Review of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values

By Rabbi Ari EnkinEncyclopediaofJewishValues9789655241631

Nachum Amsel has done it again. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values presents over forty exciting and pressing issues of the day where clarity from a Jewish perspective is so urgently needed and sought. Some of the topics include: Alternative Medicine, Birthdays, Capital Punishment, Competition, Gun Control, Homosexuality, Music, the Land of Israel, Ransoming Hostages, Leaders who Sin, and much, much more.

The chapter on “Sports” was exceptionally interesting, and frankly, fun to read. There are many halachic issues relevant to sports, such as a variety of Shabbat related laws, and responsibility for damage and injury incurred in the course of sports. Readers will learn about sports in Judaism throughout the ages, right from the Biblical (with examples in Job, Zacharia, and Lamentations, no less!) and the Talmudic (Kohanic altar races, among other creative games and sports). The chapter also includes a brief review of famous Jewish baseball players in Unites States history.

Some of our greatest sages encourages sports and exercise and even engaged in it themselves. For example, The Chafetz Chaim advises walking and swimming, as does Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzkly, a swimmer himself. Rav Avraham Kook writes that a healthy body is as important as a healthy spirit. Rabbi Shlomo Goren did fifty push-ups daily. As you can see, there is much Jewish value to be found in sports (not to be confused with sitting in front of a television set with beer and pretzels and watching a football game). Here are some excerpts from that chapter:

In discussing the activities forbidden on Shabbat but permitted during the rest of the week, the Mishna declares that one of these activities is wrestling on the ground or (as described by some commentaries) mudwrestling! Apparently, this was a commonly practiced sport in Mishnaic times

In the thirteenth century, a question of Jewish law was presented to Tzadok ben Aryeh the Doctor. He was asked about carrying a leather ball on Shabbat, a ball filled with hair or a ball made of wood, and whether these could be used to play sport on Shabbat, which he forbade. Thus, we see that Jews were also actively playing ball sports in The Middle Ages.

The Tosafot commentary, mentions that in his time (France and Germany in The Middle Ages) it was the custom at Jewish weddings for the friends of the groom to engage in jousting contests while riding on horses! This was done in order to fulfill the obligation to make the groom and bride happy at their wedding. In comparison, some of the outrageous activities and wild performances seen at some religious Jewish weddings today (for the same purpose) actually seem very mild.

On to another topic. Amsel is not scared to tackle Homosexuality. Take for example this honest, and possibly uncomfortable, historical/halachic excerpt from rabbinic sources:

Maimonides, who lived in the 12th century, also ruled like the majority opinion in the Talmud — i.e., that Jewish males were not suspected of homosexual behavior (or bestiality). He does add, however, that those Jews who do refrain from being alone with a man or an animal are to be praised. Thus, in Spain and in Egypt of the 12th century, homosexual activity was still not a prevalent activity found among the Jews. However, this norm seems to have changed in the time of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch. He first quotes Maimonides word for word, but then adds that as in “these” [his] times there is great licentiousness, two men should not be alone together (or sleep in the same bed)”.

We see from these words two important concepts. First, that in the 16th century in the Land of Israel, there seemed to be substantial homosexual activity among Jews. Second, Jewish law recognizes that homosexuality is a function of individual societies, and it responds to this societal change with changes in Jewish law.

However, two centuries later, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Sirkis (Bach) writes that he does not understand these words of the Shulchan Aruch because he cannot find any homosexual activity in his community. Therefore, he does not agree with (or apply) this particular Jewish law to his community, and permits two males to be alone together

There is much more on homosexuality that is presented in a clear and balanced manner complete with halachic, historical, and medical discussions.

Finally, the chapter on lying is exceptionally thought provoking. It begins with the importance of telling the truth followed by a slew of examples in Torah literature where lying is acceptable from the perspective of halacha. As Rabbi Eliezer of Metz in the 1100’s writes that “any lie where no harm will come as a result is not forbidden in Judaism.” It is the slippery slope of “the end justifies the means.” Even when lying is permitted, however, it doesn’t mean that we are required to take advantage of the “heter!” Indeed, I urge tremendous caution to anyone who wishes to lie even when technically permitted. If you are caught in your lies –although you may have committed no sin—your word and credibility will be irreparably, possibly permanently damaged. Yes, you can lose your credibility all within the confines of halacha. Remember: just because halacha allows it, it doesn’t mean we have to do it!

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values is a perfect example of worthwhile, quality scholarship that is accessible to anyone regardless of their background or level of learning. Each entry presents the historical, philosophical, scientific, biblical, Talmudic, and halachic perspective of the subject making for a very thorough and competent presentation. Of tremendous value to advanced readers is the latter half of the book which presents all the sources cited throughout the text in their full Hebrew original, organized clearly chapter by chapter. For educators, this is priceless: instant source sheets in preparation for a shiur or lecture on one of the many fascinating topics in the book!

The author tells us that this volume will be the first of several which is sure to make the complete Encyclopedia of Jewish Values an authority and treasury on Jewish thought for both scholars and laymen.

This review originally appears on Torah Book Review

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