Andrew Greene (530nm330hz) wrote,
Andrew Greene

Book review: "The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis"

Koren recently sent me a copy of "The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis" by Rabbis Berel Wein and Warren Goldstein.

This book tries to capture for a modern readership the moral worldview of Lithiuanian Jewry for the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the devlopment of the mussar movement. Rabbi Wein's focus is mostly historical, and Rabbi Goldstein's is philosophical.

The problem with this book is that I'm not sure that the audience for it exists. Actually, Rabbi Wein's chapters on the historical development of Lithuanian mussar are moderately interesting; my problem is mainly with Rabbi Goldstein's chapters.

If one already is interested in mussar, the philosophical sections are "preaching to the choir", and not even useful in reminding oneself of what is to be done. It's not a practical guide to improving one's behavior; it's an exploration of the underpinnings and principles of mussar.

Conversely, if one is reading this as an introduction, the copious but useless footnotes seem to protest too much "see, this is real lomdus!" But these sections are so busy justifying every point that they lack the moral force of a real tochacha. One walks away thinking, "Yes, those who subscribe to the Lithuanian mussar worldview can justify their position as being within the boundaries of traditional Judaism." Which is nice, but the reader hardly walks away feeling that one has encountered "teachings for life."

I can't conjure up the demographic, if you will, who will gain from those sections.

And with Rabbi Goldstein's chapters failing to deliver on the moral imperative, the Rabbi Wein's chapters are reduced to intermittently interesting peeks at history. The work that they do to build up key figures like Rabbi Israel Salanter is dissipated, when it should be converted into ethical force.

And so, with regret, I cannot recommend this book. I feel very uncomfortable taking a public stand with a criticism of such august and great rabbis, whose work for the Jewish community and for the Creator of all is worthy of so much respect. Ironically, if I'd simply bought the book myself, I'd probably be comfortable remaining silent, but I would not be honest with my readers, nor with myself, if I withheld my feedback of a review copy in order to spare the feelings of the authors and publisher.
Tags: books, judaism, reviews

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