The New Jewish Canon

The Best Religion Books of 2020

2020 has been an odd and unsettling year, but a silver lining is that increased solitude gave us more time and mental space for reading.
Jeffrey Salkin

Jeffrey Salkin

Jeffrey Salkin

Originally published on Martini Judaism through Religion News Service

2020 has been an odd and unsettling year — perhaps the oddest and most unsettling in our lifetimes.

I am not one to find silver linings in clouds, but here is one that I definitely succeeded in finding: my increased solitude gave me more time and mental space for reading.

Here, then, is my list of my favorite books of 2020, arranged alphabetically according to author. These are the books that kept me sane, inspired me, challenged me, and pushed me beyond an already damaged comfort zone. I believe that they should be on everyone’s reading list.

Europe Against the Jews: 1880-1945, by Gotz Aly. “Of making books, there is no end,” said the author of Ecclesiastes. That is certainly true about books about the Shoah. Aly does a wonderful job of presenting “a pre-history of the genocide — understanding how, why, and in what forms anti-Semitism increased in post-1880 Europe.” In particular, pay attention to his assessment of the rise of European nationalisms. Chilling.

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, by Esther Safran Foer. A gripping memoir, by the communal activist and mother of very smart sons (e.g., Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated), about how she made a pilgrimage back to her family’s disappeared shtetl to find the family that hid hers during World War Two.

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, by Micah Goodman, trans. Eylon Levy. One of Israel’s top public intellectuals digs down deeply to uncover the various nuances of Israeli religiosity and secularism. They are not all created equal, he discovers — which not only defines the richness of Israeli Jewish life, but has overwhelming potential for our North American religious lives as well.

Hate Monger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, by Jean Guerrero. How the __________ did a kid, raised and educated in Reform synagogues in California, turn into a man who was the architect of the current administration’s malign agenda? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he broke off childhood friendships when he discovered that those friends were Latinos. Or, is it because he would throw his tray on the floor of his college dining hall, because there were “people there paid to clean it up.” I will so not miss Stephen Miller.

Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, by Moshe Koppel. An elegant description of the religious mindset, as contrasted to the dominant secular mindset of our age. Koppel oversimplifies in some cases, and over-romanticizes in others. But, by and large, this defense of tradition has something to teach us.

The New Jewish Canon: Ideas and Debates 1980-2015, by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin. What defines a canon — of books and ideas? What writings are essential to the Jewish consciousness in modernity? The authors (Yehuda is the president of Shalom Hartman Institute in North America, and a cherished teacher) do an excellent job of navigating through the words that shaped the way Jews think in modernity. An essential book.

The Virus in the Age of Madness, by Bernard-Henri Levy. I never fail to find something interesting in Levy’s writings, and this book does not disappoint. The French thinker takes us on a historical, literary and philosophical journey through the human experience of plague, and now, pandemic. Check out his assessment of his countryman, Levinas, and how the experience of masking ourselves contradicts some of the most basic aspects of human need.

God for Grownups: A Jewish Perspective, by Simeon J. Maslin. Full disclosure: Shim is one of my heroes — a mentor who has been a close personal friend for more than four decades. One of America’s most distinguished rabbis, his mind is ever fertile at the age of 89, as he brings us into a conversation about how rational people can believe in God, and can access God-talk. There is much to learn and cherish in his words, especially two recent sermons given at Boudoin College. Rabbi Maslin is devoted to truth — an idea that dare not become passe.

Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Rachel S. Mikva. Rabbi Mikva, a skilled spiritual leader and perceptive academic (and a good friend) realizes that there are certain aspects of the monotheistic traditions that are, frankly, dangerous. Like fire, religion can warm, or destroy. She calls on faith traditions to name their own “design flaws,” and has some ideas on how religionists can heal them.

This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, by Alden Solovy. Alden has become one of Reform Judaism’s master poet-liturgists, and his most recent volume, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, shows why. There are not many contemporary liturgical poets who will have an audience two centuries from now. I am betting, however, on Alden’s shelf life. A beautiful collection from a beautiful soul.

Thinking About God: Jewish Views, by Rabbi Kari S. Tuling. A talented Reform rabbi has produced a comprehensive outline of contemporary theology — complete with illustrative texts. Just this week, I recommended it to two people who told me that they could not agree with Judaism’s “idea” of God. “Make that ideas,” I said — and read her book.”

Caste: The Lies that Divide Us, by Isabel Wilkerson. Forget the fact that, by sheer dint of alphabetical order, this book appears last on the list. It should be first on the list.

This book is for everyone who demurs when they hear Black Lives Matter: “Don’t all lives matter?” Well, yes — but as Wilkerson shows, for the vast majority of American history, those lives simply didn’t matter.

The vast majority of African-Americans who lived in this land in the first 246 years of what is now the United States lived under the terror of people who had absolute power over their bodies and their very breath, subject to people who faced no sanction for any atrocity they could conjure….

Looking beneath the history of one’s country is like learning that alcoholism or depression runs in one’s family. You don’t ball up in a corner with guilt or shame at these discoveries. In fact, you do the opposite. You educate yourself. Then you take precautions to protect yourself and succeeding generations and work to ensure that these things, whatever they are, don’t happen again.

There you have it — a sufficient number of volumes to fill up your night stand, or coffee table, or stack in the middle of the floor, or on your Kindle.

And, to all my Christian readers, as I am fond of saying to my two dear friends who are Episcopal priests:

“May Christ be born for you this year.”

Which is to say: May hope rise up from the dust.

Stay healthy — and thanks, profoundly, for being my readers.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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