Off the Shelf: Jewish paths for improving your life

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman 

At first glance, the two books in this review have little in common. After all, one focuses on rational Talmud study, while the other uses a variety of sources to identify miracles. Yet, “How the Talmud Can Change Your Life: Surprisingly Modern Advice from a Very Old Book” by Liel Leibovitz (W. W. Norton and Company) and “Taking Miracles Seriously: a Journey to Everyday Spirituality” by Rabbi Michael Zedek (Sutherland House) are similar in one way: they offer two distinct, but very Jewish, paths to improving one’s life.

It’s difficult to describe “How the Talmud Can Change Your Life” because it’s not a history of the Talmud, although it does offer background on how the Talmud developed. It’s also doesn’t focus on the different divisions of the work and the halachah (legal ruling) they offer, although it does discuss them. For Leibovitz, the most important thing is what it does not offer, which are “facile self-affirmations or treacly simplifications. It can’t be reduced to pithy maxims, like love yourself or be kind or spark joy. No sooner has it raised a piercing question than it proceeds to complicate it further, often leaving readers confounded.” The author sees it as a self-help book that teaches people how to deal with a complex, difficult world and make better real-life decisions. 

Readers looking at the opening of each chapter might be excused for wondering about the author’s approach to his subject. Each chapter opens with a real-life story that doesn’t seem to relate to the Talmud, at least at first. The author then shows how the Talmud can offer lessons relevant to the biographies offered. For example, in a chapter called “Romance in the Dark, or How to Win in Love and Marriage,” Leibovitz tells the sad tale of Billie Holiday and her musician friend, Lester Young. He then segues into the story of Beruriah and her husband, Rabbi Meir, to show how a true marriage is a meeting of different minds. 

In “Our Bodies, Ourselves, or How Having a Snack, Taking a Bath and Pooping Can Save Your Soul,” the biography of Jean Nidtech, the founder of Weight Watchers, leads into a discourse on ancient Egyptian and Greek ideas about the body before offering a discussion concerning the body and soul as explained by several rabbis in the Talmud. The friendship between writers C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien is explored in “Thank You for Being a Friend, or How Fighting Can Bring You Closer,” before the chapter offers talmudic suggestions about the importance of acquiring a friend and exactly what that phrase may be referencing.

Underlying Leibovitz’ discussions is the idea that the Talmud demands those who study to think deeply about the world – that they explore every possibility seriously in order to truly understand the answer to a question. The questions – or rather the process of discussion and reason – often matter more than the answers. The author notes that the Talmud “demands that we question – everything, everyone, always – and that we cobble together whatever answers we’ve collected into the mental mosaic we call the self. And then it demands that we apply this self of ours to navigate our way through life, refusing to succumb to anything, from mass movements to collective delusions to religious fanaticism, that might distract us from the hard and essential task of reading our own life’s story, in real time, with a critical eye.” 

Leibovitz attempts to show how studying the Talmud serves as a way to understand “a world rife with moral and emotional complexities and ambiguities.” It’s not clear that he completely succeeds in this task, although his work is interesting and well written. While it does not serve as a primer for religious talmudic study – since there is little discussion of its ritual and legal implications – it does show the complexity of the Talmud and how it can be used to understand today’s world. “How the Talmud Can Change Your Life” would make an excellent text for a study group looking to explore contemporary life through talmudic eyes. 

While Leibovitz focuses on rational discussion, Zedek appeals to readers’ emotions and spirituality. The author is clear in his purpose: he notes his book “embrace[s] the conviction that there are teachings, stories, suggestions, and actions that can assist us more fully to realize, embrace, and rejoice in the gift of life – more specifically the gift of our lives.” Zedek wants readers to stop and appreciate awesome moments and, even more important, look for them in their daily lives, rather than waiting for something overwhelming to happen before appreciating the beauty that surrounds them. According to the author, this training – taking the time to pause and notice – allows one to appreciate the miraculous in the world that surrounds them daily.

Zedek use biblical stories, prayer and poetry to show how one can better appreciate the miracles he sees as hidden in plain sight. He tries to demystify the miracles in the Bible by not demanding that his readers take them literally, but, rather, to see the meaning underlying them. For example, when writing about Moses and the burning bush, he says, “I do not believe that bushes talk – in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or English. But I do think we may hear ourselves addressed and experience a sacred dimension in a multitude of encounters, be they with persons, moments, arts, and the environment. In fact. I would argue such is possible with all things and in all experiences.” 

Zedek notes that the difficulty one faces when trying to appreciate daily miracles is that words are usually inadequate when it comes to describing them. However, the author is less interested in what actually happens than in people’s reactions – their responses – to what occurred. To help readers on their path, he offers questions to ponder at the end of each chapter, which give additional ways to ponder what was discussed. For Zedek, this will help readers with what he sees as their life task: “to bring a spiritual dimension into our lives and, then, to share that presence and its consequence with others.” The purpose of his work is to help readers live “a meaning-filled life.” 

In addition to Zedek’s discussions of the topic, “Taking Miracles Seriously” offers prayers and poetry to inspire its readers. The book is hard to summarize because it appeals to readers’ emotions, but those searching to add a spiritual dimension to their lives can find a Jewish path to spirituality in its pages. It would also be an excellent guide for study groups that are interested in exploring spirituality.