by Alan Jay Gerber
The literary work that is my subject for the next few weeks is entitled, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” (Urim Publications, 2015), a series of essays on some of the most provocative subjects of contemporary interest, by Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel.
Rabbi Amsel is graduate of Yeshiva University, ordained a rabbi by HaRav Joseph B. Soloveitchik,zt”l, whose career centered for over 30 years on the enhancement of Jewish education all over the world. This book goes a long way in helping us to understand issues that confront us in our daily lives and are regularly discussed and debated in the public arena (including gun control and legalized gambling and the use of lotteries, will be my focus in upcoming columns).
This week I will focus on my interview with Rabbi Amsel wherein you will get a measure of his intellectual prowess.
Rabbi Amsel explained his book’s purpose:
“In working with youth and adult Jews in over 30 countries, from every shade of Jewish belief, the one thing that unites us all is a sense of shared Jewish values. But specifically what those values are is difficult for most Jews to articulate, except words like ‘chessed’ or ‘ethical monotheism.’ There was no one book, certainly not in English, that specifically defines and explains those values that are normative to Judaism, that are reflected in halacha, Talmud and most midrashim. That was one motivation for this book, to elucidate what ‘Jewish values’ really means. And unlike most things that divide us, there is not, for the most part, any difference between Jews when it comes to Jewish values.
“Second, most people, even practicing Jews, view Judaism as, what I call, a ‘child’s religion,’ i.e. it is a religion of blessings, prayers and holidays. Or it can be called the ‘orach chayim (way of life) religion.’ They do not view Judaism as a way of life that affects them each day as adults. Thus, the basis for the writing of this book.
“This book aims to show you that every moral decision and issue, large and small, has a normative Jewish response. When people realize this, then they begin to ask, every time they are confronted by any moral issue in their lives, ‘What does Judaism say I should do in this situation?’ Then their lives will change for the better and they will become much more ‘Jewish’ no matter what their daily ritual practice is.”
Rabbi Amsel continued:
“I have also found that most people prefer to learn the issues dealt with in this work, and not standard Torah and Talmud text oriented study, more than anything else in Judaism. When they delve into the sources, their appreciation of Judaism is greatly enhanced. And, even the learned scholar, and veteran yeshiva students are often clueless to Judaism’s stance on most of these issues. The sources at the end of this book, as well as the detailed footnotes will surely serve to help them all to better understand Jewish law all the better, and thus enable them to decide for themselves what is right, and not just simply what I as an author write in this book.”
“Finally,” concludes Rabbi Amsel, “I have found that almost all people in the world, Jew and non-Jew, are searching for a moral compass, a set of values to guide them through life. They are turned off by so-called western cultural values, and are looking for a set of principles that are both satisfying and make realistic sense to them.
“Most do not embrace or find that other religions or systems of values speak to them. I believe that, like the times of old, traditional Judaism has a values system that all can respect and embrace and can affect and really influence the entire world, that is, if they only knew what it truly is. This book is intended to help explain and convey, in very specific terms, what these Jewish values are in specific contemporary values.”
Among the people who brought this work to my attention was Rabbi Berel Wein, who together with the author devotes much of their time to the work of the Destiny Foundation, an organization devoted to some of the basic goals and themes of this work. Rabbi Wein writes that this book corrects “many of the errors of judgment regarding true and traditional Jewish views on many issues of society that trouble the modern world. It is well written, concise and logical in its approach and the reader will be supremely impressed by the obvious wealth of research that went into its writing and publication.”
I have included this observation by Rabbi Wein for it totally reflects my opinion of the quality of Rabbi Amsel’s scholarship. In the weeks to come, G-d willing, I hope to further expand on this with specific examples for your reading and learning pleasure.
This article originally appeared on thejewishstar.com