On Reading Good Jewish Books

I read a lot of books for information. There are commentaries, atlases, lexicons, and many sources of information in my library. I also read for entertainment. I like suspense and fantasy novels and tend to fluctuate between the two.

But then there are the books I read for more than just information or entertainment. I read them to be moved, to experience some of what it means to be human and some of what it means to contemplate the divine.

If I were to list my favorite Christian books, I might include the following:

Confessions, Augustine. The whole book is a prayer. The theology is imperfect and limited by his time and place. Yet the image of a soul yearning toward God and expressing that yearning publicly without hiding intimate feelings is priceless. Only a great intellect can bare their soul like this and not make reader’s wince. My favorite is probably the line, “Grant what you command and command what you will.”

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis. It’s not about divorce. It’s about a field trip to heaven undertaken by some residents of hell. It’s a short book. I recommend taking a day off and spending it with Lewis. The fewer interruptions the better.

There are others I might mention. The Silmarillion by Tolkien. Some of the poems of Amy Carmichael. Anything by Lewis. Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I’m probably leaving out a favorite or two.

My experience with Jewish books is different than with Christian writing. I began this journey with God under Christian teachers. They taught me well in many things, but sadly taught me to mistrust Judaism. My first professor of Jewish thought had me read nit-picky debates in Talmud to make the point that Talmud is esoteric argument with little substance. Other teachers presented Jewish thought to me as a false religion to be deconstructed and never to be appreciated on its own terms. This graceless (sic) religion was deceptive and dangerous, I was told.

But I remember sitting years later with Everyman’s Talmud by Abraham Cohen and thoroughly enjoying myself. In time I became a fan of the Passover Haggadah and its way of commemorating and inspiring thought and discussion. For a class at MJTI, I read Michael Wyschogrod’s Body of Faith and later Goldstein and Knobel’s Duties of the Soul.

If I were to list favorite Jewish books I’ve read since, I’d have to include Elie Wiesel’s Night, a powerful, firsthand story of the Holocaust. How could I leave out Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, also based on firsthand experience of the Holocaust. Heschel’s Sabbath is a good entry-level introduction to his thought and from there I moved on to his The Prophets. I have yet to dig into his famous books like Between God and Man or God in Search of Man.

I’ve found that Jewish books easily give Christian books a run for the money (not that it is a competition). Those suspicions I picked up from my early teachers dropped away quickly.

The Jewish Book of the Month Club for Messianics
Coming in March, I will be promoting the reading of good Jewish books. I hope that a number of other bloggers will participate with me.

My criteria for books for this list will include: availability new or used on amazon, accessibility of the thought of the book (not too academic), importance of the subject matter for understanding Jewish life and thought, and potential impact intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

I’m working with some other bloggers now on details and hope we can work together. I’d be thrilled if we saw hubdreds of people all over the world reading these books together and discussing them. I’d love to see Messianic bloggers collaborating and see each of us share audience and have synergy.

I’d love to see you, dear reader, stretched intellectually and emotionally, by the virtue of good books.

I’ll announce the March selection with plenty of time to order.

For Discussion
What are some of the best Christian and Jewish books you have read and why?


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Book Reviews, Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Wyschogrod and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On Reading Good Jewish Books

  1. peterygwendyta says:

    I read many books but I must say some of the best books that I have read have been by the Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand. It was actually because of his books that I started getting serious about my faith. Now if you are looking for books that are theologically correct in the sense that you will agree with everything he says you will be disappointed, but that is not the point. he wrote most of his books will in prison for his faith and they are more a series of thoughts, wondering and above all questioning of God. And also for people information he would be what some of you would call a hebrew Christian. There are many others books that I could mention but this is for starters.

  2. samstfleur says:

    I am looking to start reading Heschel’s works especially the two you mentioned (The Prophets and God in Search of Man). I noticed that you mentioned reading Sabbath as an introduction to Heschel and then moving on from there. Does it matter which book you read first? I ask because I wanted to read the books based on the topics as opposed to reading to get inside the mind of Heschel.

  3. wordmachine says:

    The best Jewish books I have read besides yours are from:

    Jordan Rubin: He’s actually a Messianic health expert whose ideas come from the Bible. He helps people understand what foods God created for us to eat and how to keep our bodies healthier. He shares ideas about nutrition, diet, body and exercise therapies, environmental health, and how to have good a mental well-being.

  4. samstfleur:

    No preferred order. Sabbath is just an easier book and would help most readers appreciate Heschel enough to put in the hard work necessary to read his other books.

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  6. warland52 says:

    Hmmm…Not sure this is what you had in mind but number one is:

    Jesus by David Flusser (since updated by one of his students with a new title- although his own last edition is 2002- pretty updated itself).

    Everyman’s Talmud (you already mentioned)

    Visions of the Fathers (Pirkei Avos with a commentary by Rabbi Abraham Twerski)


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  8. jorgequinonez says:

    I like your blog, Derek. You mentioned Augustine, Levertoff tranlsatedl A’s Confessions into Hebrew. It was a first. Also, I too share an appreciation of Tolkien. I met Christopher Tolkien in the 1980’s, who published his father’s body of writings that would become the Silmarillion book. Tolkien is still one of my favorite writers.

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