Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Another year in Jewish books

For the third year in a row, I have chronicled the year in Jewish books for Jewish Ideas Daily.

The great biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson wrote the most profound work of Jewish scholarship published during 2012. Inheriting Abraham is a skeptical and contrarian examination of the popular commonplace that the three “Abrahamic religions” have so much in common. Although Levenson has written that Jews are not interested in biblical theology (for reasons I spell out here), and though he does not conceive his project as theological, his books have had a lasting effect on my own thinking about God—and could have much the same effect on more Jews, if only they would read him. Levenson also writes a brilliant scholarly prose, which is extraordinarily accessible despite the difficulty of his argument.

The best Jewish novel of last year was Joshua Henkin’s World Without You, which I reviewed for Commentary over the summer. One of Henkin’s best qualities is that you cannot figure out where he stands on any question from reading his fiction. The World Without You brings together a family of Bush-bashers and Bush voters, of “returnees” to Orthodoxy and religion-despisers; but Henkin never tips his hand. (He himself, as I learned from other sources, was an enthusiastic Obama supporter, but his political enthusiasms belong, for him, to an entirely different universe of discourse.) Unlike most novelists who come at things from the Left, Henkin is bilingual: he has mastered the language of his opponents, perhaps because he was raised in a family who were not strangers to the Jewish religion.

Hillel Halkin’s dreamy Melisande! What Are Dreams? and Howard Jacobson’s comic Zoo Time (review forthcoming) might have challenged Henkin’s novel for the top spot if only I could have claimed, more convincingly than the manifest content of their novels permitted, that they were clear and distinct examples of Jewish fiction.

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