Rabbi Haim Sabato is head of the Ma’ale Edumim yeshiva near Jerusalem and an award-winning novelist. His bestselling book Teum Kavanot (“Adjusting Sights”), an account of his experiences during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, has been made into a film. He wrote three other successful novels.
His new book is not a novel. It is an account of a series of conversations he held with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, and one of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of our time. The book was released a few months ago, accompanied by an aggressive media campaign by the publisher (Yediot Ahronot), that labelled it as “The most important book of Jewish thought since Rabbi Solovietchik”.
Given that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was the foremost Jewish thinker of modern orthodoxy in the US during the 20th century, and given that Rabbi Lichtenstein is Rabbi Soloveitchiks’ most prominent student and his son-in-law, this was some pretentious claim. Accordingly, expectations were set.
The book is a huge disappointment (given the expectations). It is by no means a book of “Jewish Thought”. Each chapter in the book deals with a different subject, ranging from philosophical themes like the religious experience or universal moral values, to contemporary issues like Zionism and the State of Israel or feminism in Judaism. The first page of every chapter has a series of quotes from things Rabbi Lichtenstein says during the conversations recorded in that chapter. I found these quotes to be unnecessary and repetitive, as the chapters are not that long anyway. At the end of each chapter, there is a small extract or two from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s writings, dealing with the subject just discussed.
The conversations themselves are pleasant and easy to read, but they provide only a superficial insight into the complex personality of Rabbi Lichtenstein and his views. If there is anything about “Jewish Thought” in this book, it is the short passages from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s writings at the end of each chapter. But why would you need a book to read these extracts if you can read the originals?
As a friend of mine described the book: “it is a notch above a newspaper interview, nothing more”. So true, and so disappointing.
But you learn something from every book you read. One thing I took upon myself after reading this book is to study the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah more seriously. Rabbi Lichtenstein praises this commentary and goes as far as to say that if “The Guide to the Perplexed” by the Rambam would have been lost, it wouldn’t have been such a great loss; but if the Ramban’s commentay on the Torah would have been lost, it would have been a catastrophe. Such a statement from Rabbi Lichtenstein certainly warrants a more serious study of the Ramban.