Image: A single book, open, with a pair of glasses atop it. (PhotoMIX Company/Pixabay)
I got the question again last night: “Rabbi, what’s the FIRST book I should read about Judaism?” My answer to that is always a set of questions. So here are some “first books” and why I might or might not recommend them to a particular person.
Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief but good history, and it has an index. It’s good for people who are comfortable reading and want a comprehensive book with up-to-date information.
Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. This is a great book for someone who wants a short book that explains the Jewish approach to life in manageable bites. It’s also a good book for Jewish adults who had bad religious school experiences but who are looking to re-connect as Jews. I have also suggested it to Christians whose children converted to Judaism or married a Jew – it conveys the feeling of Judaism.
What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. If the person tells me they are particularly interested in the Torah, this is where I point them for a Jewish take on the texts. Simply reading the Torah won’t teach you how Jews read Torah. It is also the book I recommend for people who are upset by the stories in the Bible.
Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme is a very succinct introduction to Jewish ideas about God. I suggest this book for the person who tells me they are very interested in Judaism, but the idea of God is very difficult for them. I also suggest it for people who are interested specifically in theological questions.
Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper – This book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities. It’s intended as a college “Intro to Judaism” text, so it’s a bit more challenging reading but will give you an interdisciplinary approach to the big subject of Jewish identity. This is NOT “how to keep Chanukah” but “Who are the Jews, and what are they like?”
Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow. This is my go-to book for those who specifically want a book about Jewish holidays.
Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. If you want a glimpse of Jewish life and liberal observance, this is a really good book.
Judaism is such a large topic that no book is going to be the right first book for everyone. Was there a particular book that brought Judaism into focus for you? Please share those titles in the comments!
3 thoughts on “What’s a Good First Book about Judaism?”
I really love R. Zalman Schacter-Shalomi’s Jewish with Feeling, which helped to reawaken the spiritual side that my secular Reform upbringing neglected. It has a lovely mystical vibe, almost hippie-ish in places, with as many nods to Zen Buddhism as to pre-Holocaust Chasidism. I got it out of the library but filled it with so many post-its that I should really just get my own copy! It’s one to read again and again and again.
Thank you for sharing this! Rabbi Larry Kushner’s Honey from the Rock is another such book – you might find it a satisfying read.
My first meeting with Judaism (apart from the Hebrew scriptures seen through a Christian lens) was Herman Wouk’s This is My God. I seem to remember being slightly disappointed by it, but it might make more sense to me now than it did as an undergrad. Then I read Geza Vermes’ “The religion of Jesus the Jew” – which is not about Judaism, of course, but gave me a slightly uncomfortable glimpse of a Jewish perspective on my own faith. Many years later, my Dad recommended Jonathan Sack’s The Persistence of Faith. This woke me up to the fact that Jewish writers could have something valuable to say to me as a Christian. Sack’s series “Covenant and Conversation” opened my eyes to a new (for me) world of scriptural interpretation coupled with practical wisdom and social comment – and made me feel rather ashamed of the shallowness and banality of much of what passes for preaching in the Christian church. His book” The Great Partnership” is my goto reference for the science and religion debate. And then I came over the Coffee Shop Rabbi: who is rather different but still conveys much down to earth wisdom!
Now I am not about to convert – but I have learned to appreciate better both the Jewish roots of Christianity, and the great scriptural traditions that we still share, and I find myself much richer for the contributions of Jewish thought to my understanding of God and the world. Thank you!