Introduction to Judaism Books – Are There Any Must Reads?

Many of us have shelves lined with Introduction to Judaism books, but I’m not sure there are any books that stand out as clear must reads. Many of the books out there are encyclopedic and many seem more geared to the BT already on his way.

Have you found any books that you would say are must reads?

If not, what would a must read book look like in terms of content, length and tone?

39 comments on “Introduction to Judaism Books – Are There Any Must Reads?

  1. I know this is an old thread but I want to say that Phyllis is over thinking it. The Midrash Says may have a very traditional editorial viewpoint in the notes but very few of the comments should offend even a beginner who understands where the writer is coming from.
    But what I really question is saying that the book should be read by FFB and not BT. Wow. I’m beginning to think that Division is the Jew’s genetic marker. We could find a way to divide anything or anyone. A book can be seen as divisive so let’s divide up the potential readership into should and shouldn’t.

  2. I have just finished Dr Lisa Aiken’s The BT Survival Guide, which I would highly recommend to any BT or anyone concerned about Kiruv and the emotional and pyschological issues and dynamics with family, friends, employers, etc that BTs face. I consider this book must reading for BTs, rabbonim, kiruv professionals and FFBs who simply have neither comprehension nor an understanding of the obstacles, external and internal, that BTs face to finding and becoming part of the Torah observant world. I also found that Dr. Aiken was able to demonstrate that there are many roads to becoming a BT and that works for one person may be totally anathema to someone else. It is a fascinating and compelling read, which includes a wonderful list of yeshivos, seminaries and websites.

  3. For chassidic insights into shmiras haloshon, read “The Power of Speech” by Yehuda Cahn.

  4. Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh – I will build a sanctuary in my heart. An asbolute must read for any religious Jew; it essentially helps you put G-d in the equation, so to speak. i.e. to live with Him and have meaning in your mitzvot.

  5. A book such as “This is my G-d,” even if it has sections that don’t pass muster according to some opinions, certainly provides an inspirational account of movement in the right direction.

  6. I was browsing through a copy of This is My God the other day and saw some things that seem to fall outside the Orthodox viewpoint.

  7. One book, I would add, and I have not seen yet, would be Wholly Life, by Dr. Moshe Kaplan. It is a serious of essays about how to integrate the spiritual with various aspects of the physical world, like our intellect, science and whatnot. A great, and short read that will make you think and want to learn more. Other books, that have already been mentioned would be Masterplan, and This Is My God.

  8. And just to clarify the abbreviations I used: FFB = frum from birth, born into an observant family; BT = baal(at) tshuva, someone who was not previously observant but became observant.

  9. I just want to say one thing about “The Midrash Says.” It is an excellent set of books and I love reading it – BUT – if a beginner reads it, there are things in there that can really put them off (and, I have to confess, they sometimes put me off). The authors assume that everyone has the yeshivish (religious-oriented) viewpoint that they do, and so they often moralize and fulminate in a way that could seem outlandish and even offensive to a beginner searching for answers. Again, it may just be me, but I find the tone of some of their comments (especially in footnotes) somewhat self-righteous at times. So I think someone who is just starting on the road may have problems with that, too.

    Please, anyone, feel free to reprove me if you think I am wrong! And again, I don’t mean, G-d forbid, to disparage the people who put together that magnificent set of books. It’s just that I think that particular series is more for people who are solid in their observance – maybe even FFBs more than BTs.

  10. while we are bringing out the wish list – how about a book on holidays exclusively that is approachable, not too scholarly, and isn’t in dummies format?

    maybe you think such a thing already exists, but it doesn’t. most books cover holidays in brief as part of a larger work. book of our heritage is way too long and detailed for most casual browsers. shimon apisdorf tried it but many are turned off by the cutsey dummies approach and won’t go there.

    pretty big hole, given the fact that many, many people seek entry into understanding more about their heritage with a better understanding of just why it is that they go to a seder every year, etc…

    Iggeres HaRamban

    A must read for anyone who wants to know how to be a true menntch!

  12. The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov. I prefer the old translation by my Rebbe Rav Nachman Bulman Z”tzl A good read for everybody Kitov brings out the depth and beauty and inner significance of the yearly cycle of Holidays and other special days ( be they ones of joy or mourning ).

  13. What about Pirkei Avos with Hirsch’s commentary. Short, sweet and to the point.

  14. Ron, Spirituality is that relates to the spiritual realm. Spiritual is by definition that which is not physical and can not be measured by physical means.

    Examples of spiritual entities are G-d, the human soul, the prophetic experience.

  15. When it comes down to it, there is no one so-called “beginner’s book” or “Judaism for Idiots” that covers all the bases. I would suggest that one of the keys is textual literacy and understanding the concepts presented in Chumash with Rashi and Ramban, the Siddur, Machzor for the Yamim Noraim and Shalosh Regalim, the Hagadah, and then some of the works cited above on Pirkei Avos. At some point, one has to realize that TSBP is the source for the Jewish view on what is a legitimate source of “spirituality” and what is alien to our Mesorah. I just don’t see a short cut around the fact that TSBP defines how we spend our time, speak, place effort on our relationships and how we treat our fellow human beings. Relying on English translations is great to a point, but IMO cannot be seen as a substitute for wrestling with the meaning of the text.

  16. With specific reference to Mark’s comment at 18:14, what about R’ Carmell’s ?

  17. I still think we desperately need a book that will explain the basic concepts, goals and means to reach those goals of Judaism.

    I think it needs to present a coherent case for Judaism but not with a proofs approach, but rather with an explanation of spirituality and how Judaism addresses the physical / spiritual make up of man.

    Different books for different people is true at some level, but at the end of the day we don’t have a first book that we can generally recommend and that people will read that explains Judaism to the uninformed (and the partially informed). I think it’s amazing and extremely unfortunate that such a book does not exist.

    Perhaps we could collectively come up with an outline of such a book. Or perhaps we need to get the 500 word “What is Torah Judaism?” essay down first.

  18. Oh, I forgot the Silverman Chumash Rashi series, as well as the other Chumash Rashi series (tall blue books). I would not recommend Soncino Talmud, its Nach series, of the Blackman Mishnayos for a beginning learner.

  19. The JEP series. I would second and third The Midrash Says. The Metsudah Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. I also taught myself how to understand original hebrew texts with Professor Monsoon’s Biblical Grammer series. At least, I believe his name is Monsoon (like Gorilla Monsoon of WWF fame). Also, HaYesod from Feldheim. Artscroll Siddur. Rabbi Donin’s book is great as well.

  20. “I don’t actually think there could or should be one book above all others. even when people are at the first exploratory stage, there are personal difefrences that would sway person A to a certain book and person B to another.”

    I agree with that wholeheartedly.

    I also think that If You Were God is excellent, it is clear, short and to the point.

  21. Parents and prospective parents in particular should get and look at The Midrash Says, yes. Particularly if you can’t get up to speed with Chumash and Rashi as Bob prescribes, it’s a great way to become familiar with the basic understanding of Chumash with which your children will come home. I was surprised to observe that the children are taught the standard midrashim on Chumash, and typically those are the ones Rashi cites, utterly integrated with the peshuto shel mikra [literal understanding of the words].

  22. My list of recommended books for new Baalei Teshuvah (not listed in any order):

    * All the books of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, except for his books about Kaballah. For intellectually oriented Baalei Teshuvah, THE HANDBOOK OF JEWISH THOUGHT.

    * All the books of Rabbi Zelign Pliskin, especially LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and GUARD YOUR TONGUE.

    * The Metsudah Weekday Siddur, The Metsudah Shabbat Siddur, The Metsudah Chumash / Rashi, The Metsudah Tehillim.

    * For men, the ArtScroll Mishnah, tractates Berachot, Taanit and Megillah, and later the ArtScroll Talmud for those tractates.

    * Last but not least, a warning that Torah books should not be read just one or two times; eac book should be read many times. I read THE MIDEASH SAYS about 25 times, and it was time wisely spent.

  23. It had to be me. Nothing in our world happens a random.

    In a way I was challenging the query itself.

  24. Gosh, Bob, there’s always somebody, but did it have to be you? That really was not the nature of the query!

    Although they may not fit the hashkofah [religious-philosophical outlook] of the moment for everyone, and that may include myself, back in the day I found Rabbi Donin’s To Be a Jew and Adin Steinsaltz’s Teshuva to be, respectively, a trusty, sober guide to the transition and a profound source of guidance and chizuk [strength and support].

  25. I think that Ramchal’s Derech Hashem (“The Way of G-d”) from Feldheim with Aryeh Kaplan’s notes is a must-read.

    I have also given to many interested immigrant professional folks in Russian (“Put’ Tvort-a”) and it has been very well received.

    I think that the (deceptively) simple language and systematic approach really appeal to those who have learned in secular schools.

  26. Chumash with Rashi. There are several editions that include ordinary Hebrew type with vowels for the Rashi, and English translations of the text and Rashi.

    Every week has a parasha, and every parasha has 7 aliyot, so a daily program is easy to do.

    Without this “bread and butter” learning, the more conceptually oriented presentations in the other suggested books won’t work as well as they should.

  27. How about The Nineteen Letters of RSRH, especially the first edition translated into English, as opposed to R Elias version?

  28. The Road Back (sited above)
    Ethics From Sinai (sited above)
    If You Were God (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan) and pretty much any OU/NCSY publication by R Kaplan
    The Nineteen Letters (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
    The Committed Life (Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis)
    Fundamentals and Faith (Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg)
    Judaism in a Nutshell: God (Shimon Apisdorf)
    The Universal Jew (Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen)

  29. i don’t actually think there could or should be one book above all others. even when people are at the first exploratory stage, there are personal difefrences that would sway person A to a certain book and person B to another.

    there are philosophical types, who want to get into deep intellectual things so they can relate. the books above would suit them best – add to the collection living inspired by Rabbi Akiva Tatz and many things by Aryeh Kaplan.

    there are people who primarily connect through the heart and they seem to appreciate most something like Growth Through Torah by Zelig Pliskin, or Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day, or Climbing Jacob’s Ladder by Alan Morinis.

    Some people are looking for straightforward, tell-me-what-Jews do-and-why types of books, and they do well with Gateway To Judaism by Rabbi Mordechai Becher, Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Mordechai Katz, and, if they don’t mind the cutesy tone and dummies format, Shimon Apisdorf’s books (High Holiday Crash course etc).

    i think the common denominator among them all that can make things work is that the book have a tone that is respectful to the reader, which does not assume that the reader knows a whole lot or is neccessarily ready to keep it all.

    another great classic i feel should be re-discovered is Irving Bunim’s masterful Ethics From Sinai. it was written for kiruv and is entirely appropriate for newcomers, presents ideas in a polished and sophisticated way and offers a tantalizing taste of teh wealth of Torah scholarship. don’t let the dust on this old set (which, by the way, has been reprinted)fool you – it’s timeless.

    many of our great english books have one problem that makes it a challenge for a newcomer: the book wasn’t meant for him and may actually put him off instead of drawing him close. example of this would be Rabbi Heshy Kleinman’s beautiful masterpiece – Praying With Fire – which, right there in Day One of the program, tells the reader that a very holy source says anyone who doesn’t cry out to Hashem in prayer when they are in need is an apikores (apostate)…of course, this does not mean to condemn someone who was never educated to believe in G-d or to pray – but does the reader automatically just know that, or will he feel horribly alienated?…

    i think there should be a movement afoot to translate many Artscroll books and make them kiruv-friendly.

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