By Rabbi Johnny Solomon
Just over twenty years ago, Rabbi Nachum Amsel wrote his brilliant The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Aronson, 1994) which contained seventy one essays that addressed a wide variety of topics such as ‘Hate and Revenge’, ‘Inciting Others to Sin’ and ‘Triage: Priorities in Allocating Resources’. As someone who has consulted this work on countless occasions, I can say little else than it is a brilliant work by a brilliant author who has a unique blend of depth of understanding, human sensitivity and clarity of expression.
This year saw the publication of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values (Urim, 2015) which contains 39 essays on a wide range of issues (nb. according to Rabbi Amsel, it is hoped that The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values will be the first of a 4 volume series which, together, will cover ‘the entire gamut of Jewish values’). While some of the essays in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values are revised versions of previous essays, many are new to this volume, and like its predecessor, this work includes an appendix with all the Hebrew sources cited in each of the essays.
In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values you will find essays addressing topics such as ‘Judging Favourably in Judaism’, ‘Self-Esteem in Judaism’ and ‘Tolerance and Intolerance in Judaism’. However, what is particularly noteworthy are the new topics that Rabbi Amsel addresses in this volume which point to a variety of changes in the world in general, and the Jewish community in particular. For example, in response to the technological advances over the past twenty years, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values contains essays on the ‘Cloning of Human Beings’, ‘Conceiving to Abort for Stem Cells and Other Stem Cell Issues’ and ‘Downloading Films and Songs, Copying Software: Copyright in Judaism’. In response to the many shootings in schools in the US, Rabbi Amsel has included an essay on ‘Gun Control – The Jewish View’. Perhaps due to the increased interest in alternative medicine, the first essay in this volume explores ‘Alternative Medicine in Judaism’, and while having previously addressed aspects of homosexuality in his earlier volume, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values includes an essay on ‘Homosexuality and Homosexuals in Traditional Judaism’. However, what is particularly valuable is the fact that Rabbi Amsel addresses topics which still remain taboo in some parts of the community. These include an essay discussing the response to sexual abuse of children in the community, an examination of whether respect should be shown to a leader that has sinned, and a further essay which reflects on scandals in the Jewish community with specific reference to the Madoff scandal.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values is a beautifully crafted and succinctly written work which will be taking pride of place on my bookshelves, and I cannot wait to read the next volume in the series!
This review originally appeared in Rabbi Johnny Solomon’s newsletter.