Originally published in Conservative Judaism, 23: 4 (Summer 1969), p. 81.
Jewish Law, by Louis Jacobs, New York: Behrman House, 1968, 210 pp., $4.95.
For years the curricula of our religious schools have focused on Bible stories, and our children have seldom gained any awareness of the vast post-biblical Jewish literature. We claim that one of the main differences between Judaism and other religions is that ours is a religion of law, and yet our children, with the exception of those who go to Day Schools, rarely get to see an actual page of Jewish legal literature.
Therefore this new textbook by Louis Jacobs is a welcome addition to Jewish educational literature. It makes available selections from the sources of Jewish law in a form that can be handled by intelligent high school juniors and seniors.
The young person who studies this book will come to realize that Judaism is not just generalities about justice and holiness but that it is hard thinking about cases in which these generalities are applied. Judaism is more than law, of course, but it is based upon law, and this collection will give its students some understanding of the methods by which the law was studied and applied down through the centuries.
In addition to being a good textbook for high school students, this book could very well be the basis for a businessman’s discussion group that would consider the way the Jewish legal tradition deals with some of the issues of our time. “What constitutes stealing?” “What are the obligations of children towards parents?” Who has first option in the sale of real estate?” and “May parents prohibit a dangerous operation?” are the kinds of questions with which moderns must grapple, and it is very instructive to see how the wise men of the past deal with them.
I would have wished that the Noda’ Biyehudah’s responsum on hunting or on autopsies, or one of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s responsa from the Holocaust, or one of the recent opinions from Israel or from American Jewry—such as the Rabbinical Assembly statement on the ketubah—could have been included. However, as in all anthologies, the editor must choose between riches, and we can only hope that there will soon be another and an expanded edition.
With the publication of the United Synagogue’s El Am Talmud and now with the appearance of this new work, the Halachah need no longer be a closed world for the American Jew. Instead he may confront it for himself and find, as his ancestors did before him, that it contains food for the mind and soul and resources for living a disciplined and a sanctified life.
Rabbi Jack Riemer