Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).













Harvard Divinity School interviews Lihi Ben Shitrit about RIGHTEOUS TRANSGRESSIONS

Female activism and conservative religious movements would not seem to go hand in hand. But the bounds of gender expectations are regularly crossed in such communities for the political good. Harvard Divinity School recently interviewed Lihi Ben Shitrit about her new book, Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right. Listen below for a fascinating discussion of how women in Jewish West Bank settlements, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas, expand spaces for political activism in ways that go beyond their movements’ strict ideas about male and female roles.

New Anthropology Catalog 2016

We invite you to scroll through our latest Anthropology catalog.

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MushroomCheck out The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, an investigation of Matsutake, the most valuable mushroom in the world and its amazing ability to survive and, indeed, thrive in human-disrupted landscapes. Using the mushroom as an example, she sheds light on the relationship between the darker side of capitalism and collaborative survival.






RighteousIn Righteous Transgressions, Lihi Ben Shitrit examines how women in conservative religious societies find ways to circumvent strict ideas about their role to engage in the political arena using four groups as examples: the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas.






YoungFinally, Avi Max Spiegel examines the competition among established Arab Muslim groups to gain the support of the growing population of youths among their ranks in Young Islam. He focuses not only on the work of established Muslim thinkers, but also the growing body of writing from the younger generation to make the case that the nature of Islamist movements is changing.




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PUP will be at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting from November 18 to November 22 in Denver—visit us at booth #310!

Finally, for a limited time we are offering 30% off on select print titles.


An interview with Robert Holub on “Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem”

Nietzsche’s views about Jews and Judaism have been subject to considerable debate over the last century, though an increasingly popular view today holds that he was a principled adversary of antisemitism. In Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, Robert Holub argues that evidence from Nietzsche’s published and unpublished writings and letters reveals that he in fact harbored anti-Jewish prejudices throughout his life. Recently, Professor Holub took the time to discuss his findings:

How did you become interested in the topic of Nietzsche’s relationship to Jews and Judaism?

Holub jacketRH: Philosophical accounts of Nietzsche have traditionally ignored his connections to discourses and movements in the late nineteenth century. In the early 1990s I embarked on a project that considered Nietzsche a “timely meditator,” someone who was participating in discussions of issues of his era. The book I hoped to produce would focus on his views on various social and scientific matters, among them the working class and socialism, women and feminism, German nationalism, colonialism, evolution, eugenics, and thermodynamics. One of the issues that interested me most was his relationship to Jews, Judaism, and anti-Semitism. The discourse about Jews and the place of Jews in German society underwent a dramatic change in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, and I wrote an article in 1995 placing Nietzsche’s views on the “Jewish Question” within this context. But when I went into academic administration – first as a dean, then as a provost and finally a chancellor – I put the entire book project on the back burner. Returning to these issues in 2012 when I came to the faculty of Ohio State, I found that my essay from 1995 was an inadequate account of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism, and that to deal with these matters in an appropriate fashion would require a book-length monograph. So I took a break from my larger project to present a fuller account of Nietzsche’s relationship to the Jewish Question. The result was Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem.

Why has this topic been so contentious over the years?

RH: There was controversy over Nietzsche’s views on Jewry from the very beginning. Some anti-Semites of his time believed he was sympathetic to their cause because his publisher was a noted anti-Semite and his sister had married a leader of the anti-Semitic movement. Moreover, Nietzsche was associated with Wagnerian ideology, which had obvious anti-Jewish dimensions, and remarks in many of Nietzsche’s writings could easily be understood as Judeophobic. But Nietzsche also rejected in the most categorical fashion what he understood as anti-Semitism, and many aphorisms, especially during his middle period, could easily be regarded as philo-Semitic. If not for the Holocaust, however, which forced a reevaluation of all German intellectual history, the topic might have remained a footnote to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Postwar treatments of his writings have generally taken his remarks on anti-Semitism to be Nietzsche’s definitive view on Jews and Judaism, and blamed any association of Nietzsche with Judeophobia on his sister or on the distortions of Nazi interpretations. The controversy over this topic is thus the result of the peculiarities of German history combined with Nietzsche’s apparently contradictory positions on the Jewish Question.

Why have previous treatments of this issue been unsatisfactory? Why did you feel that there was a need for your book?

RH: Most previous accounts were partisan and selective in their methodology. Reading them, one has the impression that they came to the material with something they wanted to prove and then sought evidence in Nietzsche’s writings. When Nietzsche became associated with National Socialism in the Third Reich, for example, you can detect a canonical interpretation of his views on Jews supported by the identical citations from his writings. In the postwar period, his condemnation of anti-Semitism was thrust into the foreground, and other, more questionable, comments on Jewry were ignored. Previous accounts were therefore partial in both senses of this word, and I felt that a new study was needed that would examine all the material, and, above all, that would situate Nietzsche’s remarks in the context of the nineteenth-century discourse on Jews and Judaism.

What role did the Nietzsche-Wagner relationship play in Nietzsche’s views on Jewry?

RH: Wagner was a decisive influence on Nietzsche in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and Nietzsche’s admiration for the composer extended into ideological realms. It appears that Nietzsche wanted to adopt and reinforce various views Wagner held on political and social issues, and we find Nietzsche in one of his early talks on Socrates and tragedy identifying Socratism with the Jewish press. Wagner, we should recall, had republished his Judeophobic essay “Judaism in Music” in 1869 at a time when Nietzsche and Wagner were very close. So it is perhaps not surprising that Nietzsche chose to emulate Wagner’s views on the pernicious affect of Jews on German culture. Nietzsche had begun to develop anti-Jewish attitudes prior to his acquaintance with Wagner, but these sentiments intensified and were reinforced as their friendship grew. And it is likely that Nietzsche’s break with Wagner, which was generally not recognized in the larger German public until the late 1880s, accounts for some of Nietzsche’s altered public, and largely favorable, pronouncements about Jews in the years from 1878-1885. Wagner is a key to understanding Nietzsche, whether the philosopher was adopting the Meister’s views of purposively opposing them.

You maintain that Nietzsche was against anti-Semitism, but at the same time you claim that he harbored anti-Jewish sentiments. How is this possible?

RH: I think the status of anti-Semitism in Nietzsche’s thought and writings has been a major source of confusion. Anti-Semitism for Nietzsche was a political movement that arose in the early 1880s. It was associated in his mind with crude and rancorous sentiments. It was also a movement that placed Nietzsche in an uncomfortable position with regard to his publisher and his sister. So Nietzsche was over-determined to disdain anti-Semitism. This categorical rejection of anti-Semitism, however, did not stop him from harboring views we would consider anti-Jewish, since Nietzsche, as well as contemporaries, like his friend Franz Overbeck, continued to identify Jews with unfavorable character traits, and saw the necessity of finding a solution to the Jewish Question. Nietzsche’s rejection of anti-Semitism and his anti-Jewish sentiments were not in contradiction for him. Indeed, they define his attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

Should Nietzsche be regarded as a forerunner of National Socialism and its racist ideology?

RH: There are strong arguments against considering Nietzsche as a precursor of National Socialism. Perhaps the two ideological pillars of Nazism were ardent nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, and Nietzsche evidences neither of them. He was nationalistic and Judeophobic during his Wagnerian period, but he never embraced these tenets passionately and without reservation. On the other hand, Nietzsche did admire strong and dictatorial leaders, such as Napoleon; he detested democracy, parliamentary rule, and equal rights. And he flirted with eugenics in his later years, although it was never a racially based eugenics. So arguments can be made for and against this proposition. Of course Nietzsche was established as a precursor of National Socialism by Nazi philosophers and ideologues, but we should remember that some party members found it difficult to integrate him into their outlook. We should also recall that Nietzsche in his own time was vehemently opposed to any collective undertaking, whether it was on the right or the left of the political spectrum. It is difficult to know how he would have reacted to the rise of fascism in Germany several decades after his death. One of the main points of my book is that speculation of this sort is useless, and that the lens of National Socialism has contributed to a less than optimal scholarly record of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism. We can only determine with some degree of certainty where Nietzsche stood with regard to political manifestations he actually confronted in the nineteenth century.

How does your book change our views of Nietzsche as a philosopher?

RH: This question is difficult to answer. Many of Nietzsche’s most important contributions to philosophy have scant connection to his views on Jews and Judaism. So there is the temptation to regard these issues as secondary in considering Nietzsche’s philosophy and unimportant for any evaluation of his thought. Indeed, many of the most prominent philosophers in the German tradition expressed views on Jewry that were as bad as, or worse, than anything Nietzsche had to say about the subject. But we should also consider that philosophers possess a way of thinking about the world, and that part of Nietzsche’s way of thinking about the world contained stereotypes about race, gender, and ethnicity that he was unable to overcome. It would be foolish to regard everything Nietzsche wrote as contaminated by racism; but it would also be foolish to consider that his reflections on matters both historical and abstract were completely unaffected by the manner in which he approached the Jewish Question.

Robert C. Holub is Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of German at Ohio State University and former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The author of several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German literary, cultural, and intellectual history, he is also the editor of editions of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil.

Read chapter one here.

Celebrate Passover with “Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts”

Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illustrated Manuscripts edited by Marc Michael Epstein, the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) and Norman Davis Chair of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College, provides the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts—from hand illustrated versions of the Bible, to beloved Jewish texts, to marriage documents—ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day. The illustrations are magnificent. As Passover is occurring now through Saturday, Marc Epstein provided us background on a handful of particularly arresting images. More information on Passover can be found here, and you can read chapter one here.

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Miriam and the daughters of Israel singing at the shore of the Red Sea. Haggadah. ("The Golden Haggadah"). Spain, Barcelona, c. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 15r.

Seder scene. Haggadah (The Brother Haggadah). Catalonia, third quarter of the 14th century. London, British Library, MS Add. Or. 1404, fol. 8v.

Family and Moorish servant at the Seder table. The first significant treatment medieval Jewish book arts focused on this manuscript, which as still to yield up many of its mysteries. Haggadah. (The Sarejevo Haggadah). Spain, Catalonia, c. 1350. Bosnia and Hercegovnia, Sarajevo, Zemaljski Museum, ms 1, fol. 31v. CLEARED FOR USE.

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh. Spatial and figural renderings of the sort labeled by some scholars as "primitive." Haggadah (The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah). Spain, Castile, ca. 1300. London, British Library, MS Or. 2737, fol. 74v.

Death of the Egyptian firstborn and the Exodus. Haggadah (The Golden Haggadah). Spain, Barcelona, ca. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 14v, c and d.

"We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." The lower margin and central illustration depicts the slaving Israelites, while at top, a hare is served a drink by a dog, perhaps articulating the wish that "one day the Egyptian dogs will serve us." Haggadah. ("The Barcelona Haggadah"). Spain, Barcelona, c. 1340. London, British Library, MS add. 14761, fol. 30v.

Israelites building store-cities for Pharaoh. Haggadah illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Germany, Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 11v.

Barbara Wolff. "The gods." The ancient Egyptian religion centered on the idea of birth, death, and rebirth in an afterlife. Just as the people daily life depended on the annual flooding and receding of the waters of the Nile, the Egyptian pantheon of many gods guided and protected all aspects of nature and human existence. From a relatively early time, haggadot have included archaeological details, with lesser or (as here) greater degrees of accuracy. There is a certain irony, it must be admitted, in depicting the very gods that are described as being "judged" and obviated by God in Exodus and in the text of the haggadah, as if perpetuating the memory of that which we are enjoined to forget. Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Haggadah, 2013, 19.

Barbara Wolff. "In Remembrance" On the night of "Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht 9-10 November 1938), over a thousand synagogues were looted and burned in Germany, Austria, and Poland. Jewish shops were smashed, many Jews were killed, and over thirty thousand taken to concentration camps. It marked the beginning of the Holocaust in which over seven million Jews perished. Barbara Wolff's illumination calls on us to remember this dark chapter of Jewish history by incorporating images of several of the synagogues that were attacked. The traditional text, "Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know you," is supplemented with a text calling upon God to pour out "love upon the nations that know You." This prayer was allegedly discovered in a beautiful haggadah manuscript on parchment dated 1521, which had been lost during the Holocaust, but this story seems, unforutnately to have been a fabrication, the prayer having been composed around 1928 by Rabbi Bloch (1881-c. 1970). Still, the sentiment is a beautiful one, and Block's prayer is worth translating: "Pour out your love on the nations that know You and on the kingdoms that call Your name. For the good which they do for the seed of Jacob, and [the manner in which] they shield Your people Israel from their enemies. May they merit to see the good of Your chosen, and to rejoice in the joy of Your nation. Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Haggadah, 2013, 38.

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New Jewish Studies Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new Jewish studies catalog!

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Of particular interest is Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought. Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of the medieval period, a towering figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on Jewish law, philosophy, and religious consciousness. This book provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to his life and work, revealing how his philosophical sensibility and outlook informed his interpretation of Jewish tradition.

Also be sure to note Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. The shtetl was home to two-thirds of East Europe’s Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet it has long been one of the most neglected and misunderstood chapters of the Jewish experience. This book provides the first grassroots social, economic, and cultural history of the shtetl. Challenging popular misconceptions of the shtetl as an isolated, ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms, Petrovsky-Shtern argues that, in its heyday from the 1790s to the 1840s, the shtetl was a thriving Jewish community as vibrant as any in Europe.

And don’t miss out on new and forthcoming books in the series Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World and others. Jonathan Marc Gribetz fundamentally recasts our understanding of the modern Jewish-Arab encounter and of the Middle East conflict today in Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter and Sidney H. Griffith offers a new frame of reference for the pivotal place of Arabic Bible translations in the religious and cultural interactions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam.

More of our leading titles in Jewish studies can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

The Marginalia Review of Books announces the “Lives of Great Religious Books Essay Competition”

From The Marginalia Review of Books web site:


The Marginalia Review of Books announces the “Lives of Great Religious Books Essay Competition.” We invite essay submissions of up to 3,000 words related to the theme of the reception of religious books, broadly conceived. Those interested should read past essays to ensure their submissions correspond to MRB‘s style. The eminent philosopher Roger Scruton will join the MRB editors to judge the competition. The winner will receive Princeton University Press’s entire Lives of Great Religious Books series, and we will consider all submissions for publication in early 2015.

The competition closes on November 1 and the winner will be announced in January 2015.

For details on how to submit an essay for consideration, please visit The Marginalia Review of Books web site.

About the Lives of Great Religious Books series:

Lives of Great Religious Books is a new series of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world. Written for general readers by leading authors and experts, these books examine the historical origins of texts from the great religious traditions, and trace how their reception, interpretation, and influence have changed–often radically–over time. As these stories of translation, adaptation, appropriation, and inspiration dramatically remind us, all great religious books are living things whose careers in the world can take the most unexpected turns.

Carlin Romano called the series “innovative,” in his earlier article for The Chronicle of Higher Education and Bruce Elder, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald praised the series as an “inspired publishing idea.”

For a list of the books currently available in the series, please click here.

To see the list of forthcoming volumes, please click here.


An Alternative Passover Menu from Merry “Corky” White, author of Cooking for Crowds

Many family memories of Passover include delicious shared food experiences. I asked Merry “Corky” White, the reigning expert on Cooking for Crowds, for advice on how to shake up the traditional fare and introduce some new flavors and ideas to the Passover table. Here is her alternative Passover menu.

white-m[1]Forget the brisket–or relegate it to a nice memory of a great aunt who did it well–and choose a Belgian beef stew– Carbonnades Flamandes. Serve with small boiled potatoes.

A second idea, equally good and homey is the Greek Beef Stifatho, made either with beef or with lamb, which has some Sephardic possibilities, in the cinnamon and cumin. Leave out the feta if you are keeping kosher. If rice can be on your menu, serve it with rice: if not, saffron-tinged mashed potatoes with olive oil.

Stuffed Cabbage would be also a nice dish, but use ground beef and substitute 3 Tb olive oil for salt pork in the version for six people.

The best possible dessert for Passover is a flourless hazelnut torte and strawberries. Unfortunately I have no flourless tortes in the book but if it is permissible to use dairy in a meat menu, then Strawberries with Sabayon Sauce will do beautifully. Or the Toasted Almond Parfait, again, if dairy is permitted.

If you try any of these recipes, please leave us a note below. We’d love to hear from you!

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the first quarter of 2014 are…

In a slight departure, we are going to celebrate the end of our first quarter of sales in 2014 with a longer list than usual. Here are the top 30 books for the last three months, according to combined BookScan and eBooks sales.

What is remarkable about this list is that it encompasses new releases like 1177 B.C. and GDP; perennial best-sellers like On Bullshit and This Time is Different; course reading for economics and calculus; biographies of Nicola Tesla, Martin Gardner, and Maimonides; and bird guides like The Warbler Guide. It truly represents the strength, subjects, and longevity of the books we publish. This is also a list of some really terrific reads, so click through and sample free excerpts for each book.


Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
the 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton
The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman
Beautiful Geometry by Eli Maor and Eugen Jost
Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell
The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility by Gregory Clark
What W. H. Auden Can Do for You by Alexander McCall Smith
1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric Cline
The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century by Angela Stent
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich
The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Phillips Feynman
Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal
Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner by Martin Gardner
Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit by Charles W. Calomiris & Stephen H. Haber
The I Ching or Book of Changes edited by Hellmut Wilhelm
How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method by G. Polya
The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance by Eswar S. Prasad
GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History by Diane Coyle
Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History by Donald E. Canfield
Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist’s Companion by Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke
This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff
Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds
Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian by A. Douglas Stone
The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism by Robert E. Buswell Jr. & Donald S. Lopez Jr.
The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel at Calculus by Adrian Banner
The Best Writing on Mathematics 2013 edited by Mircea Pitici

“Is Judaism a Religion?” Leora Batnitzky at the Tikvah Center, February 20, 2014


Join the Tikvah Center as they welcome Leora Batnitzky for a discussion of the intellectuals who recast Judaism as a modern religion, those that opposed the change, and the legacy of modern Jewish thought today.

Is Judaism a Religion?

Leora Batnitzky

Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 5:30pm EST

The Tikvah Center
165 East 56th Street, 4th Floor
New York, New York 10022

Reserve your seat: http://tikvahfund.org/events/is-judaism-a-religion/

Nineteenth century political emancipation brought citizenship rights to European Jews.  In How Judaism Became a Religion, Leora Batnitzky explores how this new political reality affected Jewish philosophy and the Jewish people.  The prospect of secular citizenship challenged Judaism’s premodern integrity, and drove Jewish writers, intellectuals, and rabbis to grapple with how to recast Judaism as a “religion,” emphasizing its private faith over its national call to public practice.  The transformation of Judaism as a religion – and reactions to it – is the driving question of modern Jewish thought to this day.  What does Judaism gain and lose as a religion?  What effects, positive and negative, has this modern transformation yielded?  How does conceiving of Judaism as a religion relate to Zionism and the refounding of a Jewish State for the Jewish People?

Leora Batnitzky is the Ronald O. Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies, Professor of Religion, and Chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton University.

Book launch video for Maimonides: Life and Thought

Moshe Halbertal, Gruss Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, and Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, discuss Halbertal’s new book, Maimonides: Life and Thought.

What happens at AAR/SBL doesn’t stay at AAR/SBL…

Prompted by this great meeting overview in Publishers Weekly, I asked our religion editor Fred Appel what his experience was like at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature conference. Here’s how he describes the meeting:


Princeton University Press religion editor Fred Appel with Sharmila Sen and Jennifer Banks, religion editors of Harvard University Press and Yale University Press, respectively.

The joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature is one of North America’s biggest academic conferences. Almost 11,000 scholars attended last month’s meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center. The meetings are noted for their diversity. All manner of religion scholars attend, from specialists of the Hebrew Bible and Qur’an, to experts in Zen Buddhism, Christian monasticism and Hinduism, to historians of American religion. The exhibit hall is filled with all sorts of publishers, including many with avowedly religious/confessional commitments. Publishers from the world of scholarly book publishing were also there in force.

Among PUP’s strong sellers at this meeting were recent volumes in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series, especially Mark Larrimore’s book on Job and John Collins on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also quite popular was The Bible in Arabic, a scholarly book tracing this history of early translations of the Bible in the Arab world by Sidney Griffith of Catholic University. Our two big religion reference books (The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism and A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations) this season also attracted considerable attention, and we had one social science title that performed very well too: Mark Chaves’ American Religion.