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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2014
Number 81
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity by Antonio Negri
New York: Columbia University Press

Negri offers a straightforward explanation of the philosopher’s elaborate arguments and a persuasive case for his ongoing relevance. Responding to a resurgent interest in Spinoza’s thought and its potential application to contemporary global issues, Negri demonstrates the thinker’s special value to politics, philosophy, and related disciplines. Negri’s work is both a return to and an advancement of his initial affirmation of Spinozian thought in The Savage Anomaly. He further defends his understanding of the philosopher as a proto-postmodernist, or a thinker who is just now, with the advent of the postmodern, becoming contemporary. Negri also connects Spinoza’s theories to recent trends in political philosophy, particularly the reengagement with Carl Schmitt’s “political theology,” and the history of philosophy, including the argument that Spinoza belongs to a “radical enlightenment.” By positioning Spinoza as a contemporary revolutionary intellectual, Negri addresses and effectively defeats twentieth-century critiques of the thinker.

Jewish on Their Own Terms by Jennifer A. Thompson
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

Over half of all American Jewish children are being raised by intermarried parents. This demographic group will have a tremendous impact on American Judaism as it is lived and practiced in the coming decades. To date, however, in both academic studies about Judaism and in the popular imagination, such children and their parents remain marginal.

Thompson takes a different approach, telling the stories of intermarried couples, the rabbis and other Jewish educators who work with them, and the conflicting public conversations about intermarriage among American Jews. Thompson notes that in the dominant Jewish cultural narrative, intermarriage symbolizes individualism and assimilation. Talking about intermarriage allows American Jews to discuss their anxieties about remaining distinctively Jewish despite their success in assimilating into American culture.

Rashi by Abraham Grossman
Portland, Or: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

To this day, the commentaries on the Bible and Talmud written by the 11th-century scholar known as Rashi remain unsurpassed. Rashi’s influence on Jewish thinking was, and still is, significant. His commentary on the Pentateuch was the first Hebrew book to be printed, giving rise to hundreds of super-commentaries. Christian scholars, too, have relied heavily on his explanations of biblical texts. In this volume, author Avraham Grossman presents a masterly survey of the social and cultural background to Rashi’s work and pulls together the strands of information available on his life, his personality, his reputation during his lifetime, and his influence as a teacher. Grossman discusses each of Rashi’s main commentaries in turn, including such aspects as Rashi’s sources, his interpretative method, his innovations, and his style and language. Attention is also given to his halakhic monographs, responsa, and liturgical poems. Despite Rashi’s importance as a scholar and the vast literature published about him, two central questions remain essentially unanswered: what was Rashi’s world-view, and was he a conservative or a revolutionary? Professor Grossman considers these points at length, and his in-depth analysis of Rashi’s world-view — particularly his understanding of Jewish uniqueness, Jewish values, and Jewish society — leads to conclusions that are likely to stimulate much debate.

Rhinestones, Religion, and the Republic: Fashioning Jewishness in France by Kimberly A. Arkin
Stanford University Press

During the course of her fieldwork in Paris, anthropologist Kimberly Arkin heard what she thought was a surprising admission. A French-born, North African Jewish (Sephardi) teenage girl laughingly told Arkin she was a racist. When asked what she meant by that, the girl responded, “It means I hate Arabs.”

This girl was not unique. She and other Sephardi youth in Paris insisted, again and again, that they were not French, though born in France, and that they could not imagine their Jewish future in France. Fueled by her candid and compelling informants, Arkin’s analysis delves into the connections and disjunctures between Jews and Muslims, religion and secular Republicanism, race and national community, and identity and culture in post-colonial France. Rhinestones argues that Sephardi youth, as both “Arabs” and “Jews,” fall between categories of class, religion, and culture. Many reacted to this liminality by going beyond religion and culture to categorize their Jewishness as race, distinguishing Sephardi Jews from “Arab” Muslims, regardless of similarities they shared, while linking them to “European” Jews (Ashkenazim), regardless of their differences. But while racializing Jewishness might have made Sephardi Frenchness possible, it produced the opposite result: it re-grounded national community in religion-as-race, thereby making pluri-religious community appear threatening.

Rhinestones thus sheds light on the production of race, alienation, and intolerance within marginalized French and European populations.

A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide by Alon Confino.
New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press

Why exactly did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany on November 9, 1938? The perplexing event has not been adequately accounted for by historians in their large-scale assessments of how and why the Holocaust occurred. In this gripping new analysis, Confino draws on an array of archives across three continents to propose a penetrating new assessment of one of the central moral problems of the 20th century. To a surprising extent, Confino demonstrates, the mass murder of Jews during the war years was powerfully anticipated in the culture of the prewar years.

The author shifts his focus away from the debates over what the Germans did or did not know about the Holocaust and explores instead how Germans came to conceive of the idea of a Germany without Jews. He traces the stories the Nazis told themselves — where they came from and where they were heading — and how those stories led to the conclusion that Jews must be eradicated in order for the new Nazi civilization to arise. The creation of this new empire required that Jews and Judaism be erased from Christian history, and this was the inspiration — and justification — for Kristallnacht. As Germans imagined a future world without Jews, persecution and extermination became imaginable, and even justifiable.

Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture by Josh Lambert.
New York University Press

Jews have played an integral role in the history of obscenity in America. For most of the 20th century, Jewish entrepreneurs and editors led the charge against obscenity laws. Jewish lawyers battled literary censorship even when their non-Jewish counterparts refused to do so, and they won court decisions in favor of texts including Ulysses, A Howl, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer. Jewish literary critics have provided some of the most influential courtroom testimony on behalf of freedom of expression.

The anti-Semitic stereotype of the lascivious Jew has made many historians hesitant to draw a direct link between Jewishness and obscenity. Lambert addresses the Jewishness of participants in obscenity controversies in the U.S. directly, exploring the transformative roles played by a host of neglected figures in the development of modern and postmodern American culture.

The diversity of American Jewry means that there is no single explanation for Jews’ interventions in this field. Rejecting generalizations, this book offers case studies that pair cultural histories with close readings of both contested texts and trial transcripts to reveal the ways in which specific engagements with obscenity mattered to particular American Jews at discrete historical moments. Jews have played in the struggles over obscenity and censorship in the modern United States.

A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales by Ruth Calderon
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society

In this volume, Ruth Calderon’s first to appear in English, she offers a fascinating window into some of the liveliest and most colorful stories in the Talmud. Calderon rewrites talmudic tales as richly imagined fictions, drawing us into the lives of such characters as the woman who risks her life for a sister suspected of adultery; a humble schoolteacher who rescues his village from drought; and a wife who dresses as a prostitute to seduce her pious husband in their garden. Breathing new life into an ancient text, A Bride for One Night offers a surprising and provocative read, both for anyone already intimate with the Talmud and for anyone interested in one of the most influential works of Jewish literature.

The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in the Sasanian Context by Shai Secunda
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Although the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli, has been a text central and vital to the Jewish canon since the Middle Ages, the context in which it was produced has been poorly understood. Delving deep into Sasanian material culture and literary remains, Shai Secunda pieces together the dynamic world of late antique Iran, providing an unprecedented and accessible overview of the world that shaped the Bavli.

Secunda unites the fields of Talmudic scholarship with Old Iranian studies to enable a fresh look at the heterogeneous religious and ethnic communities of pre-Islamic Iran. He analyzes the intercultural dynamics between the Jews and their Persian Zoroastrian neighbors, exploring the complex processes and modes of discourse through which these groups came into contact and considering the ways in which rabbis and Zoroastrian priests perceived one another. Placing the Bavli and examples of Middle Persian literature side by side, the Zoroastrian traces in the former and the discursive and Talmudic qualities of the latter become evident. The Iranian Talmud introduces a substantial and essential shift in the field, setting the stage for further Irano-Talmudic research.

The Bible’s Many Voices by Michael Carasik
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society

The most common English translations of the Bible often sound like a single, somewhat archaic voice. In fact, the Bible is made up of many separate books composed by multiple writers in a wide range of styles and perspectives. It is, as Michael Carasik demonstrates, not a remote text reserved for churches and synagogues but rather a human document full of history, poetry, politics, theology, and spirituality. Using historic, linguistic, anthropological, and theological sources, Carasik helps us distinguish between the Jewish Bible’s voices — the mythic, the historical, the prophetic, the theological, and the legal. By articulating the differences among these voices, he shows us not just their messages and meanings but also what mattered to the authors. In these contrasts we encounter the Bible anew, as a living work whose many voices tell us about the world out of which the Bible grew — and the world that it created.

Are You Not a Man of God? Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition by Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz
New York: Oxford University Press

This work challenges the accepted readings of several iconic supporting characters from canonical stories of Jewish tradition. These characters have been appropriated throughout history to represent and reinforce central cultural values: the binding of Isaac and the religious value of sacrificing relationship for a higher purpose; the biblical Hannah, appropriated by the rabbis as an archetype of the spirit and practice of prayer; the Talmudic Beruriah and the significance of women’s learning and knowledge; and the struggle for intellectual autonomy of the rabbis of the Talmudic story known by its tag-line, “It is not in heaven!” Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz make use of religious, psychological, philosophical and literary perspectives to bring these characters to life in their multiple incarnations, examining their cultural impact and varied symbolic uses.

These are texts that have been studied widely with characters that are known well. This study shows, however, that the dominant interpretations mask darker, more insightful, and ultimately more critical dimensions of these important figures. Hartman and Buckholtz discover muted voices of personal betrayal and criticism that resonate as damning social critiques of the rabbis themselves. These critiques often highlight the ways in which cultural authorities use, and abuse, their power; revealing the implications of these moral failings on their legitimacy as communal leaders. In these voices of social criticism, the rabbis evince an awareness of their own vulnerability to such abuses and failings as well as their hurtful, marginalizing effects on members of less powerful social groups.

Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularism and Universalism by Aaron W. Hughes
New York: Oxford University Press

Jewish thought is, in many ways, a paradox. Is it theology or is it philosophy? Does it use universal methods to articulate Judaism’s particularity or does it justify Judaism’s particularity with appeals to illuminating the universal? These two sets of claims are difficult if not impossible to reconcile, and their tension reverberates throughout the length and breadth of Jewish philosophical writing, from Saadya Gaon in the ninth century to Emmanuel Levinas in the twentieth.

Fackenheim’s Jewish Philosophy: an Introduction by Michael L. MorganUniversity of Toronto Press

One of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, is best known for his deep and rich engagement with the implications of the Nazi Holocaust on Jewish thought, Christian theology, and philosophy. However, his career as a philosopher and theologian began two decades prior to his first efforts to confront that horrific event. In this book, renowned Fackenheim expert Michael L. Morgan offers the first examination of the full scope of Fackenheim’s 60-year career, beyond simply his work on the Holocaust. Morgan explores the most important themes of Fackenheim’s philosophical and religious thought and how these remained central, if not always in immutable ways, over his entire career. Morgan also provides insight into Fackenheim’s indebtedness to Kant, Hegel, and rabbinic midrash, as well as the changing character of his philosophical “voice.” The work concludes with a chapter evaluating Fackenheim’s legacy for present and future Jewish philosophy and philosophy more generally.

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War by Steven Pressfield
New York: Penguin Group (Sentinel)

Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the war — fighter and helicopter pilots, tank commanders and Recon soldiers, paratroopers, as well as women soldiers, wives, and others — Steven Pressfield tells the story of the Six Day War as never experienced it before: in the voices of the young men and women who battled not only for their lives but for the survival of a Jewish state, and for the dreams of their ancestors.

By turns inspiring, thrilling, and heartbreaking, The Lion’s Gate is both a true tale of military courage under fire and a journey into the heart of what it means to fight for one’s people.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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