Reviews in Brief

Reviews in Brief Summer 2024

The Jewish State: From Opposition to Opportunity 

By Rabbi Doron Perez

Gefen Publishing

New York, 2023

224 pages

October 7 changed the lives of every Israeli and every Jew throughout the world. While enduring the immense tragedy of both an injured son and a missing son (who was later declared dead), Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chairman of the World Mizrachi movement, inspired the world with his faith and leadership. Remarkably, a few months before the attack, Rabbi Perez had published The Jewish State: From Opposition to Opportunity—intended to mark Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary—which examines the growing phenomenon of virulent, irrational anti-Zionism and offers practical and spiritual solutions.

In the first half of The Jewish State, Rabbi Perez cites the Vilna Gaon’s insight on antisemitism. In a comment on Chavakuk (3:14), the Gaon notes that Moab, Edom and the Philistines represent three types of antisemitism: spiritual, physical and political. Moab exhibits spiritual antisemitism, an antagonism to Jewish belief and practice; Edom attempts to physically destroy the Jewish people; and the Philistines attempt to prevent Jewish sovereignty. While the first two types of antisemitism are familiar throughout history (e.g., Chanukah and Purim, respectively), political antisemitism is something we are not used to considering. 

Rabbi Perez quotes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who compares antisemitism to a virus. It is essentially one hatred that changes and adapts to fit the circumstances. A virus deceives the body in order to infiltrate it and multiply. Historically, antisemitism has spread by deceptively adopting the morality of its time. In the Middle Ages, it based itself on Christianity; in post-Enlightenment Europe, on (pseudo)-science; and today, on human rights. That is why the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East, with a free press and robust minority rights, is the constant target for human rights accusations. Today, when religious bigotry and physical oppression are not much of an option, antisemites adopt the political approach, namely anti-Zionism.

Rabbi Perez’s solution is twofold. The State of Israel must be a light unto the nations by 1. vigorously preserving its democratic nature, 2. using technology to help other nations, and 3. serving as an example of moderation and integration in an increasingly polarized world. This last point is really a second prong of the solution: Israel must be an exemplar of unity, particularly Jewish unity. Despite all the divisions among the Jewish people, we must embrace each other not just in tolerance but in celebration. 

How do we engage in this radical pluralism?

The first step to unity is following Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s approach of seeing the positive in everyone and everything. Rav Kook taught that the different perspectives in Israel can be classified as prioritizing either spirituality, nationhood or universal morality, an insight that still rings true a century later. Rabbi Perez argues that “authentic, inclusive Torah Judaism” balances all three pillars and allows for unity to take priority over partisanship. We must make room for everyone because we all champion an important value.

I can already hear the critic questioning whether this can be accomplished in a way that still maintains fidelity to the Torah and presents a sufficiently compelling Torah life to retain the next generation. Moderation and compromise rarely inspire youth, especially when we are simultaneously praising alternatives. Additionally, how do these compromises look in the real world when primary priorities clash? Perhaps we have hit the rock bottom of polarization and are now prepared to do the hard work of building true unity. Rabbi Perez has masterfully presented a path forward to peace, but the plan leaves many important details to be worked out.

HaAretz Asher Areka: Mitzvat Yishuv Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew)

By Rabbi Shnayor Burton

Self-published, 2023

195 pages

The textual basis of Religious Zionism and of anti-Zionism have been discussed for so many years—with numerous books and articles on the subject—that it is hard to believe anything new remains to be said on the subject. Yet that is exactly what Rabbi Shnayor Burton does in HaAretz Asher Areka. In a refreshingly original study emanating from the Yeshivish community, Rabbi Burton explores the theological implications of settling in the Land of Israel, while explicitly avoiding the political issues.

While Rabbi Burton quotes many sources and texts, his most convincing argument is logic. His first chapter discusses whether there is a mitzvah to live in Israel. He analyzes the different views and concludes that the majority believe it does not technically constitute a mitzvah. But then he takes a step back and points out that all agree that Judaism expects Jews to live in Israel if at all possible. That is the entire thrust of Tanach, Midrash and Talmud. Even if it is not a mitzvah in the technical sense, it is a fulfillment of the Divine will to live in the Land of Israel.

This conclusion leaves a number of texts that need to be resolved. For example, there are the “Three Oaths” that the Gemara and Midrash record, which include not moving to Israel as a large group. Does this mean mass aliyah is forbidden? Quoting the Rambam among others, Rabbi Burton concludes that these “oaths” represent a recognition of the historical danger of moving to Israel. When it is not dangerous, the “oaths” do not apply. When the facts on the ground have changed, when centuries of European pogroms turned into outright genocide, when people march through the streets of cities around the world shouting antisemitic slogans, it is hard to accept that Israel is more dangerous than anywhere else. One can argue that October 7 has proven that living in Israel is, in fact, dangerous. But I would respond that it is safer to walk through Tel Aviv wearing a yarmulke than Paris.

More importantly, look at history. The “Three Oaths” didn’t prevent Ezra and Nechemiah from returning to Israel. Neither did it prevent the Ramban and the three hundred French Tosafists, all of whom made aliyah in the thirteenth century. Rabbi Burton addresses many more questions, such as: Is Israel only for the righteous? Why did many Jews remain in Babylonia? If we go to Israel ourselves, who will Mashiach bring to Israel? Rabbi Burton addresses all these issues on two levels. On the one hand, he treats these as textual questions that demand answers based on commentaries and related texts. On the other hand, he discusses the basic logical flow of the arguments and their unproven assumptions. If we are in Israel, why do we assume there won’t be any other Jews for Mashiach to bring to Israel? And even if we go to Israel now, who says we will be there when Mashiach comes?

HaAretz Asher Areka offers new halachic approaches to the textual issues surrounding the State of Israel. To some extent, as Rabbi Burton himself writes, the facts speak for themselves. We are blessed to live in a time when a large portion of the Jewish people has returned to its homeland, as foreseen by the prophets.

Famous Gemaras: The Gemara’s incredible stories come to life

By Rabbi Gershon Schwartz

Mosaica Press

Los Angeles, 2024

152 pages

The definition of a “famous” gemara is entirely subjective: “something that I’ve heard before.” But just because one person had a teacher who liked to quote a particular passage, or it was a frequently cited passage in one’s childhood circles, doesn’t mean everyone shared those experiences. What is famous to one person is obscure to the other and vice versa. It is the rare Shas Yid, someone who has rabbinic literature at his fingertips, who never feels awkward or insecure about his ignorance of a supposedly famous passage.

Rabbi Gershon Schwartz chose thirty-two Talmudic stories in his collection of famous gemaras. While any selection of this nature is highly subjective, I suspect many people would make very similar choices. He includes the Chanukah story (Shabbat 21b); the tefillin-related miracle experienced by Elisha “Ba’al Kenafayim” (Shabbat 49a); Hillel freezing on the roof of the study hall (Yoma 35b); Rebbi on his deathbed (Ketubot 104a); and many more. Each story is presented in the original Aramaic with English translation, and accompanied by “Points to Ponder” and “Ideas” based on classical commentaries. Beautifully illustrated, the book is an engaging read that is accessible to preteens as well.

On the story of Rabbi Akiva’s growth from a simple shepherd to a great Torah scholar (Ketubot 62b), Rabbi Schwartz offers a number of points to ponder. Why did so many great people work as shepherds? He quotes the Alshich, who says that this profession offers people time to meditate and grow close to G-d. Why was Rabbi Akiva’s father-in-law named Kalba Savua? Rashi quotes the Gemara in Gittin 56a, which explains that he was such a generous host that people entered his home hungry like a dog (kalba) and left completely full (savu’a). This offers a segue to discuss Kalba Savua’s attempt, which was thwarted by communal infighting, to store enough food for all of Jerusalem to survive any siege. Rabbi Schwartz adds a detail to Rabbi Akiva’s story that is not in the Gemara but in Avot D’Rabbi Natan (A:6), that of Rabbi Akiva deducing from water (something soft) dripping on a rock (something hard) and carving a hole in it that Torah (something hard) could penetrate his heart of flesh (something soft). Upon seeing this, Rabbi Akiva decided to go learn Torah. After his great success in learning, Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students. These are the same students who died because they did not show respect for each other (Yevamot 62b). The final point to ponder is that like Adam, who attributed his deeds to Chavah, Rabbi Akiva attributed his deeds to his wife, but for the good, crediting his wife for all his learning.

Famous Gemaras will not make you an expert in Talmud, but it will give you easy access to many stories, along with commentaries and insights. It will introduce children to great figures of the Talmud in an enjoyable way. And it might remove at least some of your insecurity about not knowing a “famous” gemara. If someone tells you “everyone knows a certain gemara,” you can counter somewhat facetiously that any gemara not included in this book is obviously not a famous gemara! 

Rabbi Gil Student is a member of Jewish Action’s Editorial Committee.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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