What Rabbis Read

April 1, 2003
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A Dialogue Between Rabbis Arnold Jacob Wolf and Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin

Wolf: “Jews don’t read books; we study them.” That is what the great Rabbi Solomon Goldman of Chicago once told me, and I have never forgotten it. But neither have I scrupulously followed his undoubtedly correct admonition.

I read too much: scholarly journals, monthly Jewish and general publications, even magazines like the Jerusalem Report and The Nation. I read labels and placards and anything I can get my hands on. If I want to study, I read in Hebrew – or French. I read Jewish books in all areas, and I read philosophy, Christian theology, and the increasing number of books written by my prolific friends. I say all of this not in pride but rather following Rabbi Goldman, rather shamefacedly.

I read for the quarterly column I write for Judaism, supposedly about theological issues but really demonstrating a wide interpretation of what “theology” is. I study dissertations, exotic fields (such as Franz Rosenzweig on phonograph music), my own hobbies (meta-politics, liturgy), ephemera.

As must seem obvious, there is something compulsive about all this reading. My personal library of several thousand volumes is intimidating but also reassuring. The stack of new books I have not yet read is high. Higher still are piled the classics I have never studied: Krochmal, Rav Hutner, the Apocryphal literature, and so much more. But I have tasted almost every Jewish sub-subject and only regret how inadequately that includes Talmud or modern Israeli novels, to mention only two subjects that demonstrate my inadequacy.

God has given me almost eighty years in which to read. If I still have far to go, that’s my fault for spending too much time with the Chicago White Sox and partisan politics. Next lifetime I’ll try harder.

Here are a few of the books I’m reading at the moment:

Eugene Borowitz: Studies in the Meaning of Judaism. Borowitz is clearly the most important and persuasive non-Orthodox thinker of the past fifty years, and this book summarizes his accomplishments.

Eliezer Berkovits: Essential Essays on Judaism. David Hazony and the Azure group of conservative hawks in Israel have remarkably come to focus on Berkovits as a seminal Orthodox theologian and halakhist. Perhaps his time has come, finally.

Charles Strain (editor): Prophetic Visions and Economic Realities. I was a participant in this 1989 interfaith commentary interpreting the Catholic Bishops’ 1986 Letter on the American Economy. Some outstanding thinkers came together from all branches of Christianity, and the essay by Rabbi Byron Sherwin accurately summarizes classical Jewish thinking on poverty and obligation.

Simon Critchley & Robert Bernasconi (editors): The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. A recent and most useful introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, the late Franco-Jewish philosopher who has brilliantly joined talmudic thinking and phenomenology to the benefit of all modern Jews and the whole world of recent philosophy.

Aryeh Cohen & Shaul Magid (editors): Beginning/Again: Toward a Hermeneutics of Jewish Texts. Post-modern Jewish studies confront our religious past and present.

Glanzberg-Krainin: Reading is both my vocation and my avocation, and, like Rabbi Wolf, I suppose I could be accused of reading too much. But the lure of reading is too compelling to ignore for long, and the pleasures promised by a good book frequently pull me away from other tasks. I appreciate the beauty of finely crafted prose and the elegance of a thought well framed; to settle in a comfortable chair with a book and a hot cup of coffee provides me with a taste of redemption.

In addition to being a rabbi, I am writing a dissertation on Jewish women’s memoirs and mothering three young children. Not surprisingly, these different commitments are reflected in what I read. My engagement with Jewish texts is accompanied by close readings of feminist theory; sitting on my desk is the tenth anniversary edition of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. I also delight in the pleasures of reading bedtime stories aloud, and my daughter and I are currently working our way through The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Occasionally, these juxtapositions are a bit jarring, but frequently I experience striking similarities in the act of reading – if not in the books themselves. When I read, I travel beyond the confines of my office, the local coffee shop, or my perch on my child’s bed. I connect with another scholar struggling with the same issues that motivate my work, imagine the generations of Jews who have pored over the same sacred texts, and remember the stories and characters of my own childhood. Reading breaks through barriers of time and space; it is, I would argue, a profoundly religious act.

Rabbi Wolf points out (in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Goldman) the distinction between reading and studying, and writes that when he wants to study, he does so in Hebrew or French. This make sense to me, because working in another language forces the reader to slow down and linger over the meaning of individual words. It demands an attention and engagement that is different than one might bring to reading in one’s native language. Ideally, studying a text – in any language – also requires this focus and care. For me, it goes without saying that this form of study is not reserved for the traditional textual canon. Many books, written by all kinds of people, deserve to be studied in this way.

What am I reading now?

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger. This literary autobiography displays startling emotional and intellectual honesty.

Shaping Losses: Cultural Memory and the Holocaust edited by Julia Epstein and Lori Hope Lefkovitz. This collection of essays elegantly addresses the ways in which children of Holocaust survivors are shaped by – and, in turn, give shape to – the memory of traumatic loss.

Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Yerushalmi provides a compelling exploration of Freud’s Jewishness and the relationship between Jewishness and psychoanalysis.

Queer Jews edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv. This recent publication contains a series of intelligently written essays describing and theorizing the experiences of gay and lesbian Jews, and the ways they have transformed contemporary Jewish life.

The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader by Stephen Fried. Every rabbi I know has read this book, which offers fascinating insights into the state of congregational life and the complications of religious leadership.

Wolf: Like Rabbi

Glanzberg-Krainin, I have been reading The New Rabbi. While the author gets some things wrong, I appreciated this outsider’s trenchant description of how a large congregation works – particularly around the retirement of its rabbi and the ensuing difficult transition. I also liked the Yerushalmi book on Freud, although on that subject I still prefer an essay in the first Leo Baeck Annual by Ernst Simon and the full-length masterpiece by Philip Rieff (partly assisted by his then-wife Susan Sontag), Freud: The Mind of a Moralist.

My interlocutor reads more feminist books than I now read. I tend to read against the grain, that is, books and journals that do not agree with me on important issues. I find Tradition (a Modern Orthodox journal) and First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life as well as essays on the Israeli right fascinating, though in my opinion flawed. We should not read what we already know (or think we do); rather, our reading should make us wrestle with dissenting and especially difficult ideas.

We are all tempted to stick to our own side of the fence and not to engage those who might criticize our views. Both Glanzberg-Krainin and I have trouble doing just that – but that is why we read the classics. I have been studying David Hoffman’s old-fashioned commentaries on the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (in German and Hebrew) and find his mastery of rabbinic interpretation as well as his attack on the regnant documentary hypothesis illuminating and convincing. “The more things change….”

I like this dialogue on reading books. I hope Sh’ma might imitate Slate, which frequently features an ongoing online dialogue in which my son-in-law irregularly exchanges views on movies (his specialty), books, and ideas with several other critics. They seem to enjoy the discussions – and so do many other readers who later post their own comments.

Glanzberg-Krainin: I share Rabbi Wolf’s appre-ciation of “reading against the grain,” although we appear to have different understandings of just what that activity implies. I learned a lot about this kind of reading from Miriam Peskowitz in her book Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History. There, Peskowitz models an approach to reading that challenges us to search for – and make visible – assumptions that might be hidden in any text with which we work. At the same time, we need to interrogate our own assumptions as well; as readers we need to pay careful attention to the expectations, fears, and values we bring to our encounter with even the simplest of texts. Since this perspective deeply informs my own thinking, I was surprised by Rabbi Wolf’s suggestion that I read, perhaps, too narrowly – or at least too close to my “own side of the fence.” As a nascent academic, it makes sense that much of my reading would focus on books that address issues in my field. But feminist theoreticians can disagree with each other as much as Rabbi Wolf disagrees with Traditions – and to assume otherwise stops short of reading against the grain, in any sense of the term.

My guess is that my reading requires more triage than does Wolf’s at this point in time. He mentions his recent retirement; while I know that stage in life has its own challenges and difficulties, I find myself feeling quite jealous of the luxury of time – the opportunity to read with fewer outside pulls and distractions, and the sheer number of hours one could devote to a book. At midlife, with young children at home, I do not have time to open half the books I long to read. Still, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to read as much as I do. I don’t have to squeeze my reading in between double shifts at a factory, or choose between buying a book or feeding my family. Indeed, I know that my literacy itself is a gift – one that generations of Jewish women were not lucky enough to receive. I treasure this gift, and try to use it wisely.

Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin is Director of the Kimmel-Spiller Jewish Healing Center at Jewish Family Service of Delaware, and a doctoral candidate in the department of religion at Temple University.

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Rabbi Emeritus of the Midwest’s oldest congregation, K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, was a founding editor of Sh’ma. Rabbi Wolf has taught Modern Jewish Thought at Yale, HUC-JIR, and Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles. His fourth book is the recently published Unfinished Rabbi. He edits a column on current Jewish and general theological thinking in the journal Judaism.

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James E. Young is Professor and Chair of the Department of Judaic & Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of At Memory's Edge, The Texture of Memory, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, and editor of The Art of Memory.

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