I know I’m probably stretching the meaning of ‘seforim’ just a little bit, but I’m taking it to mean any book with Jewish / religious content. It’s a matter of necessity, as the number of ‘traditional’ seforim I’ve read can probably be counted on a couple of hands.
While I love books about Judaism, and I read them voraciously, I just don’t think that my mind is geared towards volumes about measuring what a k’zayos of oreo cookies looks like, or in-depth halachic discussion.
Though I may be stereotyping, I leave that stuff to my husband. And instead, I read books like: Off the Derech and The Science of G-d. These two had a profound affect on me for different reasons.
Off the Derech explores many of the reasons why people leave the faith. It’s a long book, but the main explanation – or at least, my reading of it – is that most people stop being observant because of emotional reasons. Yes, there are a small minority who have difficulties with ‘accepting’ the validity of the Torah, but most leavers come off the derech because they weren’t treated very nicely by people who claimed to be observant.
This really made me sit up and think, particularly in relation to my kids. And it sparked off a real effort in our house to explain the clear separation between ‘looking religious’ and ‘acting religious’ to my five and three year old.
If Off the Derech had a big impact on my parenting, The Science of G-d had an enormous impact, intellectually. Hard as we try to stay above the debate about ‘Creationism’ vs ‘Evolution’, it can be very difficult for a secularly educated, torah-observant Jew to be comfortable about the apparent and fundamental disagreement between science and theology about how our universe began, and then continued.
In ‘educated’ circles, I’d feel ridiculous claiming the world really was created in seven days, for example. In ‘religious’ circles, I’d feel like a semi-apostate for thinking anything else. Then along came Gerald Schroeder, and in a neat, little black volume he happily resolved all these dilemmas. Not everyone agrees with his findings – but then, not everyone has to.
He has a number of incredibly lucid and well-researched arguments which means that if I want to believe in the Genesis version of creation – and I really do – then I no longer have to check my rationality at the door. Schroeder’s book demonstrated that there is no contradiction between science’s account of creation, and our torah.
As well as resolving my personal doubts about the story of creation, it also taught me a very important lesson: if there is a disagreement between what science says and what the torah says, you can bet your bottom dollar that the torah is right.
For millennia, received wisdom was that the universe has always just been here. Jews had to wait 3,250 years for the Big Bang theory to come along and prove that they actually knew what they were talking about.
There are still many, many areas where science disagrees with Jewish theology, but they no longer worry me. Sooner or later the full facts will come out, and there will be more ‘told you so’ moments.
The last sefer is a proper one: Michtav M’Eliyahu, by Rabbi Dessler. The book contains so much that it’s hard to know which parts to highlight. Certainly, the sections on understanding that everything comes from Hashem had a big impact on me. It’s hard to properly motivate yourself when you really grasp that everything does indeed come from Hashem, regardless of our efforts. Finding the right balance between hishtadlut and hisbodedut has been an ongoing effort ever since.
Also, just understanding the level of middot we have to strive to hold ourselves to made me stop being so complacent.
It’s often said that it’s a sign of a good book when you can’t put it down. For me, these three books achieved even more than that: they fundamentally changed my understanding and appreciation of yiddishkeit, and along they way, they also inspired me to try and shorten the gap between what the Torah says, and what I often do.