The Lubavitch branch of Hasidism, known also as Chabad, is the most successful and most controversial movement in American Jewish life. Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, born in 1902, ascended to the leadership after his father-in-law’s death in 1950. From his headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Schneerson developed a ramified network of shluchim (emissaries) across the United States and around the world that has continued to grow even after he died, childless and without a designated successor. Other Jewish groups marvel at and strive to emulate Chabad’s success in reaching the “unsynagogued,” even as they deplore Chabad’s opposition to Jewish religious pluralism, refusal to countenance any Israeli territorial concessions and maintenance of a cult of personality that is literally of messianic proportions.
The distinguished Penguin Classics imprint began in 1946 with a translation of “The Odyssey,” and it has published more than 1,300 titles since, under the motto: “The best books ever written.” The inclusion of a volume of selections from the Talmud in a series of world classics is long overdue, since the Talmud is, in the words of Norman Solomon, editor of this anthology, “the classic text of Judaism, second only to the Bible.” The fact that it was never finally edited, Solomon explains, in no way diminishes its significance, since “Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book,” whose purpose is “to facilitate a discourse in progress” about how to apply Scripture — and hence the will of God — to every aspect of daily life.
There was a time when American Jews of very different ideological perspectives would talk, and listen, to each other.
In the recent speech he delivered in Cairo to the Muslim world, President Obama declared that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” Is the legitimacy of Zionism based primarily on past Jewish suffering? Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb thinks not, and her new book brilliantly elucidates the intellectual origins of a far more positive justification: that Judaism can reach its full potential only in a sovereign Jewish state.
Since the end of World War II, Dana Evan Kaplan argues in “Contemporary American Judaism,” “not only have the style and substance of the activities that we associate with American Judaism changed, but so has the way that American Jews understand their religious identity.” While all Jews, whatever their degree of observance, used to know pretty much what being Jewish was all about, today, in Kaplan’s words, “nothing is for certain and everything is possible.”
This path-breaking work, the product of 15 years of painstaking research, brings to pulsating life the world of pre-war “Lithuanian,” or non-chasidic, Orthodoxy, in particular its yeshivas, which have come to serve as educational models for contemporary Orthodoxy in the United States, Israel and elsewhere around the world. Yet the book has