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Ever since he was a teenager, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has been writing in books as he reads them. Some might find the practice near sacrilege, but for Rabbi Telushkin -- who owns the books he marks up -- highlighting significant passages is essential. His latest book, "Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual, and Historical Lessons From the Great Works and Thinkers" (Morrow, $25), grew out of the notes he'd made in 3,500 Jewish books in his home library.
An engaging companion volume to his strong-selling "Jewish Literacy," which provides basic information about Judaism, "Jewish Wisdom" focuses on the basic texts -- Jewish writings over the past 3,500 years. Drawing on passages from the Bible and Talmud as well as the work of such scholars and thinkers as Hillel, Martin Buber, Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir and Harold Kushner, Rabbi Telushkin presents an overview of Jewish thinking, addressing essential questions about ethical behavior. In collecting "insights of Judaism that can deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world," he also includes quotes from non-Jews like Mark Twain and Mohandas Gandhi.
But "Jewish Wisdom" is more than a quote book. With his running commentary linking the passages, Telushkin explains his selections, providing historical context. Organized into eight sections, including "Between People: How to Be a Good Person in a Complicated World," "Between People and God: What God Wants From Us," "Between People and the World: Jewish Values," and "Zionism and Israel," the 654-page book addresses questions about business ethics, the death penalty, anti-Semitism, gossip, truth and permissible lies, romantic love, old age, intermarriage, Holocaust denial and much more.
"Quotes can shatter the way you think and open you up to see the world differently," Rabbi Telushkin says in an interview, citing Herzl's "But if you will it, it is no fantasy" as a statement that influenced Jewish life for generations. His personal favorite is Rabbi Tarfon's teaching: "It's not your obligation to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing all you can]." He explains that the line helps us to guard against pessimism and to remember that we need to work with others to improve the world.
"My aim," Rabbi Telushkin says, "is to excite Jews about Jewish learning and about the centrality of ethics in Judaism."
Although "Jewish Wisdom" can serve as a reference volume, readers might enjoy reading it from cover to cover or perusing those sections that particularly interest them.
An associate at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Telushkin, a New Yorker, travels regularly to Los Angeles, where he serves as rabbi of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts. He is also the author of "Jewish Humor," "The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism" (with Dennis Prager), mystery novels "The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl" and "An Eye For An Eye," and the screenplay for the film "The Quarrel" (with David Brandes). In a recent talk to a standing-room-only crowd at Barnes & Noble on Broadway in Upper Manhattan, Rabbi Telushkin showcased his skills as a raconteur, dipping into his well of biblical stories, talmudic teachings, contemporary anecdotes and, recalling his last book, Jewish jokes.
Rabbi Telushkin's next book takes a different approach to his lifelong interest in words. He explores his belief that the "greatest pain most people experience comes from words" in "Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: The Ethics of Speech," to be published next year.
Knives, Forks and Telushkin
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Jewish Wisdom; The Essential Teachings and How They Have Shaped the Jewish Religion, Its People, Culture, and History Rabbi Joseph Telushkin; William Morrow and Company, 1994, 711 pp., $25.00.
Joseph Telushkin's books are weekly guests at our Shabbat dinner table. No, he does not prepare the equivalent of decorative coffee table books nor does he provide recipes for food preparation. Rabbi Telushkin creates books which permit us to set a table with Jewish content.
First with Jewish Literacy (William Morrow, 1991) and now with Jewish Wisdom, Rabbi Telushkin provides each of us an opportunity to learn as Jews - an important Jewish obligation.
To prepare this review of Jewish Wisdom, I followed the same procedure I have used with Jewish Literacy during about 100 Shabbat dinners over the past two years - random selection and reading aloud. On a recent Friday, the selected Telushkin entry was "Human Nature-A Somber Look" and included brief discussions from the Bible, the Babylonian Talmud, and Jewish midrashic literature on "the inclination toward evil," "the desire for fame," "reactions to one's neighbor's pain," "the propensity for evil" and "harnessing the evil inclination for good."
Each person around the table was invited to add something to the topic, comment on an idea suggested by the reading, or ask a question, which someone else may answer. Our 15 Shabbat dinner participants included a fourth grader, a seventh grader, some high school and college students and an array of adults. The formal Jewish learning represented at the table varied considerably. The fourth grader was just as much in the middle of the discussion as were the college students who could draw on references to their current studies in psychology, philosophy or history, while the more mature adults could draw on life experiences.
Jewish Wisdom deals with concepts such as "Is God necessary for Morality?"; "All Jews Are Responsible One for Another"; "Conflicting Biblical and Talmudic Views of the Character of Women"; "Truth, Lies, and Permissible Lies." Most of us have opinions on topics such as these, some information or misinformation, and a readiness to tangle with these ideas if someone will only show us how to overcome our inhibitions and provide direction. Rabbi Telushkin will and does.
Jewish Wisdom does not have to be read at the Shabbat dinner table. You can dip in it random, select dinner table. You can dip in at random, select an entry as a topic for a discussion group, obtain ideas for a speech or, above all, deepen your understanding of Jewish thought.
Jewish Wisdom does have one problem not found in Jewish Literacy: Each of Wisdom's entries are longer - not simply the one or two pages perfect for reading aloud - and perhaps too long to be read aloud in its entirety at a single time. I'm sure I will learn my guests' listening limits as I continue to experiment.