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Understanding Judaism


Understanding Judaism

36 books for insight and comprehension

I’m suggesting every couple of months reading lists for thoughtful WORLD readers. In our Dec. 29 issue I offered up books about American history, and in the Feb. 2 issue books for Black History Month.

Now, with Passover and Easter coming soon, here are books on Judaism that will deepen your knowledge and provide a background for evangelistic efforts. I begin with Edith Schaeffer’s wonderful Christianity Is Jewish, originally published in 1975 and still in print. Christians wrote several others I’ll list, but most are by Jews so you can read Jewish understanding firsthand.

You should know some history: Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism and Michael Brenner’s A Short History of the Jews are good overviews. Burton Visotzky’s Aphrodite and the Rabbis shows how Jews adapted parts of Roman culture, and David Klinghoffer’s Why the Jews Rejected Jesus is a thoughtful Orthodox Jew’s explanation of that tragedy. Reuven Hammer’s Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy tells us of the influential rabbi born shortly after Christ’s resurrection. Itzhak Shapira’s The Return of the Kosher Pig examines Messianic thought within Judaism.

Barry Wimpfheimer’s The Talmud is a history of the books that became almost second Scripture to Orthodox Jews. Chaim Saiman’s Halakhah shows what emerged from centuries of Talmudic discussion. Jean-Claude Schmitt’s The Conversion of Herman the Jew shows us 12th-century pressures, Yair Mintzker’s The Many Deaths of Jew Süss 18th-century torment, and Adam Kirsch’s Benjamin Disraeli an amazing move from novelist to prime minister. Disraeli benefited from what the great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb describes in The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, From Cromwell to Churchill.

Meanwhile, anti-Semitism surged in Eastern Europe. The Journeys of David Toback by Carole Malkin details one man’s life in Eastern Europe and his escape to America in 1898. Nathaniel Deutsch’s The Jewish Dark Continent is an ethnographic look at Eastern European culture just before World War I. Many who stayed in Eastern Europe died during the Holocaust, at first by bullets, as described in Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide, then by gas chamber in concentration camps like what Primo Levi vividly describes in Survival in Auschwitz

The deaths of 6 million Jews led to the creation of Israel, where 6.5 million Jews now live: Return to Zion by Eric Gartman and Israel by Daniel Gordis are solid histories. Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate narrates the Six-Day War in 1967 that was key to Israel’s survival. Anti-Judaism, Antisemitism, and Delegitimizing Israel, edited by Robert Wistrich, has insights into what’s happened now that tiny Israel punches above its weight. The title of Joshua Muravchik’s Making David Into Goliath summarizes today’s media tendencies.

The only other major center of Judaism today is the United States: Jack Wertheimer’s The New American Judaism spotlights the slide to secularism of most American Jews. Scott Shay’s In Good Faith thoughtfully shows why those (and other skeptics) should not abandon God. Most Jews rarely read Scripture, but Shai Held’s two-volume The Heart of Torah, along with The Israel Bible (in Hebrew and English, edited by Tuly Weisz), is useful for learning the thinking of those who do. Readers with philosophical bents will be interested in Kenneth Seeskin’s Thinking About the Torah.

Gerald McDermott’s Israel Matters and George Gilder’s The Israel Test show why Christians and others should not abandon Israel. That seems unlikely, given the strength of Zionism among evangelicals, as Paul Wilkinson’s Understanding Christian Zionism, Robert Smith’s More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism, and Ray Gannon’s The Shifting Romance With Israel show.

For those who want to go deeper into Israel’s history, Ran Abramitzky’s The Mystery of the Kibbutz explains what worked in Israel’s communal experiment and what did not, and Daniel Heller’s Jabotinsky’s Children examines the rise of Israeli militancy in the 20th century. Two provocative books are Messianic Jew Jim Melnick’s Jewish Giftedness and World Redemption and David Reagan’s The Jewish People: Rejected or Beloved?

This story has been corrected to reflect that author David Reagan is not Jewish.