by Rabbi Gil Student
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel writes in his introduction that the term “encyclopedia” in the title is “a bit presumptuous.” Even though this is the first of a projected four-volume series, the task of encompassing the entirety of Jewish thought in any encyclopedia seems impossible. The Torah is described as being “longer than the earth and broader than the sea.” Indeed, each of the volume’s thirty-nine essays lacks a systematic and unified style, perhaps because the topics are so expansive. Yet the essays contain so much material, rich in depth and breadth, full of insight and contemporary relevance, that we can forgive the title. This book might not be an encyclopedia but it is a gold mine of Jewish values. Masterfully combining Biblical, legal and philosophical texts, Rabbi Amsel, director of education at the Destiny Foundation, an educational media foundation, gives each topic extensive treatment. Each essay seems like a well-organized, multi-hour lecture on the topic (rabbis and teachers take note!).
Topics range from birthdays to gun control to homosexuality to jealousy to differences between man and animal. On the one hand, the connection among topics eludes the reader. On the other hand, the book’s organization seems almost irrelevant because each essay is a self-contained unit. Rabbi Amsel writes in clear English, intending this work for both the beginner and the expert. He provides not only sources but thoughtful connections, as he weaves a narrative from the broad spectrum of texts he cites. What does Judaism have to say about alternative medicine? Before approaching halachic texts, Rabbi Amsel asks a theological question: if all healing comes from God, why should it matter whether a medical treatment is conventional or alternative? From this issue, he proceeds seamlessly to the halachic aspects of the question, such as a nineteenth-century responsum forbidding a Jew from sending a telegram on Shabbat to a tzaddik asking him to pray for a sick person. Conventional medicine for a deathly ill patient overrides Shabbat, but not alternative methods like a tzaddik’s prayer.
Rabbi Amsel has a knack for finding interesting, relevant topics. This book is a vast resource of expert Jewish analysis on timely subjects.
This review originally appeared in the OU.