The People and the Books
The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature by Adam Kirsch (W.W. Norton, 407 pp. $28.95)
It turns out the Jews are not the people of the book. That moniker, writes author Adam Kirsch in The People and the Books, is “an Islamic title, used in the Koran to designate both Jews and Christians—peoples who possess their own revelations from God in the form of holy scriptures.”
That is one of many tidbits in Kirsch’s brilliant, well-researched work, which looks at Jewish texts over the past 2,500 years to explain the enduring, diverse beliefs and philosophies regarding the nature of God, Torah, the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.
Director of the master’s program in Jewish studies at Columbia University in New York, Kirsch starts his explorations with Deuteronomy—the last of the five books of the Torah—which is dedicated to Moses’ commandments to the people before they enter the land and covers laws, ethics and justice, reward and punishment. Kirsch ends with the early 20th-century stories of Sholem Aleichem. In 14 chapters, he analyzes the life and works of Philo (born in 15 BCE); historian Josephus, who documented the Roman war against the Jews (66 CE); Maimonides, whose Guide for the Perplexed in the 12th century used Aristotelian logic to support belief in God; and Benjamin Spinoza, expelled from Amsterdam’s Jewish community
in 1656 because he chose reason
Of special interest are the Tsenerene and the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Written about 1590, the Tsenerene is a Yiddish retelling of the Torah specifically for women, who were not expected to learn Hebrew. The book’s power, Kirsch writes, comes not just from promoting or inventing supernatural details to elicit interest, but also because it provided “useful advice about ethics and conduct.” One maxim, for instance, says, “The study of Torah is not the most important thing: rather to do good deeds.”
A century later, Glückel, a German woman in mourning for her husband, wrote Memoirs for her children. Today, it is recognized “as an indispensable document of the experience of Jewish women in Ashkenazi society,” writes Kirsch. It was a difficult life, but one she came to appreciate. “Little I knew, poor fool, how fortunate I was when I seated my children ‘like olive plants round about my table,’” Glückel wrote, quoting Psalms.
While always instructive, The People and the Books is rarely pedantic. Even when some of the topics defy simplification, the book manages to give us clear, enlightening reviews of texts we may never have read, such as the Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith by 12th-century sage Yehuda Halevi or the 2,000-year-old mystical Zohar.
Also, how many people know that before Theodor Herzl proposed Palestine as a home for Jews to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, he had another solution: “the mass conversion of Austria’s Jews to Christianity.” Fortunately, he changed his thinking and became what Kirsch claims is the man who, since Moses, has “done more to direct the course of Jewish history” than any other Jew.
This is a book that belongs on every Jewish bookshelf.