Jewish Lives, the producer of a prize-winning series of biographies, recently put "4 Questions" to preeminent thinkers on the topics of the Jewish past, present and future – and favorite Jewish books. Here are the answers from Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, Melton's Executive Director:
1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?
For the most part, Jews today can opt-in or opt-out of living Jewishly and being part of a community. I've found that many who opt-out have inaccurate assumptions about Judaism based on limited life experiences and so they don't invest the necessary time to explore the richness of contemporary Jewish life or to find a community that could fit who they are or want to become. For those of us who opt-in, this atmosphere constantly reinforces a feeling that being Jewish is something we are continually choosing to do, rather than an integral part of who we are. Unfortunately, it is also easy to slip into a defensive stance about our Jewish beliefs and practices that leads to self-righteousness and tarnishes the goodness of living a Jewish life.
2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?
Three favorites come to mind. The first, is Mesillat Yesharim, a book of mussar literature written by Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in the 18th century – specifically the JPS edition with the contemporary commentary written by Rabbi Ira Stone. Mesillat Yesharim reminds me of my lifelong responsibility to be aware of how I show up in the world and then to make adjustments so that I am more compassionate and generous with others. It is both an aspirational model and a guidebook of how I might become a better human being.
Dara Horn's novel, The World to Come, engaged my imagination into the mystery of being born into my particular life. Many years after reading it, I still treasure her description of each soul, before birth, sitting in a study hall and learning life wisdom from its ancestors. Her fiction brought to life a Jewish idea that I can now picture in full color and internalize on a far deeper level.
And finally, I greatly admire what Steven Greenberg accomplishes in his book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. He worked with a most difficult verse of Torah until it was transformed (or perhaps seen in its truest light) to teach how we must honor and respect one another. What he models has implications far beyond the important topic of his book, it shows how Torah continues to be a Tree of Life.
3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?
I wish I had a crystal ball. I'd like to know where the Jewish community should put its resources today to ensure that in 100 years people have the interest and tools to draw on a Judaism that is relevant to the issues of their time. I certainly have a bias, but it seems to me that investing in adult Jewish learning is a necessity if we want future generations to recognize that Jewish wisdom has something important to offer them and feel inspired to add new layers of understandings.
4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?
I would like to convene a gathering of Herzl, Ahad Ha'am and some other important Zionist thinkers for them to see both the amazing reality of the modern State of Israel and its present-day challenges. I'd like to ask them if and how they might amend their visions given the reality of Israel in 2019.
Jewish Lives is a partnership of Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation. Individual volumes of the biography series illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning is a partner of the Jewish Lives Book Club. Learn more about Jewish Lives and read other responses to the "4 Questions" here.