the regular Shabbos Musaf prayer, often comparing variant traditions side-by-side. However, the book’s tour de force lies in its comprehensive word-by-word explication of the standard version of the weekly Musaf liturgy. Notably, the author also dedicates chapters to the special Musaf prayer recited during the rare occurrence of Rosh Chodesh falling on Shabbat. Here too, Rabbi Adler shows the reader different versions of the prescribed blessings, explicates each word of the prayer, and presents a digest of pertinent Halachic insights/rulings.

Rabbi Adler’s exhaustive research draws from a wide array of traditional sources, spanning from Medieval sages who commented on the Siddur (such as Machzor Vitri, Ri Bar Yakar, Siddur Rabbi Shlomo of Worms, and Abudarham) all the way down to contemporary rabbinic figures (like Rabbi Eytan Kobre, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, and Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl).

Throughout the book, recurring themes emerge, showcasing Rabbi Adler's keen observations within the Musaf prayer and his ability to connect related motifs found in different sources. Central among these is the fervent yearning expressed for the Ultimate Redemption and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This longing is deeply intertwined with the aspiration to once again offer the Musaf sacrifices on Shabbat and holidays, a vision resonating throughout Jewish history and tradition.

In short, Rabbi Adler’s work masterfully navigates the intricate layers of the Musaf prayer, offering both a historical panorama and a nuanced commentary. His skillful elucidation not only enriches the reader's understanding, but also invites deeper contemplation on the profound spiritual and theological significance embedded within the prayer's text. This book thus deserves a place on the Jewish bookshelf as an invaluable resource that illuminates the depths of this sacred liturgical text, while also highlighting the timeless aspirations and hopes embedded within it.

The Jewish Bible: A Material History (University of Washington Press, 2017), by David Stern

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

This book serves as a scholarly exploration that diverges from “traditional” textual analyses by delving into the physical aspects and cultural significance of the Jewish Bible as a physical artifact. In doing so, the author departs from the exhaustive textual scrutiny that has dominated scholarly discourse on the Bible, and instead chooses to explore the material properties and cultural contexts of these revered objects.

The book's first chapter meticulously dissects the earliest known specimens of Sifrei Torah (“Torah Scrolls”), focusing on the materials on which scrolls were written (papyrus vs. parchment), the scripts in which the scrolls were written (ktav ashuri vs. ktav ivri), the scrolls’ physical dimensions, and the scribal layout of ancient scrolls that are still extant. While only touching on the stabilization and canonization of the Masoretic Text, the author’s primary focus remains on the Torah Scrolls' physical attributes.

In this chapter, Stern also adeptly traces the evolution of Hebrew Bibles (including those from the Dead Sea Scrolls) and sheds light on the number of "books" contained in each physical scroll. Moreover, he brings to the fore various scribal practices, drawing comparisons between those who penned the Dead Sea Scrolls and those who adhere to traditional rabbinic specifications. In doing so, he also highlights how these scribes may have mirrored or deviated from the norms of the larger scribal culture of the Mediterranean world.

Within this exploration, the opening chapter also ventures into the "para-material" aspects of the Torah Scroll. It particularly details their placement within synagogues, the rituals surrounding their removal and return to the Ark, and the ornamental elements that typically adorn the Sefer Torah’s case and mantle, as well as its assorted accompanying paraphernalia (like silver crowns, bells, and pointers).

The second chapter moves from scrolls to codices, discussing such famous Biblical Codices as the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex, Hilleli Codex, and various fragmentary pieces from the Cairo Genizah (like Codex Babylonicus). These codices differ from regular Torah Scrolls by including vowelization marks, cantillation marks, and Masoretic glosses (while in Torah Scrolls, only the consonants of the text are written). Stern elucidates the collaborative nature of creating these manuscripts involving multiple people like the sofer (“scribe”), who writes the consonantal text of the Torah; the nakdan (“punctuator”), who adds the vowelization and cantillation marks;  and the masran (“Masorete scholar”), who adds the Masoretic notes and functioned much like a copyeditor.

In doing so, the author unravels the intricacies of the aforementioned Masoretic notes and who exactly was involved in the Masoretic movement. This chapter also discusses in what ways the texts of Biblical codices mirrored the way the text was laid out in Biblical scrolls and how the Masoretic notes were incorporated in that layout. In addition, this chapter also talks about decorative “carpet pages” (so called because their design resembles the design typically woven into carpets) found in many codices, and speculates about their various purposes.

The final chapters of this book cover the evolution of printed Jewish Bibles, tracing their history from the mid-1400s to the present day. In those discussions, Stern unveils the shift from Masoretic glosses, once so central to Biblical codices, to their near extinction in printed versions. An interesting thing about printed Jewish bibles is that they were originally made to look like handwritten-codices and did not initially try to look as more innovative or up-to-date than the older handwritten technology. Stern contrasts this with the situation in Yemen — where printing only arrived much later than in Europe — where the opposite phenomenon was found, as Jewish Yemenite scribes would often write manuscripts that were intended to look like printed editions.

The book is adorned with many beautiful photographs of the manuscripts (be they scrolls or codices) discussed, as well as of examples of the sorts of items and features discussed in the book. These photographs generally come from items housed in various university or private libraries from around the world.

Because this work is written from an academic perspective, it often diverges from religious (Orthodox) Jewish sensibilities, by using critical inquiry into religious assertions and their origins, occasionally clashing with traditional beliefs. For example, the author asks questions like why the rabbis would claim that certain rules about writing a Sefer Torah would be a halachah l’Moshe m’Sinai (“rule [transmitted] to Moses from Sinai”), instead of taking such rabbinic assertions at face value as reflecting a genuine oral tradition. The book’s body text contains references to primary sources (like the Bible and relevant rabbinic literature), while the endnotes contain more detailed references to secondary sources and scholarship, as well as more technical discussions.

One of the overarching themes throughout the book is the question of to what extent Jewish decorative practices for these items were influenced and/or mimicked outside (often Christian or Muslim) artistic norms versus to what extent Jews marked their religious items with a specific Jewishness.

In conclusion, David Stern's work stands out as a significant scholarly contribution, breaking from conventional studies centered on textual content to delve deeply into the material properties and cultural contexts of Jewish Biblical artifacts with the same scholarly rigor. Through meticulous research and insightful analysis, Stern illuminates the intricate physical aspects of Torah Scrolls, codices, and printed Jewish Bibles. His extensive notes, comprehensive bibliography, and detailed index not only enhance the book's scholarly credibility, but also provide readers with a rich wellspring of sources for further exploration. This work cements itself as an invaluable resource, offering a fresh perspective on the tangible essence of these revered artifacts, reshaping our understanding of the Jewish Bible's material journey across centuries.

Not a Real Enemy: The True Story of a Hungarian Jewish Man’s Fight for Freedom

Not a Real Enemy: The True Story of a Hungarian Jewish Man’s Fight for Freedom (Amsterdam Press, 2022), by Robert Wolf, MD

Reviewed by Shira Yael Klein (Rachack Review)

At its core, this book is a fairly typical Holocaust memoir, yet it is undeniably a stellar five-star read, as attested to by the multiple awards it earned. The book chronicles the life of a young Hungarian Jewish man from his childhood as a coddled only child of well-to-do parents, through the harrowing depths of the Hungarian forced labor camps during the Holocaust, and eventually to adulthood in post-war Communist Hungary. While the Holocaust narrative may be familiar to many readers, the latter part of the book offers a unique perspective, delving into the relatively-uncharted territory of post-war Communist Hungary. The acknowledgements in the back of the book reveal that there were many rounds of editing and proofreading, and a lot of people were involved in producing this wonderful book. All those efforts shine through in this beautifully-written, well-executed masterpiece.

What sets this book apart is its distinctive narrative structure. Surprisingly, a significant chunk of the narrative doesn't focus on the young protagonist, but instead pivots to his father's story. The reader is transported back to his father’s boyhood and follows his father’s journey through marriage and early adulthood. It is a gripping account of a young man’s struggle to succeed in an anti-Semitic society, highlighting the resilience and perseverance he displayed while pulling himself up by the bootstraps to become a highly-successful Jewish doctor. This legacy of success doesn't stop with the protagonist’s father, but — spoiler alert — it extends to the protagonist himself and even to the author, who happens to be the protagonist’s son. Remarkably, all three generations of men were Jewish doctors. This familial echo adds a poignant layer to the narrative, underscoring the multi-generational impact of the father's resilience and determination.

Another integral facet of the protagonist's identity was his strong connection to Hungarian high culture—the arts, opera, music, and theater. This cultural immersion was synonymous with a certain higher standard of living. A poignant scene in the book paints this picture vividly: during summer swims, while other swimmers on the riverbanks settled for humbler lunches, his housekeeper would present him with a sumptuous multi-course meal served on delicate chinaware. These refined sensibilities continued to shape the protagonist's life, anchoring him to the world of Hungarian high culture.

As an aside, my husband's family is of Hungarian Jewish heritage, and all four of his grandparents hail from Hungary (at least in the Jewish geographical sense). One of the characters in this book was named Uncle Laci, and he is somewhat reminiscent of my husband’s great-uncle Laci, who was affectionately known as Laci Basci (with basci being the Hungarian term for "uncle"). My husband's great-uncle was a true Hungarian gentleman, who cherished the theater and classical music. Reading this book helped me better understand another facet of our Uncle Laci.

Yet, there were aspects of the protagonist's choices and experiences that left me dismayed as an Orthodox Jewish reader. The protagonist and his father very conspicuously identified as Jews; they not only believed in God, but also in the efficacy of prayer. This Jewish pride led the protagonist to hate having to feign being Christian during the Holocaust (when he could not openly admit to being Jewish). But although they were proud to be Jews, there was only a vestigial remnant of Jewish observance. For example, the protagonist fasted on Yom Kipper and had a Jewish wedding (even under communist rule, when this was forbidden).

One particular incident that stood out was when the protagonist casually partook in a meal consisting of potatoes and lard. This did not transpire under starvation conditions, wherein one obviously eats whatever one gets in order to stay alive. The protagonist seemed to disregard fundamental principles of Jewish dietary observance without hesitation. It was rather disconcerting that somebody could be so proud of being Jewish, yet stray so far from Judaism. Of course the protagonist (clearly a good and moral person) cannot be blamed for these shortcomings, because he was raised secular, but nonetheless I found it unsettling.

However, I was even more disturbed by a different part of the story: During a financial depression, the protagonist's parents relocated to an Orthodox neighborhood in an attempt to save money. At that time, the protagonist was still a young child, so he transferred to the local Orthodox school, but he was unable to make any friends. This left him a very lonely little boy (especially considering he was an only child, so he didn't have any siblings). Later in life, he realized that the other, religious, Jewish families in the neighborhood forbade their children from playing with him.

This dynamic comes up again, in the work camps. There, the religious boys shunned the non-religious Jewish boys (many of whom came from families that had converted to Christianity). They were all stuck in the same work camp together because they were all Jews, yet the religious boys still viewed the non-religious ones with animosity. I wanted to go back in time and yell at them.

In the work camps, the conditions were harsh, with grueling labor and meager rations that bordered on starvation. However, the protagonist's work group seemed to fare better than most others (perhaps because many of the boys had converted to Christianity). It's notable that none of the boys in this particular work group succumbed to the relentless labor or starvation.

Another heartening and distinctive aspect of this Holocaust memoir was the presence of human decency amid the darkness. The Jewish boys in the work camp would often sneak off at night to beg or buy food from sympathetic peasants in the vicinity. In Hungary, there were still some good people left, who recognized that Jews were people too and that the persecution they endured was unjust. Some went to great lengths to extend a helping hand, even at the risk of their own safety. This contrasted with some other memoirs from Holocaust survivors in Poland and other parts of Europe, where it seemed like the whole world had gone mad and absolutely everyone was out to get you.

Despite the unsettling moments and observations, this book remains a truly excellent five-star read, an engrossing page-turner that provides unique insights into a complex and challenging era.