MetroWest Jewish News

Anthology by Telushkin 'a delight to the mind and heart'.

by Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff


Jewish thought has often been compared to a sea, and an anthology is a wonderful attempt to chart its waters. For both professionals and laypersons, for those with extensive training and for the beginner, the anthology is a useful tool.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Wisdom may well be the finest example of this genre. It is a delight to the mind and the heart, touching upon a wide range of topics: how to be a good person, the meaning of life, the divine, reflections on today's social issues and comments on modern Jewish experience (assimilation, the Holocaust and Israel).

Telushkin puts ethics squarely at the core of Judaism. At a time when religion is often confused with quasi-spiritual psychobabble, it is refreshing indeed to find, as the opening quote in a 700-page anthology: "In the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked: Did you conduct your [business] affairs honestly? Did you set aside regular time for Torah study? Did you work at having children? Did you look forward to the world' s redemption? (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)."

In a word, Telushkin's handling of the material is "muscular." He pushes the reader into challenging the trivial preconceptions about religion and Judaism "in the air" at this secular time. This, to use the classical expression, is "a struggle for the sake of heaven" from which one can only gain.

Telushkin refers with telling effect to current ethical and moral situations crying out for traditional guidance. At the same time, he provides astute and sometimes cynical observations that, regardless of origin, have a distinctly modern flavor.

Where could one find a better description of a deceitful politician than Naftali of Rotchitz: "Not only is what he says untrue, but even the opposite of what he says is untrue"?

The quotes Telushkin gathers are taken from the widest variety of sources. The classics are naturally well represented: Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Kaballa, hasidic and Mussar movement tales. In addition, modern sources are frequently cited, including Freud, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Milton Friedman, Albert Einstein and others.

Last, Telushkin, unlike other more provincial anthologists, is not afraid to cite non-Jews who pithily summarize Jewish wisdom, such as psychiatrist R.D. Laing, John F. Kennedy, Liv Ullman and others.

One example is Mother Teresa's "God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful," as a summary of rabbinic thinking concerning the curbing of the capitalist ethic in order to "Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord."

The breadth and contemporary relevance of the anthology is noteworthy, but equally important is the fashion in which the various topics are handled.

Telushkin is a firm believer in seeking truth wherever he finds it. His book is delightfully free of useless and irritating inter-movement polemics. He points out those areas where Jewish ethics seem more advanced than, say, American law. It is, for instance, a Jewish legal obligation to save a life, whereas no such obligation exists in American law.

At the same time, he does not shrink from challenging Jewish law that appears less than ethical. On misogyny in Jewish texts he cites, with telling effect, his own mother. Vis-a-vis those rabbis who would forbid abortion even in the case of rape, he writes, "they demonstrate less compassion for a woman who has been violated than the Talmudic rabbis did toward a woman who had committed a capital offense." On the abortion question, among others, Telushkin cites a range of contradictory opinions, allowing the question itself to remain open.

He is not afraid to use the words "I don't know" -- traditionally a hallmark of greatness in Jewish thought.

Explicit (in Telushkin's introduction) is the belief that words matter, that they have had an impact on Judaism, on Jewish thinking and on the very life of the Jewish people. This assumption is far from uncontested. There are those who argue that broad and anonymous social and economic trends are historically far more decisive than any individual rhetorical stroke of brilliance.

The "broad trenders" should read Telushkin's book. Merely "nice" ideas are not collected here. The words themselves pulsate with transformative power. They are, as they in fact purported to be, "black fire on white fire," not mere ink on paper.

Telushkin has done a masterful job of gathering and explicating the material. The result is a book so good it's a miracle the pages don't burn up.

Not only will it make one smarter, it will also make one better. This in keeping with the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, cited by Telushkin, "When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."

Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff lectures internationally and writes on topics of Jewish concern.