Commentary Magazine

Some Recent Jewish Books

Karaites in Byzantium,
by Zvi Ankori
(Columbia University Press and Weizmann Science Press of Israel, 546 pp., $10.00).

Karaism, an anti-talmudic and anti-rabbinic movement, arose among the Jews of Babylonia more than a thousand years ago and flourished there, in Palestine, and in Egypt for a few centuries. Karaite scholarship is unusually demanding even for the Wissenschaft des Judentums, because besides the normal mastery of rabbinic literature, it requires a close knowledge of Arabic, medieval Near Eastern history, and Muslim theology and sectarianism, among other things. For this impressive work, the first volume in a series that will cover the history of Karaism in Europe to our days, the author had to be a good deal of a Byzantinist too. The different stages of what was later to receive the unitary name of Karaism, the Jewishness of the Karaites, and the attraction and repulsion between Karaites and Rabbanites come through clearly.



Reform Responsa,
by Solomon B. Freehof
(Hebrew Union College Press, 226 pp., $6.00).

Responsa is Latin for teshuvot, the answers given by rabbinical authorities to knotty questions of law, usually submitted by other rabbis. Since Reform rejects the continued validity of Jewish law, the questions here are about the “spirit” of the law, and the answers are advisory, not decisive, though based on an impressive mastery of the traditional legal literature. For historians, even if they are uninterested in legal matters, responsa are useful as throwing incidental light on social and economic history. From this book a future historian may learn much about American Jewry in the 20th century—rabbis solemnizing marriages between Gentiles, Gentile bridesmaids, Jewish burials in Christian cemeteries, communal mausoleums replacing individual graves and cremation replacing burial, naming a congregation, and the like.



A Modern Treasury of Jewish Thoughts,
by Sidney Greenberg
(Hebrew Union College Press, 226 pp., $6.00).

A genre unknown to the critics but of some importance to publishers is the Bar Mitzvah book, of which this Treasury is a good example. It will be bought, presented, and not read. If read, it will be found to contain testimonials to Judaism and exhortations to Jewish fidelity. Platitudes and pearls of rhetoric all but choke off the good things, and temple bulletins are cited as readily as Maimonides.



The Story of David Ben-Gurion,
by Barnet Litvinoff
(Vallentine, Mitchell, 160 pp., 12s. 6d.).

A juvenile. At best, a biography of a living man is a tricky thing to manage, but this comes close to hero worship. What is more, while no one could hope to succeed fully in explaining to children the political and ideological bases of Zionism and the course of European history in the 20th century, this book oversimplifies probably even more than necessary. A pity, because Litvinoff is an able writer, and England is where this kind of thing is done well.



Great Jewish Personalities in Ancient and Medieval Times,
by Simon Noveck
(The B’nai B’rith Great Books Series; Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 351 pp., $4.95).

A biographical approach to a history of Jewish thought. Adult educators may find in it useful supplementary readings for, say, a course based on Hadassah’s Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, edited by Leo Schwarz. The first of the twelve chapters is about Moses and the last about Elijah Gaon of Vilna (since for Jews the Middle Ages lasted to the 18th century and beyond) . The best are Harry Orlinsky’s Moses, Edwin R. Goodenough’s Philo, Louis Finkelstein’s Akiva, Salo Baron’s Maimonides.



The Guide to Israel,
by Zev Vilnay
(enlarged and revised edition, World Publishing Company, 576 pp., $5.00).

An excellent, thorough Baedeker for Israel, with information both about synagogues, churches, and mosques and about hotels, electricity, and road signs. Profusely illustrated; many apposite quotations from the Bible and classical authors; strong on archaeology.



Giants of Justice,
by Albert Vorspan
(Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 260 pp., $3.75).

Fourteen brief biographies of American Jews, or Jews who have lived in America (Einstein, Dubinsky, Louis Marshall, Stephen Wise, etc.), to illustrate the ethno-ethico-psychobiological proposition that “the desire to build a better world has sunk deep into the chromosomes, the bones, the blood, the memory, and the soul of the Jew”—defined as “a many-splendored thing. He defies category.”

The biographies themselves are unsatisfactory. For instance, Henry Cohen, “the man who stayed in Texas,” was a young Orthodox rabbi from England when he became a Reform rabbi here. Why did he change? Did he have a crisis of conscience? He was famous for his good deeds in Galveston and Texas generally. How was he on race relations and the notorious vice and corruption in his city? The questions are not even asked, let alone answered. The book seems to be intended principally for members of the social-justice committees of Reform synagogues. They deserve better.



Jews in Colonial Brazil,
by Arnold Wiznitzer
(Columbia University Press, 227 pp., $7.00).

A solid, useful, and original work on the pre-history of the handful of Jews who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654 and of the larger number who earlier had established rather more important communities in the West Indies. It is about Marranos, the Inquisition, and war in Brazil between Protestant Holland and Catholic Portugal.

—Milton Himmelfarb



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