What better time than Springtime to get out into nature with a good book? Go ahead and add a plate of matzah and a glass of wine! Meanwhile, to get you started, here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
After an adventurous and unattributable career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar divides her time between researching trends in terrorism and learning Talmud, often with the dubious assistance of a one-eyed cat. She is an entertaining and sought-after public speaker, and lectures both in Israel and abroad.
Recent articles by Yael Shahar
Throughout most of Jewish history since rabbinic times, the vast majority of Jews have lived in foreign lands, barely a step from slavery or annihilation. The focus of the Haggadah reflected that reality. It is only in our day that we can retake the narrative and change its emphasis to living free in our own land. A new Haggadah does exactly that, by adding back into the text a crucial part that was left out during the Babylonian Exile.
One of the more perplexing aspects of the Exodus story is the repeated “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. This phrase—together with another that is equally mysterious—is the key to understanding the true miracle of the Exodus.
What does extending credit have to do with the evolution of sentient life? And what does either concept have to do with karma and conservation laws? The answer depends on whether your interlocutor is a cat.
How could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah…how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand? Moreover, how is it that the sages of the Talmud praised Moshe’s actions and hailed him as a hero for breaking the tablets? The answer lies in the difference between the first set of tablets and the second.
While the Book of Esther bears all the literary marks of a fairy tale, the underlying themes are far from trivial. At what point does a ruler become unfit to rule? When is civil disobedience not only allowed, but imperative? Why continue to believe in social justice in a seemingly unjust universe?
The Babylonian Talmud was originally meant to be a resource for all Jews. But, although written in the vernacular of the day, the lack of universal literacy confined the Talmud to the realm of scholars. The commandment that the Jewish People become “A kingdom of priests” was left unfulfilled. But that is about to change!
A sonderkommando questions the absence of God, and finds an unexpected answer.
When does survival become a crime? What is the nature of Evil? Where was God during the Holocaust? What are the limits of human responsibility in the face of overwhelming coercion? These are just some of the question faced by Jews—particularly religious Jews—during the Shoah. This guide explores these questions and more through a series of dialogues between Ovadya ben Malka, a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and the rabbi to whom he turned for judgment.
It may seem ironic that International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place on the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, is not marked in Israel. And yet, considering the timing and character of the commemoration, Israel’s choice to pay tribute to the Shoah on a different anniversary is somehow appropriate.
We, in our age, are living through a miracle spelled out long ago. But, like most such miracles, those living through them very often don’t see them. Some of us have no choice but to see them; the miracle is bound up with our lives by an unremembered past.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Friday night, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarch’s: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why Ephraim and Menashe?
As I make my way through the stack of books that will go into the writing of my next book, probably the one that I return to most is Eliezer Berkovits’ classic Not in Heaven. Rabbi Berkovits argues for the application of human reason in deciding Halakhah, but not for the reasons commonly believed!
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
With a single line of commentary, a discussion in the Talmud about property law suddenly becomes a glimpse into time, eternity, and mortality. And what better discussion partner for such things than a cat?
Letters to Josep is a delightfully fresh overview of what it means to be Jewish in Israel today. Written as a series of letters from a young woman in Israel to a Catholic penpal in Spain, the book covers just about every aspect of Judaism, from Shabbat observance and kashrut to dealing with childbirth and life-cycle events.
Most people know that the story of Noah contains the first reference to law: the Seven Noahide Commandments are seen as the minimal requirements for civilized human society. But what many don’t know is that there is a second set of “Noahide Commandments” derived from this week’s parasha. These laws are not about human society, but about the survival of all life on earth.
It’s been said that the first chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) contains polemics against just about every worldview common in the ancient world. One of those worldviews is the notion of destiny, that a person’s fate is written in the stars. B’reishit puts the emphasis from the very beginning on human free will.
Free download: Discussion topics on T’shuvah as healing. Returning: Reflections & Resources on Teshuvah explores some of the difficulties and dilemmas facing those who seek to heal the wounds of their own souls—especially self-inflicted wounds. These topics are explored through a series of dialogues between a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and a rabbi.
In the course of my research for Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat, I’ll be reading a variety of books on topics ranging from Talmud to mathematical logic. Here are some musings on this week’s book: Devora Steinmetz’s Freedom & Punishment, a veritable treasure of Halakhic insight.