From ancients to moderns

A look at the latest books by 'Jerusalem Post' columnists Rabbi Berel Wein and Rabbi Reuven Hammer.

Berel Wein book 248 (photo credit: )
Berel Wein book 248
(photo credit: )
The Oral Law of Sinai An Illustrated History of the Mishnah By Rabbi Berel Wein Jossey-Bass 190 pp. $29.60 Entering Torah Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion By Reuven Hammer Gefen Publishing House 310 pp. $29.95 If you happen to walk into my kitchen at six in the morning, you will probably be greeted by the voice of Rabbi Berel Wein. The reason for this is my fondness for his Jewish history audio cassettes, which banish the boredom while the cooking gets done. Jewish history woven into a comprehensible cloth, interspersed with insights and quips, is for me the equivalent of that "spoonful of sugar" that helps Mary Poppins get through her day. That is the recipe I expected when I opened his latest book, Oral Law of Sinai. However, when I began reading this work on the mishnaic period, I found the tone to be serious and scholarly. Wein's new book reflects the way he perceives the study of the Talmud itself: "It is a joy to study but it is not entertaining." This book introduces the reader to the experience of talmudic study and is appropriate for students, young or old, standing on the threshold of a beit midrash and wondering, Should I step in? Wein, a Jerusalem Post columnist, describes not only the intellectual experience of studying the Oral Law, an aspect already treated by many, but also the emotional experience: "Intellect alone (though certainly necessary) is insufficient to master it. Minds can speak to minds but only hearts can speak to hearts." The book's discussions of talmudic figures reflect Wein's historian persona. This produces some interesting insights - about Rabbi Akiva, for example. "His most famous personality trait was his unflagging optimism... Such was his stature and greatness that even his error in declaring Bar Kochba the messiah of Israel was overlooked!" The chapters on rabbis Yehuda Hanasi, Akiva and Meir are quite readable; other parts of the book are strictly encyclopedic. Those parts are useful as reference material for students and teachers in the school system. Remember how your ninth-grade teacher would say, "Choose one of the mishnaic rabbis and write a paper about him"? When your child comes home from school with such an assignment, give him or her this book, or better yet, read it together. It would make a fine choice as a bar/bat mitzva gift. The volume is beautifully adorned with archeological illustrations. However, the captions beneath these illustrations do not always explain their content. The book cover is a work of art. ENTERING TORAH by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, also a Post columnist, addresses the weekly Torah portion. Hammer examines each portion from the perspectives of rabbinic literature, biblical criticism and modern Jewish thought. Talmudic sources and the aggadic and halachic midrashim are richly represented in this volume, which is not surprising considering that Hammer is the author of an award-winning English edition of Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. Noteworthy about this book is what is missing: Hammer, as he indicates in his foreword, largely ignores 1,400 years of Jewish thought. He jumps from the sages of the Talmud straight to 20th-century thinkers - Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and others. Yehezkel Kaufmann and Nahum Sarna are quoted frequently, whereas it is hard to find even one mention of the Ramban (acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, 1194-1270); Rashi makes one appearance. Entering Torah is written in a clear and elegant style. Even those who reject Hammer's critical views can still appreciate his keen analyses and discussions of Jewish values, as reflected in the parasha.