Friday, November 21, 2014
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Monday, November 17, 2014
Friday, November 14, 2014
For years Rabbi Green has been a leader in the so-called Neo-Chasidic movement. Deeply engaged in Chasidic texts, this group of rabbis and writers find the spiritual teachings of Chasidism informative, but downplay their firm commitment to halakah, religious law, and the social organization of their lives. Green and others are trying to capture the original commitment of Chasidism, which was designed to innovate and stir Jews to reaching higher spiritual levels by radically reinterpreting Jewish teachings and life.
So for Green and his co-editors, the spiritual in the subtitle is a very operative term. They take elements of Chasidic teaching where Torah portions are given "spiritual" rather than strictly phyiscal interpretations. Really, it is fascinating to watch the interpretative work that Green lays out for us. It is part allegory, part metaphor, a strong element of Hebrew wordplay (which is pointed out in the text) and a dose of religious creativity.
After every chapter there is a short explanatory paragraph laying out the salient points of the passage. After each major section, Green and his editors break out and discuss the text, sharing their sometimes conflicting opinions. This adds yet another layer to the book: modern scholars of the Torah are taking nineteenth century Chasidic texts meant to be applied to real life and applying them to our time.
This book is an excellent way to navigate the difficult realm of early Chasidic literature. If you can’t read Hebrew and catch the wordplay, a book like this (in two volumes) is essential to understanding what is going on.
And what is going on? Simply put, that God is everywhere, that his Torah is everything, and we are all connected. If we understand the Torah correctly, if we obey not just its physical demands but also its spiritual meaning, this door opens up for us. Of course this sounds easy. Getting to this understanding and living with it is the challenge.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Yehoshue Perle’s Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life carries with it the full weight of its subtitle. Published in 1935, Perle would die in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. So it becomes hard to judge this book without that the tight, constricting lens of the Holocaust as its unwritten end point.
Like so many writers who perished in the Shoah, their work takes on a new glow, because we read each word with the full awareness that the end is near.
Despite this, and despite its depressing passages replete with poverty, ignorance, and struggle, Perle manages to write a novel that is not without humor. The creeping darkness of the novel's world is lightened by Mendl, the twelve year old protagonist’s observations of life.
So, despite the expert eye of the Mendl, his keen observations of life around him, this novel becomes a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel, and this is fully confirmed by the end.
No doubt Perle was setting his character up to deal with the competing and harsh demands of the Eastern European world between the wars. And these demands, no doubt, would have murdered him.
Friday, November 7, 2014
Friday, October 31, 2014
But Anderson quickly disabuses us of this notion. Lawrence was a complex man, by turns kind and cruel, affectionate and aloof, he committed treason and war crimes. Far from being a fully commanding figure, he was guided by the events of the time as much as he guided them. Anderson does an excellent job portraying a complex man in a complex manner.
Anderson also investigates three other adventurers in the Middle East at this time to give Lawrence some context: a German spy, an American oilman, and a Jewish agronomist. With the exception of the agronomist, all are in their twenties. They are young men in the Middle East because of the call to adventure, but also because they fail to fit in to the upper levels of their respective societies. In the Middle East they can remake themselves. They were not as successful as Lawrence, but he paid a very heavy price for his transformation.
All in all, Anderson provides a gripping account of the time and the place. Perhaps he spreads the material too thin at times, and the narrative thrust of the book falls flat. But these times and places are few. Overall this is a compelling read, giving an excellent sense of the time and place and people.