Books For Life Newsletter
Volume 1, Number 4


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Dear friends,

Shalom U-vrakhah! Welcome to Issue Number 4 of "Sefer Ha-Hayim - Books for Life" Newsletter. In this issue I am proud to announce a new book that dispels some myths about the Jewish "Religion."

I'm also excited about the launch of the "Open Access Project"--an online learning community offering free downloads and open discussion of ideas. You have to see it for yourself to fully grasp the potential of this site. I'm also going to let you know how you can help spread the word about Open Access. But I'm getting ahead of myself. So please read on.

Thank you,

Gil Student
President, Yashar Books

Find out more about some of the other people at Yashar Books at http://www.YasharBooks.com/AboutUs.html


Vol. 1, No. 4


TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Is Judaism a "Religion"?
2. Excerpt: "The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations" by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman
3. Help Spread Free Learning With "Open Access" And Enter Our Poster Contest
4. YU Seforim Sale Report
5. Buying Books from Yashar (why you shouldn't!)
6. Praise for "Israel Salanter"


1. Is Judaism a "Religion"?

Contrary to popular belief, Judaism isn't just about the rules of interacting with God. Yes, "religion" focuses on the link between the human and the Divine, the temporal and the infinite. So it's natural to think that the code of laws of a religion would be essentially a manual for that Human-God connection.

Not so, declares Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, in his newly expanded book "The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations," part of the series on Jewish ethics published by Yashar Books.

Judaism is not a religion in the commonly understood sense of service and worship of God. In truth, God cares just as much about how we treat each other. Judaism can be seen as being also, perhaps even primarily, about the Human-Human bond. Jewish law — halakhah — regulates every aspect of the human experience, particularly how people interact with each other. "The day-to-day interactions between people, the treatment of one another in mundane conversation, in walking in the street, in traveling on a bus, or waiting in line to be served in a store are no less the home of halakhah than are the activities of the synagogue or the kitchen, the study hall or the hospital bed."

Jewish law is more than just religious ritual. In truth, the author demonstrates, the scrutiny of traditional Jewish thinkers that is generally thought to have been focused solely on ritualistic behavior has actually been applied, with all of its Talmudic rigor, to the area of interpersonal behavior as well. With encyclopedic thoroughness, Feldman takes the reader through 14 areas of human conduct and eloquently summarizes the vast rabbinic literature on the subjects. Readers might be surprised to discover that the same vigorous analysis that Talmudists apply to questions of kosher food has also been applied to scenarios of avoiding embarrassing a fellow human being.

Rabbi Feldman's prose is concise and unambiguous, explaining the terminology and concepts he uses so that any reader, regardless of training, can easily be captured into this fascinating tour of rabbinic views. This is not only a sourcebook for interpersonal commandments but is also a rare window into the workings of Talmudic logic. Readers with little background in rabbinic literature can find in this work examples of how rabbinic scholarship approaches sources, conceptualizes topics and draws proofs and counterproofs from texts. Feldman's skill in organization and explanation have created not only a testament to the ethical concerns of the Jewish religion but also a taste for newcomers to the exciting world of Talmudic debate.


2. Excerpt from "The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations" by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman

The Jew­ish system of ethics is not an autonomy, not even the most nobly intentioned one, but a theonomy, instructed in every detail by Divine command. The dealings of the boardroom, the classroom, and the side­walk are no less directed by holiness and spirituality than are those of the beit midrash, the synagogue, or the kitchen. While lamentably, stories appear in the news on occasion implying that this is not obvi­ous to all, and one hears of apparently observant Jews involved in circumstances of financial impropriety or general dishonesty, the vast majority of those committed to halakhah are acutely aware that its scope extends far beyond the ritual.

However, just how far beyond that may, unfortunately, not be as well-known. That the wearing of tefillin is governed by halakhah is obvious, and that the purchase of a car or financing of a house is so regulated is almost as widely understood, despite the rare but well­-publicized lapses that may occur. Yet the Torah's influence eclipses that of civil legislation; the line for a bus, the conversation at dinner, and the behavior on the basketball court share equally as the site of religious influence. That the shove one gives another person in order to be served more quickly in the cafeteria, or the comment made moments later when the tray is dropped on the other person's clothes, are subject to their own prohibitions, sometimes comes as a surprise; so, too, that the Torah has a very specific idea of how the victim and the aggressor should deal with each other in the aftermath. These interactions, so mundane and basic, are believed to be a matter of style and personality, immune from interference by any agency. The truth is far different — the voice of halakhah is as loud on these fronts as on any other.

The tractate Avot, which deals with morals and ethical values, begins with the foundation of all tradition: "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai..." The placement is somewhat puzzling; such a basic principle of Judaism belongs at the introduction of the Talmud, rather than in a tractate that comes at the end of the fourth of its six orders. But R. Menachem HaMeiri and R. Ovadiah of Bartenura explain that the organization is most appropriate, for we are given the information when it is most necessary. When studying the laws of the proper blessing on a certain food, or what time to pray, or how to observe Shabbat, or how to build a sukkah, no reminder is necessary that those laws were given at Sinai; no other source could compel such observance. However, a reminder is needed when encountering the less ritualistic aspects of life; it is then that the interest of religion is less obvious and the Sinaic tradition must be invoked. It must be noted that on further consideration, these commentators appear to be addressing a larger portion of the population than might be assumed. Avot is placed sequentially after Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra, and Sanhedrin; these tractates dealt at great length with details of monetary interac­tion several hundred folios before we are reminded of the Divine revelation. Despite unfortunate exceptions, most Jews do not limit their religious perspectives to overtly ritual activities; it is understood that Torah law is no less encompassing than that of the secular govern­ment. Nonetheless, when a tractate says, "Love peace and pursue peace," "Greet all men with a cheerful countenance," "Your friend's honor should be as dear to you as your own," "Whomever the people are satisfied with, God is satisfied with," and other such statements, even the most committed Jew may often believe he is merely receiving good advice. It is then that it must be emphasized: This, too, is from Sinai.

The divinity of these principles was not left for the Oral Torah to explain; many of the regulations governing these day-to-day interac­tions stem from explicit biblical verses. "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him, you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people, you shall love your fel­low as yourself, I am God," "In justice shall you judge your friend," "You shall not oppress your friend," "Keep far away from falsehood," "Seek peace and pursue it," and many other such scriptural passages address themselves directly to everyday interactions.

Some may question the need for the halakhah to involve itself in this area; if social conventions and secular laws take up this concern, perhaps the Torah is indeed best focused upon the overtly spiritual. In fact, some authorities attribute the lack of a blessing assigned to interpersonal mitzvot to a reflection of this mindset among the popu­lace. Immediately, certain advantages become clear. As R. Natan Gestetner observes, when these behaviors lack the force of halakhah, they fall by the wayside in the face of challenges from economic and other aspects of self-interest. Further, the moral ambiguity present in general society is absent within halakhah. However, even these con­siderations, while not to be underemphasized, are more practical than fundamental.

By involving itself in the details of daily interaction, the halakhah brings the Divine Majesty into the streets, the workplace, the cafete­ria line. When the restraint in business ethics comes on penalty of imprisonment, it represents perhaps no more than fear of the government; when it stems from a realization of God's Will, it attains a sta­tus of holiness. Generosity toward others may be a manifestation of a pleasant personality or a vague notion of "goodness"; within Judaism, such behavior is a basic fundamental of spirituality. The words ex­changed upon meeting in the street may be a social convention or an avoidance of awkwardness; in Torah law, these phrases acquire abun­dant elements of religious achievement. Treating others with respect, love, and kindness is not convention, policy, or personality; it is holi­ness, it is mitzvah, it is the Word of God.

The Ramban, in his commentary to Chumash, makes a general observation as to the nature of these commandments in general. Dis­cussing the verse, "and you shall do the right and the good," the Ramban notes the somewhat vague character of its imperative. Cer­tainly, all behavior should be "right" and "good." The Torah, how­ever, wished to impose the standards of holiness onto man's behavior with the community at large, and to this end several biblical verses, including those mentioned previously, are intended to contribute to the formation of a personality in which every action in the social sphere is influenced by Divine command. Nonetheless, the complexity of life's challenges will inevitably result in situations where immediate scrip­tural instruction is unclear; inclusive of all such circumstances, the Torah exhorts, "you shall do the right and the good." No act that may impact negatively upon another person can be said to be devoid of Sinatic guidance.

Thus, the principles dictating people's behavior with each other have been stamped with the seal of Divine commandment, subject to the commitment and seriousness that this entails. However it may be that these principles, for certain purposes, carry a severity that not only equals but exceeds that inherent in mitzvot in general. A story told, involving R. Yisrael Meir Kagan and R. Yisrael Lipkin, may be instructive in this area. R. Kagan (1838-1933) was the revered author of the authoritative work Mishnah Berurah on the Orach Chaim section of R. Yosef Karo's code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh. However, he was perhaps better known for his treatment of the laws of gossip, lashon hara, whose title became his own, Chafetz Chaim. This story relates that a certain businessman requested to purchase all of R. Kagan's many books, with the glaring exception of Chafetz Chaim. When R. Kagan questioned this, the man admitted that the pressures of his business made it difficult to avoid saying derogatory things about the people he came into contact with, and he would rather not pur­chase a work whose directives he felt compelled to ignore. R. Kagan prevailed upon him to buy it anyway, relating a comment made to him by R. Lipkin. R. Lipkin (1810-1883), known after his hometown as R. Yisrael Salanter, is famed as the founder of the Mussar movement, which popularized the intense study of ethical concepts. When the work Chafetz Chaim was completed, R. Lipkin told its author, "If all you accomplish is to evoke one sigh from one Jew [who becomes aware of the prohibitions and cannot observe them], the work is worthwhile." So, too, R. Kagan told the businessman, he may not believe himself able to adhere to the contents of the book; but if it will at least "evoke a sigh," it is worth the purchase price.


3. The Open Access Project

We recently sent out a bulletin announcing Yashar's new online free Torah resource center and discussion forum called "The Open Access Project"--a virtual blend of Torah journal and Bet Midrash, with free articles, essays, dissertations and (soon) entire books available free, online. Open Access is not "read-only"; it's interactive. You can also post your own reviews and critiques and join discussions or submit your own papers for consideration.

Open Access is also a way you can share ideas. Like the Open Source software movement (see http://www.spreadfirefox.com/), we are inviting people to join in the "Open Source Learn-Ware" movement through an "Ambassador" program--volunteer agents to spread the word to friends, students, readers and thinkers everywhere.

The Open Access Project is an organic process, not a static web page. Join now and help it grow and spread. Read, learn, respond. And tell your friends to join the discussion too! Go now: http://www.YasharBooks.com/Open.

We are also conducting a contest for the best poster about Open Access. More information about the contest and the prize are available on the sefer Ha-Hayim Blog here: http://www.yasharbooks.com/2005/03/open-access-poster-contest.html


4. At the YU Seforim Sale

R. Daniel Feldman's book was featured on the YU table, next to R. Aharon Lichtenstein's. R. Nosson Slifkin's books were also prominently displayed and sold quickly. In fact, due to heavy demand we were out of stock of "Mysterious Creatures" by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin. However, a shipment from Israel just arrived so we are once again able to offer the book to the public.


5. Buying Books from Yashar

If you missed the YU Seforim Sale and you want to buy any of our great new selections and forthcoming books, don't buy them from us! We have a better idea: Instead of buying the book online go to your local Jewish bookstore and ask for it. Chances are that the store already has our catalog but, if not, direct them to www.YasharBooks.com. They will order it for you and sell it to you at a lower price than if you buy it online. And it will help let one more store know how popular Yashar Books are!


6. Praise for "Israel Salanter."

Prof. Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew University is probably the world's foremost expert on the yeshiva world of the nineteenth century. He graciously--and enthusiastically--agreed to provide the following quote for our newly published edition of "Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker," by Mehahem Glenn. I could sense his excitement over the book:

Menahem Glenn's classic study, Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker, was a pioneering biography of one of the most creative and influential thinkers in the East European world of Torah scholarship. In his sober and carefully documented study, Glenn carefully described the life and ideas of R. Israel in their historical context as well as in the context of Jewish thought. By doing so, he opened the world of the East European Musar movement to the English speaking reader. Even after the publication of subsequent important works on R. Israel, Glenn's work remains a valuable resource and contains materials and information not available elsewhere.

Rabbi Zalman Alpert of Yeshiva University added:

This volume is a classic in the study of the 19th century Musar movement and its leader Rabbi Israel Salanter. Not only is the reader presented with a critical study of the life and teachings of R. Salanter in English, but we also get a critical English translation of Salanter's major work the Iggereth Ha-Musar, the Epistle of Musar. The book fills an important lacuna in English for the serious student of the Musar movement. As this movement gains prominence in 21st century America, this classic volume gains new importance as a valuable tool in understanding Salanter and his teachings.

For more information or to place orders, come to the Reading Room at Yashar Books, http://www.YasharBooks.com, 1548 E. 33rd St., Brooklyn, NY 11234, Phone: , Fax: ..., mailto:Info@YasharBooks.com.

Please join us. "Books for Life" is meant to be your newsletter. Send us your thoughts on our books or suggestions for new ones. From time to time, we will quote reader's letters.

Thanks again for joining us!

Gil Student


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