By Linda F. Burghardt
How do we figure out how to live a good and just life? How do we set our moral compass so that it points us in the right direction? How do we develop an ethical code that helps us make our day-to-day decisions?
Nachum Amsel, a rabbi and educator, is convinced that people are searching for answers to these questions now more than ever before. His response is this book, a volume that contains a thorough explanation of Jewish values—moral principles which he says are God-given and not subject to change even though each generation may see the world through new eyes.
Rabbi Amsel sees Judaism not only as a religion, but also as a way of life, and thus his book goes far beyond traditional rituals to encompass every action of our lives. He believes that all our decisions and the behavior that results from them, even eating and sleeping, can be done in a Jewish way—that is, with a moral purpose that conforms to the timeless ethical precepts of Judaism.
He makes the point that he is not concerned with Jewish law, over which there have always been many disputes, nor Jewish thought, in which there are multiple viewpoints and divergent customs, but rather with values, the deeper, underlying set of moral principles that guide our overall lives and keep them clean and correct.
With this framework in mind, Rabbi Amsel has accomplished his goal. He takes us alphabetically from alternative medicine through jealousy to sacrifice, and all the way to tolerance (and intolerance) in Judaism. Along the way we learn a great deal. For example, in the section entitled Pain in Judaism, we find out that unlike some religions, Judaism does not see pain as something positive, and that trying to eliminate one’s pain is completely legitimate.
In the section called Sports, we learn that Jews need not take part in games only to win; it is completely acceptable to be interested only in the physical exercise and not the competitive experience. Yet the sections provide far more than just guidance. In a detailed essay about giving tzedaka, for example, we learn why giving charity is the most unusual of all the commandments.
There is no section on sin, but Rabbi Amsel nevertheless deals with this fraught topic in other parts of the book. He writes that “Judaism clearly separates the desire to sin and the sin itself,” and recognizes that Jews are “normal human beings” who might find themselves tempted to commit a sin. This desire brings about “the inner battle between the good inclination and the bad…as alluded to in the Torah.”
Rabbi Amsel’s writing is clear and factual, his tone reserved and intellectual. He easily provides cogent arguments for all his views, seamlessly citing Rashi commentary and Torah scripture when needed in detailed, well-organized footnotes. His grasp of his subject matter is clearly strong and solid.
The entire text in this comprehensive reference book appears in both English and Hebrew, making this book appealing to a wide audience and adding a note of special interest for bilingual readers.
This review originally appeared on Jewish Book Council.