RJ Summer 2000

Significant Jewish Books

by Bonny V. Fetterman

Our Significant Jewish Books column, inspired by UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie's Reform Movement Literacy Initiative, challenges all Reform Jews to read at least four books of Jewish substance a year. In each issue we are recommending two titles representing the best of Jewish literature, both fiction and nonfiction, selected in cooperation with the UAHC Department of Adult Jewish Growth.

It is our hope that you will read at least one of these selections on your own or with others in a synagogue study or book group. Connect with thousands of other Significant Jewish Books readers by accessing the Adult Jewish Growth website, where you'll find a discussion guide, the criteria and process for the Significant Jewish Books selection, and more.

Denying the Holocaust
The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory
by Deborah Lipstadt

Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's leading writers, has written a modern novel that reads like a medieval fable. Every summer around the Fast of Av, Ben Attar, a Moroccan Jewish merchant, and his Muslim partner, Abu Lutfi, would wait for their third partner, Ben Attar's nephew, Raphael Abulafia, at an inn on the Bay of Barcelona. Abulafia, "who had years before abandoned the sun and sea of North Africa in favor of the loneliness and backwardness of Christendom," would take his partners' southern merchandise and sell it in the northern parts of Europe.

This lucrative business is threatened when Abulafia marries a Frankish Jew from one of the newer Ashkenazic communities on the Rhine. His new wife, Esther-Minna, objects to Ben Attar's marriage to two wives, a practice allowed both by Islamic law and the Talmud. Ben Attar, together with his two wives, his Islamic partner, and a rabbi from Seville, makes the hazardous trip from Tangier to Paris to overturn Esther-Minna's repudiation of him and restore the thriving partnership with his nephew. The multi-layered story of Ben Attar's journey is at once geographical and existential, as Ben Attar, the middle-aged family patriarch, explores his dreams of love and fears of death in defending the fragile happiness of his household.

The rumblings of history echo in the background of this tense tale. Set in the year 999 of the Common Era, Ben Attar and his entourage encounter the growing anxiety and religious fervor among Christians in the year preceding the first millennium as well as the increasingly gloomy piety of the European Jews. Along the way, the travelers meet an apostate Jew who confides his fears for the Jews when the "Second Coming" fails to come. In the names of the towns they pass -- Metz, Speyer, Worms -- readers will recognize the names of Jewish communities slaughtered by crusading mobs in 1096.

Yehoshua vividly recreates the emerging divisions between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Historically, polygyny (marriage to more than one wife) was prohibited around this time by Rabbeinu Gershom Me'or Ha-Golah ("Light of the Exile"), (960-1028), whose ruling was accepted by most of European Jewry. Although polygyny was probably rarely practiced in Europe, Ashkenazic Jews living in the midst of a Christian culture were embarrassed by its presence in talmudic law.

But more than polygyny was at stake here. The new Frankish communities of Jews were independent and self-governing, extremely proud of issuing their own regulations (takkanot) and enforcing them with the ban of excommunication (herem). The adversaries in this novel already experience conflict over whether to use the Sephardic siddur of Saadia Gaon or the abbreviated Ashkenazic rite of Amram Gaon and no longer share a language other than a rusty and archaic Hebrew. The Jews of Christian Europe and the Jews of Islamic lands have begun to go their separate ways, as we see in the rending of Ben Attar's family.


It was on account of the rumors that had been flooding Andalus and the Maghreb this last year, about a new fanaticism spreading through the Christian principalities and kingdoms, that the Jewish merchant and his Arab partner Abu Lutfi had decided to minimize their travels by land, so as not to endanger themselves and their merchandise by journeying among hamlets, villages, estates, and monasteries swarming with Christians who were feverishly yearning for their wounded Messiah to descend from heaven to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of his birth but who still feared that that moment would be a day of reckoning for accumulated sins, particularly for the stiff-necked Jews and Muslims who walked freely and calmly in their midst, not believing in the crucified godhead nor expecting any salvation from it. And so, in these twilight days, as faiths were sharpened in the join between one millennium and the next, it was preferable to restrict encounters with adherents of another faith and to be content, at least for the greater part of the way, to travel by sea, for the sea, which can reveal itself at times to be capricious and cruel, owes no obligation to what is beyond its reach. Instead of heading east through the Straits of Gibraltar and sailing northward along the Mediterranean coast to the mouth of the Rhone, and then going up that great river swarming with local craft, and thence seeking the distant harbor town along ruined roads thronged with zealots in search of sacrificial victims, they had decided to hearken to the counsel of an ancient, much-traveled mariner. This man, Abd el-Shafi by name, whose great-grandfather had been taken captive during one of the last Viking raids on Andalus and had been compelled to accompany his captors for many long years upon the seas and rivers of Europe, had brought them two old maps painted on parchment, with green seas and yellow continents abounding in red bays and blue rivers on which one could travel almost anywhere. On close scrutiny the two maps were slightly different -- for instance, the land of the Scots appeared on one but was missing from the other, its place being occupied by sea -- but both maps agreed as to the existence of a winding northern river, although they called it by slightly different names, which would enable the North African traders to sail, without their feet touching dry land, from the harbor of Tangier all the way to the distant town of Paris, to which a year previously their third partner, Raphael Abulafia, had withdrawn himself.

From A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A. B. Yehoshua, copyright (c) 1998 by A. B. Yehoshua. English translation copyright (c) 1999 by Nicholas De Lange. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Jewish Meditation
A Practical Guide

Edited by Aryeh Kaplan

From the late sixties, when the Beatles started meditating with a guru from India, to the present day, when meditation is used in medical settings such as pain and stress reduction clinics, the practice of meditation has clearly gained a foothold in American culture.

Yet, meditation is more than a tool for emotional and physical health; most meditational practices were originally tied to religious traditions with the goal of deepening spiritual insight and consciousness. Judaism also has a meditative tradition, but it is frequently overlooked by contemporary Jews seeking spirituality.

Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan was one of the first books to present a practical guide to Jewish meditative practices. Many of its techniques -- mantra meditation, visualization, contemplation, and experiencing "nothingness" -- will sound familiar to practitioners of other forms of meditation, but the exercises differ as well as the goals. The purpose of Jewish meditation, according to Rabbi Kaplan, is to draw closer to God.

Meditation, he writes, was always part of mainstream Judaism, and parts of the worship service were most likely conceived as meditational exercises. In addition to more usual forms of meditation, Rabbi Kaplan describes using the Amidah and the Shema as meditations. He also describes ways of bringing God-consciousness into our practice of rituals and commandments, of developing a fixed practice of "conversing with God," of improving our personal and ethical habits, and even expressing our sexuality. The simple and modest tone of this spirituality classic underscores its powerful message: that a personal and intimate experience of God is possible, and that the "spiritual highs" of other traditions are also abundantly available in Judaism.

Rabbi Kaplan died in 1983 at the age of 48, two years before Jewish Meditation was published. An Orthodox rabbi from a Sephardic background, he also held a masters in physics. In addition to his studies of mysticism and meditation and his translation of the Sephardic Torah commentary, Me'am Lo'ez, Rabbi Kaplan is remembered as a great teacher and one of the most influential voices in the current resurgence of Jewish spirituality.


People are often surprised to hear the term "Jewish meditation." Otherwise knowledgeable Jews, including many rabbis and scholars, are not aware that such a thing exists. When shown texts that describe Jewish meditation, they respond that it belongs to esoteric or occult corners of Judaism and has little to do with mainstream Judaism.

It is therefore not surprising that many current books on meditation give scant attention to Judaism. Although most writers seem to be aware that mystical elements exist in Judaism, their discussion is usually restricted to the Kabbalah or the Chasidic masters. Most books on meditation emphasize Eastern practices, and in some instances Christian meditation, but Jewish meditation is for all practical purposes ignored.

For students of meditation, this is a serious oversight. Judaism produced one of the more important systems of meditation, and ignoring it is bound to make any study incomplete. Furthermore, since Judaism is an Eastern religion that migrated to the West, its meditative practices may well be those most relevant to Western man. Without a knowledge of Jewish meditative practices, an important link between East and West is lost. This omission is all the more significant in light of considerable evidence that the Jewish mystical masters had dialogue with the Sufi masters and were also aware of the schools of India.

For the Jew, however, the lacuna is most serious. Jews are by nature a spiritual people, and many Jews actively seek spiritual meaning in life, often on a mystical level. Generations ago, large numbers of Jews were attracted to the mystical traditions of groups such as the Freemasons. Today, many American Jews have become involved in Eastern religions. It is estimated that as many as 75 percent of the devotees in some ashrams are Jewish, and large percentages follow disciplines such as Transcendental Meditation.

When I speak to these Jews and ask them why they are exploring other religions instead of their own, they answer that they know of nothing deep or spiritually satisfying in Judaism. When I tell them there is a strong tradition of meditation and mysticism, not only in Judaism, but in mainstream Judaism, they look at me askance. Until Jews become aware of the spiritual richness of their own tradition, it is understandable that they will search in other pastures.

Excerpt from Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan. Copyright (c) 1985 by Schocken Books, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


Bonny V. Fetterman is the literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

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