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The Great Principle of the Torah: Examining Seven Talmudic Claims to the Defining Principles of Judaism Paperback – February 4, 2016
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About the Author
Rabbi Jack Bieler founded Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD in 1990, where he served as spiritual leader until his retirement in 2015. He received ordination from Yeshiva University where he also earned an MA in Jewish Education (1974). He was a member of the faculty of Yeshivat Ramaz and the Berman Hebrew Academy, and taught in adult education programs in New York and Silver Spring. He has published numerous papers and articles about Jewish education and the issues facing Judaism today. Rabbi Bieler and his wife, Dr. Joan, have four children and nine grandchildren.
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The book is totally non-fluid, and takes the reader through the topics as though delivering a live class, with the source materials extracted in full. It is far too dense, and has no narrative flow. There is nothing to be gained by citing swathes of sources, when a key quote and a summary with a footnote would do. Even putting the full extract at the end of a chapter would help.
The thesis is excellent, but the execution is garbage. It reads like a transcript of a lecture. This book needs serious editing.
The seven principles that the rabbi discusses in very readable English, with lots of example, including Talmudic citations for each principle, and many other interesting references, are:
1. Hillel’s opinion that “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This is a variation of the biblical: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
2. Ben Azzai focused on the biblical statement “This is the book of the generations of man in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.” Ben Azzai was emphasizing that all people – of all faiths and genders - are equal.
3. The prophet Habakkuk wrote “But the righteous shall live by his faith.” Although, virtually everyone translates emunah as “faith,” its meaning in the Bible is “steadfastness.”
4. Bar Kappa emphasized following the divine ways: “In all your ways know him and he will direct your paths.”
5. Rabbi Joseph spoke of seeking peace: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.”
6. Rabbi Yehudah emphasized kindness, for one who denies it “denies the most fundamental principle.”
7. Rabbi Elazar said: “The entire Torah is based upon justice.”
Everyone who reads this book will not only learn much about Judaism, but much more, and will be prompted to think about what is important in life.
In The Great Principle of the Torah - Examining Seven Talmudic Claims To The Defining Principles of Judaism, Rabbi Jack Bieler examines that story, and 6 others, that also try to detail Judaism’s moral imperatives.
The challenge of Talmudic narratives is that their initial brevity and simplicity overlay an underlying profundity and complexity. In this fascinating book, Bieler gets to the fundamentals and analysis of just what the essential message of Judaism is. In the introduction, he writes that he’s been continually amazed at how little serious and prolonged reflection was devoted to making sense of the goals of Jewish tradition and literature.
The goal of the book is to determine if and what the meta-values of Judaism are. The 7 selections each attempt the difficult task of trying to define the essence of Judaism.
In each chapter, Bieler quotes from a wide set of classical commentators who interpret the meaning of these values. Are they complementary, contradictory? How do they interact and what do they mean? Bieler deals with these in details and each chapter concludes with the contemporary implications of each of the values.
Some of the values the book details are universalism, faith, God consciousness, pleasantness and peace, loving kindness, and adherence to the law.
Bieler concludes that not surprisingly, there are no simple answers. Some of the values he details can be antithetical to one another. Questions of individuality vs. community, justice vs. compassion, logic vs. faith, and more; require that a person make significant moral choices.
Part of these choices are contemplation via reflection and deliberation of these issues. This leads to the introspection that can make a person less mechanical, and more of a thinking individual; to which is a significant challenge today. He concludes noting that while the development of adopting a reflective approach towards the desired minds and behaviors of the 7 tests quoted is a lifelong process, it’s clearly the point to which everyone should dedicated their best efforts.
The author’s blog has two sets of study guides that can be used independently of his book, or as a means of preparing ahead of time before considering the arguments made in the book itself.
This is a deep, yet quite rewarding book. Bieler writes in a cerebral approach, that may be a challenge for some readers. In the book, he’s started a discussion of what the point of Judaism is. And that is a conversation every Jewish person should be part of.