Introduction to Judaism Annotated Bibliography

A big part of my job is helping adults approach Judaism. Some are approaching from the outside, as they consider conversion, while others are approaching from the inside, seeking to get a clearer picture of the religion they stopped learning about sometime around the age of 13. These are the books I find most helpful as first steps in this regard; shop in an Amazon session initiated from this page and your purchases will support Temple Mount Sinai.

The first book…

We’ll start at the beginning, with the book I typically recommend to people who enter my office and express an interest in becoming Jewish: Rabbi David Wolpe’s Why be Jewish? is a nice introduction to Judaism, written in a style that is neither too aggressive for the person still making up his or her mind, nor too detached for the reader looking to be convinced. Rabbi Wolpe answer the question that is the book’s title in a way that works for him; it is up to each reader to answer the question as well.

If you’re choosing to become Jewish…

Wolpe’s book is not specifically geared toward those considering conversion to Judaism, though it is a fine place for them to start. They’ll want to read a book or two specifically dealing with conversion as well. Among the fine ones that I recommend are: Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff; Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant; and Embracing the Covenant, a collection of essays by Jews-by-choice.

Reading the Bible…

As a modern Jew, I embrace a non-literal but serious approach to the Bible. We are blessed with several books that explain and explore this approach. Marc Brettler’s recent How to Read the Bible is essential reading for any knowledgeable Jew. Also excellent are Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? and his Bible with Sources Revealed. Finally, the Bible that should be in every Jewish home is the Jewish Study Bible, edited by Brettler, Adele Berlin, and Michael Fishbane.

On Prayer…

A series called “The Way into…” pervades my Intro reading list, and The Way into Jewish Prayer, by Larry Hoffman, is the first entry in the section on prayer. Hoffman’s book sits at the intersection of liturgy and spirituality, exploring the words we say and why we say them. Other outstanding books exploring prayer and liturgy include: Reuven Hammer’s Entering Jewish Prayer; Pray Tell, a wonderful study guide presented by Hadassah; and B’chol Levav’cha, a commentary on the siddur written by Harvey J. Fields (and revised and expanded by my classmate, Elaine Rose Glickman). Finally, the ten-volume My People’s Prayer Book series is a great reference source for those who want to delve even deeper into the history and meaning of Jewish liturgy (volume one linked; you’ll find the others easily enough).

The Jewish Library…

Two books by Barry Holtz are a great introduction to the various genres of Jewish literature. Back to the Sources, which Holtz edited, consists of chapter-length introductions to Bible, Midrash, Jewish Philosophy, Mysticism, Modern Jewish Thought, and more, each written by a notable in the field. Holtz’s Shocken Guide to Jewish Books covers some of the same ground, but is more annotated bibliography than introduction. I’ll give Holtz a hat-trick in this category by recommending his Finding our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives we Lead Today. It demonstrates how ancient texts can come to life for modern readers.

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