Human Nature & Jewish Thought
Alan L. Mittleman
Princeton University Press, 2015
Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Laurie Zoloth
Jewish Publication Society, 2015
One of the popular ways to dismiss plans for healing and transforming the world is to assert that the distortions we see in the contemporary world are an inevitable outcome of a fixed human nature. In his careful examination of Jewish thought, Alan Mittleman insists on the centrality of moral personhood not constrained by any set of conditions external to the process of ethical reflection and intuition.
Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places
Gary Snyder, in conversation with Julia Martin
Trinity University Press, 2014
Nobody Home presents three interviews conducted by South African scholar and writer Julia Martin with the poet Gary Snyder that take place from the late 1980s to 2010, along with a selection of letters between them covering the same period. Martin was a young academic in apartheid South Africa when she first reached out to Snyder, motivated by her critical work on his poetry and thinking. Martin’s study and practice of Buddhism and her intuitive grasp of Snyder’s importance as a forefather of a growing international movement of spiritual environmentalism provoked Snyder to respond with sympathy and encouragement. They had an instant rapport in letters, which led to the interviews. This is a great period for Snyder, as his thinking about the nondualism of self/no-self and its relation to the world and all phenomena is culminating in his concentration on finishing Mountains and Rivers Without End, one of the crowning works of his generation of poets.
They used to conspire in a brother tongue
no one else could parse. They were its sole native speakers,
these sons of mine
who grew up talking their way to the table. They come back as men to the keep
of my kitchen, the habit of food and talk,
leaving their rented rooms
half a life away. Who are these children-in-disguise
with their beards and glasses,
smoking and joking, each in his own tongue,
about who knows what? Don’t get twin beds, I begged my mother, afraid
of the slightest space
between him and her—a nightstand
with its drawers and knobs,
foursquare and stolid as a gravestone,
the two of them
buried on either side.
Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015
by Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, 2015
A child of immigrant parents who was raised in an observant Jewish household, poet Chana Bloch has absorbed the details of her ethnic and linguistic heritage; this includes what she has called “the habit of questioning,” which is “not only sanctioned by Jewish tradition, it’s an honored part of it.” As a poet, biblical scholar, and translator of ancient and modern Hebrew poetry, she has followed her teacher Robert Lowell’s advice to “learn to write from [her] own translations.”
Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems demonstrates that Bloch has converted that important lesson into a unique poetic voice that modulates from the homespun to the literary and shifts from wit and humor to a pull-no-punches toughness. Spare and musical, intimate while open to history, intelligent and emotionally rich in the details of divisions and connections, Bloch’s poetry negotiates the complexities of her identity as a first-generation Jew, a woman, a child, a parent, a wife, a lover, and a citizen. A self-proclaimed “Jewish humanist,” Bloch quarrels with tradition by asking why God has to make divisions. Some of the divisions she writes about include those between husband and wife, parents and children, illness and health, historical memory and momentary joy, and the contradictions within Judaism itself. Bloch critiques these divisions and, when she finds them, offers alternatives that are more inclusive and more humanistic.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Metropolitan Books, 2014
What does the Torah have to say about end-of-life care? Its most striking story on this topic appears in the last four chapters of Genesis, which describe the hospice death of the Jewish patriarch Jacob. After Jacob became ill, he summoned his children and grandchildren, and requested burial in the Caves of Machpeleh, alongside his parents (Isaac and Rebecca) and his grandparents (Abraham and Sarah). He gave blessings to his sons, and “when Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed; he expired and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33). He suffered no invasive medical interventions, he was surrounded by his family and was able to bless them, and he died a peaceful death.
Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison
by Nell Bernstein
The New Press, 2014
Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better
by Maya Schenwar
If you have the capacity to read one book on prisons this month, which should you choose? For many people I would say without hesitation: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012). It is a stunning book. Or it was for me. Call me naïve, but it had never occurred to me that the cancerous growth of the prison system since the 1970s might have been a response to the success of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s.
A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet
by Nancy Abrams
Beacon Press, 2015
Nancy Abrams needed a higher power. As one of the premiere science writers of our time, she found both the Iron Age gods of the Abrahamic faiths and the pseudo-scientific mysticisms of New Age gurus wanting. So she turned to what she knew best: science. What she found is set forth in her important, cogent, and challenging new book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet. This is not another book about the clash of science and religion.