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Book Review Roundup II

 

Reviews by Rabbi Ari Enkin

Patterns in Jewish History

By Rabbi Berel Wein

Maggid / 180 pages.

In yet another masterpiece, Rabbi Berel Wein takes readers on theme-based journeys through the ages. As the title suggests, the premise of Patterns in Jewish History is that “history repeats itself” and “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Each of the fourteen chapters analyzes a different feature in the Jewish historical experience. For example, there are chapters that focus on “Women,” “The Land of Israel,” “Messianism and Mysticism,” “Economics, Wealth and Poverty”, and more.

Perhaps the most important chapter, in terms of what has had, and continues to have, the greatest effect on our nation, is the chapter on “Acculturation and Assimilation”. Unfortunately, these two concepts are often confused and misunderstood. “Acculturation” has almost always been complimentary to Jewish life; “Assimilation” has always been tragic.

As Rabbi Wein explains:

Acculturation was necessary in order to allow Jewish life to exist and even flourish in an exile dominated by non-Jewish inimical powers. Acculturation occurs regarding dress, language, secular studies, food, mannerisms and societal mores. Assimilation however reflects a deep desire to be less Jewish and to blend in completely with the surrounding environment and society….Assimilation doomed and dooms Jews to eventual demographic extinction.

Although many try to deny it, the Jews have always been influenced by their surroundings, and these influences made their way into the community and even the home. For example, while there was no intermarriage in Egypt, the nation could not shake off the influence of Egyptian culture and its pagan values. In fact, some commentators write that it was for this reason that the generation that left Egypt was not brought into the Promised Land. And the trend continued throughout history: Kings of Israel, Ezra and his intermarried flock, the Samaritans, Alexander the Great and Greek acculturation, and more. The communities of Spain, Italy, Holland, and, of course, Germany, were all centers where the battles for acculturation –and sometimes assimilation- were waged. The Rambam is probably the greatest example of victory in this battle in his dual roles as a rabbi and physician to the Sultan — not to mention his extensive Torah and secular education. Readers will be made to ponder when and what we should take from the larger non-Jewish society and which things we must forcefully reject. As history has shown us, it is a fine line down a slippery slope.

Those who believe the Jewish people are one big, common, united, and happy family are well, wrong. The Jews have never been a united family. In fact, divisiveness and separation has been the norm. The chapter on “Groupings and Movements” will take you through: the twelve tribes, the Levites who enjoyed exclusion from slave labor in Egypt, and Reuven, Gad, and Menashe who broke away from the nation to live in the trans-Jordan. After the death of Joshua it was a constant free-for- all and the tribes did not work together for the welfare of the nation or the country. The Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and every other fragment, sect, cult, and tribe that the Jewish people have known are presented. Sorry folks, the Jewish people have never been united or even too fond of each other at that.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on “Customs and Traditions” where the author shows how the observance (and rejection) of halacha and minhag has affected the Jewish people throughout the ages. Among the customs that are dealt with include: kapparot (embraced by the Chassidim, modified to the use of coins by the Lithuanians), Kitniot, gebrokts, and aveilut. We also learn how such customs drew “lines in the sand” by uniting and dividing families (and continue to do so!). It would be remiss not to mention that our minhagim were not always of Jewish origin, as readers will discover. There is also some discussion on how and when we apply “minhag mevatel halacha” – when customs can override law.

Patterns in Jewish History is a fascinating, wholesome, and well-rounded educational trip into our people’s history. It is brief and concise yet densely packed with valuable details, history, and information. It just hits you in the face with how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Really an enjoyable book!

Nehalel beShabbat Siddur

650 pp. / Michael Haruni / Nevarech Publications

I was immediately taken aback by the beauty and structure of the new “Nehalel beShabbat” siddur. This nusach Ashkenaz siddur, containing all the relevant prayers for Shabbat, is extremely unique and represents a fresh new dimension in the publication of siddurim. Similar to the “Nevarech” bencher, the Nehalel siddur is packed with extremely powerful and stunning full-color glossy photographs. Each photograph compliments the prayer that appears on the page. The words of the prayer that correspond to the picture are highlighted, bolded, or otherwise stand out. The photographs are intended to assist the worshipper in finding inspiration in the words he is reciting.

Here are a few examples of the synthesis between the photographs and the prayers: One of the photographs that accompanies Lecha Dodi features a panoramic nighttime view of the Old City of Jerusalem with the words “v’nivneta ir al tila” highlighted. Indeed, there are dozens of photographs of Jerusalem, the Old City, the Temple Mount, and the Kotel that are dispersed throughout the siddur and feature at various mentions of Jerusalem. The Hashem Malach immediately following Lecha Dodi has a picture of giant roaring waves with the words “mikolot mayim rabim…” highlighted. The Kiddush page features large clusters of grapes on a vine corresponding to “borei pri hagafen”. In birchot hashachar, the blessing “hamechin mitzadei gaver” features Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

As part of the Shir Hama’alot that follow the Shabbat afternoon mincha, Tehillim 123 features the infamous Nazi-Era photograph of a rabbi wearing tefillin being taunted by Nazi soldiers on the streets of Poland with the words “rabat sava la nafsheinu; hala’ag hashananim habooz l’gei yonim”. There is also a prayer for the government of the United States of America (featuring the seal of the president of the United States) and for The United Kingdom (featuring the Royal Seal).  There is an index at the back of the siddur which identifies and explains each photograph.

This siddur is extremely Zionist in nature, complete with the prayer for the State of Israel and the soldiers of the IDF. It also has a prayer for soldiers still missing in action, not to mention a special Harachaman for the soldiers in the Birkat Hamazon. So too, many of the photographs are of Zionist themes, such as the famous Ben Gurion Declaration of independence, Kibbutz and kibbutznik related photographs, as well as highlights of modern aliyah (e.g. “v’hu yolicheinu komemiyot l’artzeinu”).

There is an extensive introduction to the siddur that addresses the philosophical and halachic issues relating to having photographs in a siddur. It would be remiss not to point out that many of the photographs in the siddur include women, and in some cases, the sleeve lengths and neckline exposure do not meet halachic consensus.

The “Nehalel” Siddur certainly offers readers a colorful and alternative prayer experience. The typeset is exceptionally crisp, clear, and well-spaced making for a very pleasurable read. The English translation is an impressive merge of modern and ecclesiastical English. The “Adonai” transliteration rather than the more common “Hashem”, “God” or “Lord”  is an important feature for those who pray in English. Women are well represented with their own zimun, a misheberach and baruch shepetarani for bat mitzva girls, and more. Even those who, for whatever reason, will choose not to use the Nehalel Siddur for regular worship will still find it to be an attractive showpiece and “coffee table” item.

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of “The Dalet Amot Halacha Series” (5 Vol.) and the General Editor and Halacha columnist at Torahmusings.com. He welcomes books for review on the Torah Musings website. [email protected]

 

 

 

 
 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

12 Responses

  1. avi says:

    Isn’t there a problem with having pictures in a prayer book?

  2. Ari Enkin says:

    Yes, it is certainly ‘different’, and as I mention in the review — the issue is dealt with in the introduction.

  3. joel rich says:

    just a piece of actuarial wisdom not necessarily applicable to r’ wein- “data is data, patterns are in the eye of the beholder” (Ijust made that up, and sometimes the reisha is false as in “all data is theory based”
    KT

  4. Y says:

    I also enjoyed Wein’s book. It was “wholesome,” as you mention, but at the same time it was also somewhat independent and critical. I would like to see more works of this type that are both more academic and contain more social criticism, while still writing from an Orthodox perspective. We need serious social critics and political philosphers who are Orthodox — all the more so that Israel is headed toward an Orthodox majority within the next few decades.

    The notion of patterns in history has been taken seriously and refined by some historians and historical sociologists. So Orthodox historians have a lot of interesting theoretical material to draw from. There’s also the issue of how history-from-an-Orthodox-perspective should deal with history written by the non-Orthodox — should be ignored or carefully debunked?

  5. Anonymous says:

    >There’s also the issue of how history-from-an-Orthodox-perspective should deal with history written by the non-Orthodox — should be ignored or carefully debunked?

    Which history from a non-Orthodox perspective (I assume you mean academic Jewish history) is wrong and requires debunking?

  6. Y says:

    Anonymous: Well, I think there are Conservative rabbis and others sympathetic to them who have tried to argue that Conservative Judaism is more consistent with historical practice than Orthodox. That needs to be debunked.

    I also think some of the scholarship might potentially downplay or underestimate the continuity between what they call traditional Judaism (which existed before denominations emerged in the 19th century) and Orthodox Judaism. (Rabbi Slifkin has made a short essay of his summarizing some of this literature available through his blog.)

    There’s also some academic literature making questionable and speculative claims about Orthodox figures (such as certain chassidic rebbes), regarding such things as what mental illnesses they supposedly had or whether they though they were the messiah.

    These are just some examples. At least some of ancient history probably tends to be biased against Orthodoxy, assuming or trying to prove that certain events didn’t happen or that Jewish beliefs somehow all derived from foreign peoples (rather than influence going the opposite direction). People have tried to prove that certain tehillim derived from poems written by other peoples for their deities. I took a look at once such article and wasn’t impressed at all — the connection seemed very loose, superficial and speculative.

    All of this said, I’m not a historian, and it would be interesting to hear in more detail from Orthodox historians (assuming there are some who haven’t been completely assimilated into the worldviews of the secular professors who trained them).

  7. Y says:

    I should add that, despite what I wrote above, I’m sure there’s a large proportion of academic Jewish history that is not objectionable from an Orthodox perspective and wouldn’t call for any “debunking.”

  8. Ari Enkin says:

    Y-

    Indeed, Berel Wein is no doubt the most credible orthodox historian — he’s not scared to say anything ‘unfashionable’

    Ari Enkin

  9. R. Enkin:

    “Indeed, Berel Wein is no doubt the most credible orthodox historian — he’s not scared to say anything ‘unfashionable’”

    Give me a break. This statement is inaccurate on so many levels.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    R Wein is a great rav, who was one of the few rabbaknin in the US who could speak at both an OU and Agudah conevntion, and who is interested in Jewish history. R Wein makes no pretense of being an academic, but is interested in the importance of Jewish and world history as it affects the ups and downs of the Jewish People.

  11. mycroft says:

    Y-

    Indeed, Berel Wein is no doubt the most credible orthodox historian — he’s not scared to say anything ‘unfashionable’

    Ari Enkin
    Abba’s Rantings on February 10, 2013 at 4:06 am

    R. Enkin:

    ““Indeed, Berel Wein is no doubt the most credible orthodox historian — he’s not scared to say anything ‘unfashionable’””

    A statement which requires to be a mind reader-which I doubt anyone here is -we are not bochen kliyot valev

    “Give me a break. This statement is inaccurate on so many levels.”

    Please explain how the statement is inaccurate.

    “R Wein is a great rav,”
    I would prefer that discussions of people be left out of Hirhurim-their ideas-their works etc. One would not want someone to write Rabbi X did this in his life etc-such comments naturally would open the door for discussion of personalities-I don’t think Steve would want to discuss negatives about his heroes
    “who was one of the few rabbaknin in the US who could speak at both an OU and Agudah conevntion,”
    to me that is simply evidence that the OU is not an MO institution”

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Mycroft-R Wein’s record as a rav and educator speaks for itself. I never understood that the OU, despite the many MO connections of its lay leadership, ever considered itself anything but a “MO institution”, however vaguely that term was used by you. FWIW, I think that it is a communal tragedy that more speakers can’t speak at both an OU and Agudah sponsored events.

 
 

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