Book reviews Jewish law

For any category, in general, what Jewish books should we have?

A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law, 2nd edition, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000

Louis Jacobs A Tree of Life
Out of all the books I have come across on the development of halakha (Jewish law), this may well be the most imporant. Rabbi Jacobs, an adherent of the historical school, illustrates that Jewish law is not – and never has been – a closed system that ignores the outside world. As the book notes “considerations beyond the purely halakhic have always played a big part in the making of halakhah, both in its original formulation and in its subsequent development. Throughout the ages halakhic rulings have been influenced by rabbis’ attitudes towards the wider ideals and demands of Judaism and by social, economic, theological, and even political considerations.”
The publisher notes that “The most controversial element of _A Tree of Life_, when it was first published in 1984 and subsequently, was its final chapter, ‘Towards a Non-Fundamentalist Halakhah’. The new introduction written for this edition responds to criticisms raised from both the right and the left wings of the Jewish world, and also summarizes further work that has been done by scholars in the various areas that the book covers. The bibliography and notes have been expanded, and the format of the book has been enlarged to allow the copious notes to be set at the foot of the page.”
Responsa and Halakhic Studies, Isaac Klein
First Edition, Ktav, 1975
Second revised ed., Eds. David Golinkin and Monique Susskind Goldberg
Responsa and Halakhic Studies Isaac Klein

Written over the course of forty years, the responsa of Rabbi Klein strike a balance between tradition and change. As a Conservative Jewish rabbi, Klein prefers a lenient ruling to a strict one. He studies Jewish law in its historical context. He has respect for the Shulchan Aruch, but he also examines it critically by comparing it to a wide range of other codes of Jewish law. A revised edition is now available from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

“Jewish Law : History, Sources, Principles”, Menachem Elon, Jewish Publication Society.
Jewish Law History Sources Principles Menachem Elon

This the magnum opus of Rabbi Menachem Elon, former deputy president of the Supreme Court of Israel. The original Hebrew version of this book, (Israel, 1973) is legendary, and Elon won the Israel Prize for this work. Professor Jonathan Sarna wrote this book review:

In 1973 Elon, deputy president of Israel’s Supreme Court and one of the world’s experts on Jewish and Israeli law, published the first edition of this comprehensive overview of Jewish law in Hebrew, and it won immediate acclaim. This felicitous, sumptuously produced translation of the revised third edition, which includes new material, makes Elon’s entire work available for the first time to English readers. Assuming no prior knowledge, Elon surveys the history and basic principles of Jewish law, the legal sources and processes that enabled it to adapt, and the literary sources-ancient to contemporary-that students of Jewish law rely upon. Volume 4 focuses on the State of Israel. Elon devotes little attention to Jewish law in America, though he does treat women’s issues extensively. Copious quotations from primary sources, extensive cross references, scholarly footnotes, a detailed table of contents, and a helpful glossary contribute to making this the definitive work in its field.

As the above work is both expensive and large, many people might prefer an abridged, yet still extensive version:

“The Principles Of Jewish Law”, Menachem Elon, Transaction Publishers, paperback, 2007

The Principles of Jewish Law Menachem Elon
It contains all the above subjects, with generous quotations and primary sources, yet condensed into one volume.  This was recently republished in paperback. includes sections on sources of Law; General; Laws of Property; Laws of Obligation and Torts; Family Law and Inheritance; Criminal Law; Jurisdiction, Procedure, Evidence and Execution; and Public and Administrative Law, and Conflict of Laws.


We Have Reason to Believe: Fifth Edition Paperback – April 1, 2004
by Louis Jacobs (Author), William Frankel (Introduction)
We Have Reason to Believe Louis Jacobs

This is the infamous book that got Rabbi Louis Jacobs kicked out of Orthodox Judaism in Great Britain. While containing a bit too many British references (which makes it slightly less accessible for US and Canadian readers) it is still a good read.

Louis Jacobs moves beyond the “Do it because I told you God said so” approach so popular among the Orthodox. Orthodox Jews claim that the text of the Torah is a direct quote from God, and thus we are obligated to follow its rules. Non-religious Jews use the findings of modern critical Bible study to show that since our understanding of how the Bible was edited is now known to be flawed, then it can’t possibly be inspired in any way; therefore, humanity is free from trying to follow the word of God in this way (or in any way).

In between these paths lies a view promoted by Rabbi Jacobs, a path now known as Masorti, or Conservative, Judaism. He notes that *how* God inspired man is one question; whether or not God does so is another. If God does exist, and does inspire mankind in some way, then the Torah may well contain man’s understanding of God’s will, as Judaism has always claimed.

No brief review can do justice to the arguments that Jacobs makes for his views: non-fundamentalist, observant, authentic Judaism. You will have to read it for yourself – and you’ll be the better for it. I also suggest reading the updated sequel to this book “Beyond Reasonable Doubt”; in fact, it may be better to skip the original altogether and just read the later volume.

The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg, Edited by David Golinkin, JTS Press, 1996

From the publisher: Prof. Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953), one of the outstanding Talmudists of the twentieth century, is well known as the author of a number of scholarly Jewish works, including a commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi and his magnum open “The Legends of the Jews”. However very few are aware of the fact that he was an important halakhic authority of the Conservative movement in North America, and that for a period of ten years, he was _the_ halakhic authority of this movement.
Response of Professor Louis Ginzberg

This comprehensive new volume, researched, edited and annotated by Rabbi David Golinkin, presents some one hundred responsa written by Prof. Ginzberg between 1913 and 1953. It also includes an extensive historical and biographical introduction. Most of these teshuvot were previously unknown or unpublished. They deal with a wide array of topics. A few such examples are:

changes in the liturgy
mixed pews in the synagogue
the use of grape juice for kiddush during the Prohibition
the use of art in the synagogue
burial practices
Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Siddur
intermarriage and assimilation
artificial insemination
forceful responses to anti-semitic events of that time
weddings and divorces

These responsa contribute much to our understanding of Ginzberg’s approach to Jewish law, his biography, the history of Conservative halakhah, and the history of American Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century. But above all, they provide us with a model of a leading Talmudic scholar who did not hide in his ivory tower but rather came down to his people and guided it through the complicated halakhic problems of modern times.


The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai, Elliot N. Dorff, Aviv Press 2005
The Unfolding Tradition Jewish Law Elliot N Dorff

What is halakha (loosely translated as “Jewish law”.) This book systematically discusses questions such as: Where does it come from? Are Jews obligated to obey it? If so, why? What does it mean to be obligated? How does one decide questions of Jewish law?

Unfortunately, most Orthodox authors do not study philosophy, and make no attempt to systematically describe their approach of halakha. On the other extreme, Reform authors do not view halakha as authoritative in any way. They have produced no systematic view of Jewish law, and wildly disagree themselves over whether any part of should be normative at all.

In contrast, it is Jews affiliated with Conservative, Traditional and Masorti Judaism who have thus produced the most intelligble and systematic writings on this subject. Not only does Rabbi Dorff systematically present his own philosophy in regards to the above questions, but he presents the views of many other Jewish thinkers, both inside Conservative Judaism, as well as Reform and Orthodoxy.

Dorff presents a serious philosophical critique of every theory of law discussed: What are the strengths of each position, and what are the weaknesses. No partisan polemicist, he is equally critical of his own theory of law as he is of other people’s theories. Why should anyone care about this subject? Rabbi Dorff writes:

“A theory of law describes how the author understands the nature of human beings and human society, the role of law for people and societies construed in that way, the sources of authority of the law, the ways in which the law can retain authority and yet change over time to remain relevant to current circumstances, and the relationship between law and morality, religion, and custom. The reason why one should care about such matters is because the way you understand such matters has a critical effect on how you understand yourself and your community, the role of law in your life and that of your community, and the ways in which law can and should remain the same or change over time.”

This book includes readings by Zachariah Frankel, Solomon Schechter, Mordecai Kaplan, Robert Gordis, Jacob Agus, Abraham Joshua Heschel, David M. Gordis, Louis Jacobs, Joel Roth, Neil Gillman, Edward Feld, Alana Suskin, Raymond Scheindlin and Gordon Tucker, as well as theorists on the right and the left of the Conservative movement. The book also compares Jewish and American law, and asks questions about the nature of legal systems, the relationship between law and religion, and the evolution of law.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Jewish Law: An Introduction, Mendell Lewittes , Pub by Jason Aronson

Republished as “Principles and Development of Jewish Law: The Concepts and History of Rabbinic Jurisprudence from Its Inception to Modern Times”

Mendell Lewittes, a RIETS ordained Modern Orthodox Rabbi, has written a concise book on the development of halakhah (“Jewish law”), covering everything from the Torah to the Tanya, from the Zohar to Zionism. The book starts with the traditional view of Abraham, Moses, and the revelation by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. The rationale for accepting the mitzvot as binding, and as the source for all Jewish law, is discussed in depth, and illuminated by generous, albeit uncritical, quoting from our tradition’s greatest sages. The importance of the Oral Law as well as the Written law is given a clear treatment, and is illustrated by demonstrating the development of early schisms in Judaism – the split between the Pharisees (progenitors of rabbinic Jews) and Sadducees (who rejected the Oral law).

From here, the book moves into the era of the Tannaim and the Mishnah, and the development of the Talmud. Further topics include the development of the Gezerah, the Takkanah (“legal ordinance”), and Minhag (“custom”). From the Rishonim to the Acharonim, Lewittes tells the story of Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis who worked to reconcile Talmudic law with their changing world, and shows us the development of the many codes of Jewish law, particularly the Shulchan Aruch.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this work lies in the discussion of the development of the Chasiddic movement, and the response of the mainstream Jewish community to the Chassids. Covering the most controversial part of Jewish history, we are then exposed to the effects of the Emancipation and Haskalah (Enlightenment movement), which set the stage for the development of the modern Jewish denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism.

Unfortunately, makes an unprofessional jab at Conservative Jews when he states that Rabbi Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice is not a code of Jewish law. He comes to this conclusion through circular reasoning, a flaw which he only demonstrates when discussing non-Orthodox Jews. Lewittes claims that a code of Jewish law is a code that is accepted as halakhic by observant Jews. Since (he writes) observant Jews don’t accept Klein’s code, it therefore isn’t a code at all. He only can force himself to reach this conclusion by defining any observant Jew as Orthodox, therefore concluding that all non-Orthodox Jews are not observant (a falsehood.)

Ironically, many of his interpretations of Jewish law are in line with that of Conservative rabbis of the mid 1950s, and some of his views on celebrating the existence of the modern State of Israel are rejected by most Orthodox Jews, and accepted only by Conservative Jews. A useful feature of this book is the parallel structure of the chapters. Each successive chapter covers a given time period, and within each chapter it covers not only Ashkenazi history, but also Sephardi history. Paragraph by paragraph we get to see how different Jewish communities dealt with changing historical conditions.

Rabbi Lewittes has written this book from a Modern Orthodox viewpoint, but I find that many of his basic arguments are similar to those motivating the Conservative movement. All in all, it is a well written, interesting – and occasionally provocative – elucidation of Rabbinic Judaism.

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