The challenge of defining essential books in Jewish studies is as difficult as it is needed. Difficult, because there is so much important work out there and how do you choose what to include? Needed, because it takes experience to sift through the available books and interested readers rightfully want to know where to look. Below is my take.
- Orientations & Methodological Questions
- Overviews & Thematic Studies
- Antiquity, Bible & Rabbinics
- Medieval & Early Modern
- Modernity, Holocaust & Israel Studies
Before we dive in, some notes on my selection process. First, this list deals with academic Jewish studies, meaning scholarly writing about Jews and Judaism (secondary literature) but not works of Jews and Judaism (primary sources). Stay tuned for a list of essential readings in Jewish thought.
Second, I’ve selected only books, not articles, for inclusion; and I’ve excluded books that are prohibitively expensive or difficult to find. Books may be either monographs (written by one person) or edited volumes (written by multiple contributors). It’s important to note that a great deal of the work in Jewish studies gets done in journal articles, but I’ve chosen to stick to books because they’re generally more accessible. I’ve selected works available in English as my main suggestion; however, mindful of Israel as a center of Jewish scholarship, I include links to Hebrew originals wherever applicable and suggest works that have not been translated into English in the notes, especially where I would prefer them. I also avoid selecting more than one work by the same author.
Within those two basic parameters, I made several additional guidelines for selection. I favored more recent scholarship to foundational works in the field whose conclusions have been developed significantly by subsequent scholarship. I also slightly favored “idea books”—works that present a distinct thesis and interpretive lens—over synthetic treatments that aim to represent the “state of the field,” though I’ve included plenty of the latter as well. Finally, I’ve tried to maintain a balance between the categories so that the major characteristics of each are represented. Though you could call it cheating (fair enough), I’ve noted alternatives to the main selections for readers with particular interests.
“Top ten”-type lists are inevitably idiosyncratic, but I’ve been conscious of trying to include a wide range of methodologies and approaches. I’m an intellectual historian by training and this no doubt shows in my selections, but I’ve tried to also include some material culture, sociology, language and literary studies, and more. One omission: I was not satisfied with any of the available selections on liturgy, so that important topic is not covered in this list.
Title links go to Amazon; click on the book cover for the publisher’s page.
Orientations & Methodological Questions
1. Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book: Canon, Authority, Meaning (Harvard, 1997)
Halbertal’s study of canonicity and meaning-making in Jewish texts makes an excellent foundation for approaching the field as a whole. It’s conceptual rather than historical in its focus. By that I mean that Halbertal is more interested in the nature and impact of closed texts on the Jewish tradition than in explaining how that canonization process happened historically (although he does that, too). See also Benjamin D. Sommer, ed., Jewish Concepts of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction (NYU, 2012), which traces concepts of scripture from antiquity to modernity.
2. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (University of Washington, 1996)
A classic of Jewish historiography (that is, the history of history), Yerushalmi’s Zakhor remains essential to understanding the practice of recording and conveying Jewish history. He pays careful attention to the distinction between history and collective memory as modes of thinking about the past. “It is not historical writing per se that will concern us here, but the relation of Jews to their own past, and the place of the historian in that relationship,” Yerushalmi writes at the beginning of the book.
3. Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History (University of California, 1993)
Funkenstein is a complex thinker—also a lucid writer, something that doesn’t always go together with complexity—and this book is to be savored carefully and thought through slowly. It is a response to Yerushalmi’s Zakhor (see #2 above), but breaks its own ground. Funkenstein describes one of his central arguments like this: “Jewish culture was and remained formed by an acute historical consciousness, albeit different at different periods.” That is, even before the rise of what we would consider modern historical thinking, Jews were deeply aware of their place and role in history.
4. Cynthia Baker, Jew (Rutgers, 2017)
Though its boundaries are the subject of debate, the term “Jew” has a clear meaning to modern ears. However, for most of Jewish history, Jews didn’t use the term at all to describe themselves. So how did it become the common way to describe a Jewish person? This book is an answer to that question, as well as a good introduction to the problematics of terminology and the hazards of retrojecting the present onto the past.
5. Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion (Princeton, 2011)
The subtitle of this book is “An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought,” and it’s certainly that, but not only: Batnitzky articulates the way in which the Western idea of “religion” is created by Enlightenment thinking and as such is a modern (and Christian) category. This category, ill suited to describe the multifarious culture and lived experiences of Jewishness, allows for a splitting off of religious identity from national citizenship and paves the way for political emancipation, but not without doing violence to traditional Jewish self-understanding. For a more theoretical examination of what we talk about when we talk about Judaism, see Daniel Boyarin, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion (Rutgers, 2018).
6. Yaakov Elman and Israel Gershoni, eds., Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion (Yale, 2000)
The process of cultural transmission, whether oral or textual, underlies the whole of Jewish studies. This volume is comprehensive and boasts an amazing group of contributors. For a more controversial thesis on this topic, see Talya Fishman, Becoming the People of the Talmud (Princeton, 2013) but note Haym Soloveitchik’s criticism (published in various journals and periodicals).
Overviews & Thematic Studies
7. David Biale, ed., Cultures of the Jews: A New History (Schocken, 2002)
This is my pick for a one-volume history. It’s not a traditional chronological history, but, as its name implies, a cultural one, and I don’t know of a better work in English that captures the essence of each period better than this set of essays. (On a personal note, I read this book shortly before beginning my graduate studies and it cemented my decision to concentrate in the medieval period; I had no idea that two of the medieval scholars featured in the book would become my own teachers!) For a complete narrative one-volume history, see H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed., A History of the Jewish People (Harvard, 1976) [(תולדות עם ישראל, 3 כרכים (דביר תשכ”ט].
8. Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen, and David Sorkin, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (Oxford, 2002)
You can’t beat this comprehensive volume as a guide through the field of academic Jewish studies. There’s been a lot of development in the past 20 years, of course, but it stands up. You can see the table of contents here, and the introduction is available online here.
9. Joel Hoffman, In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (NYU, 2004)
As a readable and informative account of the Hebrew language in English, I like Hoffman’s book. For a more technical and truly excellent history of Hebrew (I’ve seen it on Israeli syllabi), see Angel Sáenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, trans. John Elwolde (Cambridge, 2009) [Historia de la lengua hebrea (Sabadell, 1988)].
Other Jewish languages: on Yiddish, see Dovid Katz, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (Basic Books, 2004); on Ladino, see Matthias B. Lehmann, Ladino Rabbinic Literature and Ottoman Sephardic Culture (Indiana, 2005).
10. Lawrence Fine, ed., Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period (Princeton, 2001)
Focused on ritual and religious practice, this volume of essays, part of a series on lived religion, presents a more embodied, anthropological view of Judaism. For more on this, see Daniel Sperber, who is known for his scholarship on ritual and liturgy; in English, see his Why Jews Do What They Do: The History of Jewish Customs Throughout the Cycle of the Jewish Year (Ktav, 1999); in Hebrew, there’s the magisterial, 8-volume מנהגי ישראל (מוסד הרב קוק, תשנ”ב).
11. David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (Norton, 2013)
This bold analysis of Western antisemitism by Nirenberg, a sensitive and complex thinker, not only takes you through the development of this ancient hatred but also suggests how formative, sadly, it is to European culture. For a more theoretical and wide-ranging volume (it includes non-Western antisemitism), see Robert S. Wistrich, ed., Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Routledge, 2012). For a close look at one particularly insidious iteration of antisemitism, see Magda Teter, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth (Harvard, 2020).
12. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, rev. ed. (Schocken, 1995)
The study of Jewish mystical traditions has a tendency to be diachronic, that is, tracing mystical ideas, texts, and practices through time. And you still can’t beat Scholem’s Major Trends as a comprehensive look at and foundational text in the field. Originally published in 1941, Scholem’s views have been subject to a lot of critical reworking. Pair this volume with Moshe Idel’s challenging but pathbreaking Kabbalah: New Perspectives (Yale, 1990) to get a picture of development in the study of Kabbalah.
13. Federica Francesconi and Rebecca Lynn Winer, eds., Jewish Women’s History from Antiquity to the Present (Wayne State, 2021)
This new book is an homage and update of the classic volume Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, 2nd ed. (Wayne State, 1998) edited by Judith R. Baskin. There are also a number of recent books on Jewish women’s history of specific time periods. Of these, my top picks are: for antiquity, Carol Meyers, Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford, 2012); for the Middle Ages, Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (Brandeis, 2004) [חסידות ומורדות: נשים יהודיות באירופה בימי הביניים (זלמן שזר, תשס”א)] and Eve Krakowski, Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt: Female Adolescence, Jewish Law, and Ordinary Culture (Princeton, 2017); for modernity, Edward Fram, My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland (HUC, 2017) and Pamela Nadell, America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today (W. W. Norton, 2020).
14. Kalman P. Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton, 2001)
For a critical-historical treatment of Jewish aniconism and its discontents, Bland’s exploration terrific. See also the collection of studies published by Vivian Mann, ed., Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (Cambridge, 2011).
On Jewish music, see Joshua S. Walden, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music (Cambridge, 2016). In Hebrew, Atara Isaacson and Dov Schwartz have a new book out, (כרמל, תש”ף) מוסיקה, יהדות, ישראליות ואנחנו: מסע של זהות.
Antiquity, Bible & Rabbinics
15. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2014)
The reason for my selection of this volume is the gamut of scholarly essays included after the Tanakh text, which feature so many leading lights and cover a wealth of representative topics in Biblical scholarship. Unlike many publications in the subfield, which center Christianity, this volume is written from an (academic) Jewish perspective (compare it to The Oxford Study Bible, which also has a great raft of essays and a similar layout, but is written from a Christian perspective). The all-English edition of the text of Tanakh (it’s the JPS translation) will likely be of less interest to those who read Hebrew, but the introductions to each section and book and the annotations in the text are still interesting. In the same Oxford series is the The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which present the texts in English translation again from a Jewish perspective.
A note: This book assumes, though is not centered upon, the documentary hypothesis, the idea that Tanakh was redacted from various sources written by humans in antiquity. Most of the essays, however, do not proceed with this as a prerequisite and so I think they can be of interest to a wide range of readers, including Orthodox ones (like several of the contributors and myself). For Jewish responses to and criticism of the documentary hypothesis, my top book picks are Moshe Sokolow, Tanakh, an Owner’s Manual: Authorship, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Exegesis, Modern Scholarship and Pedagogy (Urim, 2015); Joshua Berman, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid, 2020); and Amnon Bazak, To This Very Day: Fundamental Questions in Bible Study (Maggid, 2020) [(עד היום הזה: שאלות יסוד בלימוד תנ”ך (ידיעות ספרים, תשע”ג].
16. James Kugel, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2008)
Kugel’s How to Read the Bible deals insightfully with the following question: how does the Bible “work” as a text for premodern readers? His introduction provides the framework, but most of the work is done in successive chapters which move through Tanakh demonstrating how traditional Biblical interpretation is actually practiced. He concludes with thoughts about the modern reader confronted with new ways of reading the Bible.
17. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, rev. ed. (Basic Books, 2011)
Originally published in 1981 and subsequently translated into Hebrew [אורי (רוברט) אלטר, אמנות הסיפור במקרא (אדם, תשמ״ח], this has become a widely read and influential book—albeit mainly in the Anglophone world. Its companion volume is The Art of Biblical Poetry, rev. ed. (Basic Books, 2011), but I think that book is of less interest because writing about the poetry of the Bible in English, even by someone as masterful as Alter, is a lot like dancing about architecture. Alter is also renowned as a literary (as opposed to literal) translator of Tanakh into English and wrote a book about his approach to translation.
I’ve not come up with an Israeli scholar who occupies the same sort of space as does Alter; I’d say it’s Nechama Leibowitz who has served as a guide into the workings of Biblical text for the Israeli public. The published volumes of her work, in either Hebrew or English, are not easy to find and tend to be pricey, but fortunately her gilyonot (booklets), in which she originally published weekly insights into the Torah portion, are freely available online in Hebrew and in English.
18. David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (University of Washington, 2017)
This book is (a) not what it seems and (b) exactly what it says it is: a fascinating history of the materiality of the Bible—its status, use, transformation, and meaning as a physical object. This is really a diachronic study (it is comparative across time periods) so it might properly belong in the Overviews & Thematic Studies section of this list, but I’m putting it here because of its focus on the Bible. I found every chapter interesting in its own right, but especially enjoyed the chapter on the early medieval period, which discusses Biblicism as a movement encompassing the Masoretes and the Karaites alike. This is a period that’s not much illuminated by sources or treated in scholarship and the chapter lends clarity to our understanding of it.
For more on the text and transmission of Tanakh: a classic volume on the work of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition is Israel Yeivin’s Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah (SBL, 1985) [ישראל ייבין, המסורה למקרא, מהדורה חדשה ( האקדמיה ללשון העברית, תשס”ג)]. They tend to be expensive, but other excellent books on this topic are Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Fortress, 2011) [עמנואל טוב, ביקורת נוסח המקרא: פרקי מבוא, מהדורה שנייה מורחבת (מוסד ביאליק, תשמ”ט)] and B. Barry Levy, Fixing God’s Torah: The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law (Oxford, 2001).
19. Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 3rd ed. (Westminster John Knox, 2014)
Rather than a narrative history, Cohen’s book deals topically with the central features of Jewish life during the period, such as beliefs, communal institutions, sectarianism, the emergence of the rabbinic class, and more. Another good synthetic treatment of the period is Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Judaism in Second Temple and Rabbinic Times (Ktav, 1991). If you’re looking for a history that covers antiquity through the Byzantine period and up to the Muslim conquest, see Seth Schwartz, Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad (Cambridge, 2014), a slim volume that gives a good overview.
20. Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton, 2001)
Schwartz’s study of the effects of Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine imperialism on Jews in antiquity is groundbreaking. His analysis of the Christianization of the Roman empire sets up larger patterns that will reverberate in later Jewish history as well. For more on the Jewish-Christian divide, see Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (University of California, 2001); Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania, 2006); and Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford, 2018).
20. Eyal Ben-Eliyahu, Yehudah Cohn, and Fergus Millar, eds., Handbook of Jewish Literature from Late Antiquity, 135-700 (British Academy, 2013)
This handbook is comprehensive, covering classic rabbinic literature (Midrash, Talmud, Targum) as well as liturgy and lesser-known corpora like Heikhalot literature (rabbinic mysticism) and documentary texts. It also includes literature that didn’t make it into traditional Jewish learning: historiography and apocalyptic texts. See the table of contents on the publisher’s page (click on the book cover for the link).
21. Malka Z. Simkovich, Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (JPS, 2018)
Though it may seem similar to the previous selection, Simkovich’s book covers different, and הital, ground. It is organized by source, genre, and locale and provides an excellent picture of the communities that produced these texts. It also focuses on Second Temple literature as a whole, less so on Rabbinic texts.
22. Christine L. Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law?: Early Perspectives (Princeton, 2015)
Exploring the origin of the divide between Greek and Biblical conceptions of the law, Hayes’ study uses a breadth of literature from antiquity. She shows how the interaction between rationalist universalism (the Greek view) and revelation (the Biblical view) creates the realities on the ground in the West going forward. This book has been highly influential in the field in recent years.
23. Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Indiana, 1994)
I’ve mentioned Boyarin’s work twice already in my notes, but my recommendation from among his works, if you only read one, is this book on Midrash. It offers a critical theory of Midrash and close readings of the Mekhilta, an early collection. In Hebrew, two notable works areישי רוזן-צבי, בין משנה למדרש: קריאה בספרות התנאית (אוניברסיטה הפתוחה, תש”ף); and on Targum, אביגדור שינן, מקרא אחד ותרגומים הרבה: סיפורי התורה בראי תרגומיהם הארמיים (הקיבוץ המאוחד, תשנ”ג).
Other great reads in Midrash studies: Simi Peters, Learning to Read Midrash (Urim, 2005) and the essay collection edited by Michael A. Fishbane and Joanna Weinberger, Midrash Unbound: Transformations and Innovations (Littman, 2016).
24. Joshua Kulp and Jason Rogoff, Reconstructing the Talmud: An Introduction to the Academic Study of Rabbinic Literature (Hadar Press, 2017)
This book offers a crystal-clear introduction to the academic study of Talmud. Throughout, it demonstrates the concepts and methods through the use of example texts, given both in the Hebrew/Aramaic original and in English translation. Each chapter after the introduction focuses on a different aspect of the critical study of Talmud. The authors also have a second volume of close readings based on the critical method described in the first volume.
David Weiss Halivni’s The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud, rev. ed., trans. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein (Oxford, 2013) [מבואות למקורות ומסורות: עיונים בהתהוות התלמוד, מהדורה חדשה (מאגנס, תשס”ט)] is still a classic in the field, but prohibitively expensive (to a lesser extent, his Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis [Oxford, 1991] is also influential, but alas, also expensive). For a current response to Halivni’s thesis, see Moulie Vidas, Tradition and the Formation of the Bablyonian Talmud (Princeton, 2016).
25. Chaim Saiman, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (Princeton, 2020)
Saiman’s lucidity and accuracy in describing how the Talmud “thinks” and what it is interested in is uncanny. It will ring both new and familiar to those who’ve spent time with Rabbinic texts, and for those looking to delve into the sea of Talmud, it’s a wonderful introduction. Saiman is a rabbi, dayyan (judge in a rabbinical court), and professor of law, so he brings multiple perspectives to explaining the Talmud. For a more philosophical perspective, Sergey Dolgopolski’s What Is Talmud?: The Art of Disagreement (Fordham, 2009) is thought-provoking but unfortunately pricey.
26. Jeffrey Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (Johns Hopkins, 2005)
If Saiman’s Halakhah, above #25, is an account of how the Talmud “thinks,” Rubenstein’s book is an account of how its rabbis lived and felt, as these emerge from the Talmud text itself. It’s a great way into the world of Chazal and a means of understanding the cultural contexts that shaped the words on the daf. Rubenstein’s other books are all good in illuminating this world, especially Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Johns Hopkins, 2010).
For works focused on the Sasanian Persian world in which the Amoraim of Bavel lived, see Shai Secunda, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (University of Pennsylvania, 2016); Jason Sion Mokhtarian, Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests: The Culture of the Talmud in Ancient Iran (University of California, 2021); and Richard Kalmin, Migrating Tales: The Talmud’s Narratives and Their Historical Context (University of California, 2021).
Medieval & Early Modern
27. Robert Brody, Sa’adyah Gaon (Littman, 2016)
Okay, my real pick on the period of the Geonim is Brody’s The Geonim and the Making of Medieval Jewish Culture (Yale, 1998), an outstanding treatment of the period, its major sources, and its significance—and the only one of its kind. However, it’s sadly out of print and expensive, so in its stead you can experience Brody’s scholarship in his cultural biography of the exemplar of gaonic culture, Saadyah Gaon.
28. Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, rev. ed. (Princeton, 2014)
Though it goes up to modernity, Lewis’s indispensable history spends most of its time on the formative period of Islam through the late medieval period. It introduces the key concepts that shaped premodern Muslim perceptions of Jews and relations with the Jewish communities of the Islamicate world. It also has the virtue of a wide geographical scope, laying the groundwork for understanding of the particularities of the many Jewish communities of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Muslim Europe.
29. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage (Oxford, 2007)
It was shockingly difficult to choose a book to represent Jewish life in Muslim Iberia. But Yehudah ha-Levi is about as iconic an Andalusi Jew as you can get, with all his complexities and even idiosyncrasies. This reconstruction of ha-Levi’s turn away from al-Andalus captures many of those complexities.
For a conceptual approach to the meaning of Sefarad, see Ross Brann, Iberian Moorings: Al-Andalus, Sefarad, and the Tropes of Exceptionalism (University of Pennsylvania, 2021). A great recent history, though not about the Jewish experience specifically, is Brian Catlos, Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (Basic Books, 2018).
30. Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, 2003)
A library of thought in one book, this particular Cambridge Companion—though most are great—is the best accessible one-volume introduction to medieval Jewish philosophy in English that I know. It includes the Judeo-Arabic period and post-Maimonideanism as well. I could easily devolve here into a massive list of supplementary titles, since medieval Jewish thought and intellectual history is my subfield—but I won’t! I’ll just leave this here instead.
31. Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in his World (Princeton, 2011)
Rambam is a much-studied figure and there are no shortage of recommendable books about him, or the various subtopics related to his thought. However, Stroumsa’s portrayal stands out for its freshness and its wide vision, illuminating many aspects of Rambam’s world, as the title says. Particularly interesting is her examination of the effect of Muwahhidun (Almohad) thought on Rambam’s theology and halakhic method.
For a classic depiction of the Islamicate Mediterranean world, see S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgement in One Volume (University of California, 2003); abridged from the original unabridged 5-volume set (6 with the index volume), this book distills years of genizah research into a rich documentary history. A more recent socioeconomic history from genizah materials (alongside traditional texts) is Mark R. Cohen, Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World (University of Pennsylvania, 2017).
32. Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz (Wayne State, 2012)
Pivoting to Ashkenaz: this book excels at depicting the ethos of medieval Ashkenazi culture and is notable for its use of manuscript sources. Kanarfogel is an outstanding scholar and brings many years of research and scholarship to bear on this cultural history. In Hebrew, Avraham Grossman’s חכמי אשכנז הראשונים (מאגנס, תשנ”ה) and חכמי צרפת הראשונים (מאגנס, תשנ”ה) are classics and, along with E. E. Urbach’s בעלי התוספות: תולדותיהם, חיבוריהם, שיטתם (מוסד ביאליק, תשמ”ו) give a comprehensive view of Ashkenazi intellectual life. For a socioeconomic perspective, see Kenneth Stow, Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe (Harvard, 1998); on the First Crusade violence and its substantial impact on Ashkenazi communities, my pick is Robert Chazan, God, Humanity, and History: The Hebrew First Crusade Narratives (University of California, 2000). Finally, for a close and compelling look at a core feature of Ashkenazi creativity, see Ivan Marcus, “Sefer Hasidim” and the Ashkenazic Book in Medieval Europe (University of Pennsylvania, 2010).
33. Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (University of California, 1999)
Of Cohen’s important work on medieval Christian attitudes towards Jews, this book provides the biggest-picture view. On premodern theological antisemitism, see Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Wipf and Stock, 1996); on its sociopolitical aspect, see David Nirenberg’s complexly argued Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, rev. ed. (Princeton, 2015). (I mentioned Nirenberg above in the first section, in reference to his general history of anti-Judaism in the West.)
34. Eric Lawee, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic (Oxford, 2021)
Commentary is arguably the core genre of medieval Jewish expression, and Rashi, thanks to the reception of his twin commentaries on Tanakh and Talmud, is its exemplar. There’s a lot of good work out there about Biblical commentary, not all of it accessible. What I like about Lawee’s book, another work by a veteran scholar, aside from its availability and overall excellence, is that it deals with the reception of Rashi’s Bible commentary, providing a picture of the culture(s) he impacted.
35. Moshe Halbertal, Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism, trans. Daniel Tabak (Yale, 2020)
I’m breaking a rule here: I’m repeating an author (Halbertal). Hear me out: If I had to pick just one figure through which to enter and understand the world of the Rishonim, it would be not Rambam, not Rashi, but Ramban, which makes this book particularly important. There have been other books written on Ramban in English, but Halbertal’s is the one to read. In Hebrew: על דרך האמת: הרמב”ן ויצירתה של מסורת (מכון שלום הרטמן, תשס”ה), and see also the recent book by Oded Israeli, ר’ משה בן נחמן: ביוגרפיה אינטלקטואלית (מאגנס, תש”ף).
For the historical context of Christian Spain, see Jonathan Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The “Reconquista” and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia (Cornell, 2008).
36. Melila Hellner-Eshed, A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar, trans. Nathan Wolski (Stanford, 2011)
Hellner-Eshed’s literary analysis is an excellent way to enter into the world of the Zohar on its own terms [ונהר יוצא מעדן: על שפת החוויה המיסטית בזוהר (עם עובד, תשס”ה)]. If you want to understand how the Zohar “works” as a text, what it does for its readers and how it emerges from traditional Jewish thought, this is a great resource. Pair it with Eitan P. Fishbane’s The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar (Oxford, 2019).
On the cultural context of the Zohar circle in 13th century Castile, my pick is the fresh take, but sadly out-of-print, Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain (Rutgers, 2014) by Hartley Lachter. On the Zohar as a book, it would be Boaz Huss, The Zohar: Impact and Reception, trans. Yudith Nave (Littman, 2016), if only it were available; happily, it’s readily accessible in Hebrew [כזוהר הרקיע: פרקים בתולדות התקבלות הזוהר ובהבניית ערכו הסמלי (ביאליק, תשס”ח)].
37. Marc Michael Epstein, Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink (Princeton, 2015)
Epstein is a highly readable, immensely compelling scholar; if you’re not familiar with his work, you’re in for a real treat with his wide-ranging, lavishly illustrated, and cogently argued book on Jewish illuminated manuscripts. His theory about the famously puzzling, so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah is not to be missed. For more on Hebrew manuscripts of all kinds (not just illuminated ones), including technical but accessible codicology and paleography (the study of how manuscripts are made and written), see Colette Sirat, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages, ed. and trans. Nicholas de Lange (Cambridge, 2008).
38. Jonathan Ray, After Expulsion: 1492 and the Making of Sephardic Jewry (NYU, 2013)
The period from 1391 to 1492 and its aftermath is a crucial turning point in Jewish history in general and Sefardi history in particular. In 1391, and continuing into 1392, popular anti-Jewish riots broke out across Castile and Aragon. The ensuing mass conversion of a sizable percentage of Iberian Jews to Christianity created the Converso class, whose integration, or lack thereof, into Christian society resulted in the early racialization of Jewishness and impelled the incipient state to seek collusion with the Inquisition. The Iberian Jewish question was eventually answered in the form of general expulsion, first from the newly united kingdom of Castile-Aragon in 1492 (yep, the same year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue) and, by century’s end, from all of Iberia, concluding a millennium of Jewish life in Western Europe. Many Jews fleeing the peninsula made their way to the newly burgeoning Ottoman Empire. This story is told, with an eye toward the long-ranging effects of 1492, in Ray’s After Expulsion.
A great companion volume of essays is Benjamin R. Gampel, ed., Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World, 1391-1648 (Columbia, 1998). On the particular story of Conversos who eventually fled Spain to return to Judaism and the culture they helped create in Amsterdam, see Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Indiana, 1997); Elisheva Carlebach, The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies (Columbia, 1990); and Daniel B. Schwartz, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image (Princeton, 2012). On the story of Jews and Conversos in the Atlantic world, see Richard L. Kagan, Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500–1800 (Johns Hopkins, 2009)
39. David N. Ruderman, Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History (Princeton, 2011)
It’s always a treat to receive a summative work by a veteran scholar, and this one is a masterful, clear, and readable analysis of the core features that characterize early modern Jewish life. Supplement it with Cedric Cohen-Skalli, Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography (Brandeis, 2020) and, if you can get it, David B. Ruderman, Cultural Intermediaries: Jewish Intellectuals in Early Modern Italy (University of Pennsylvania, 2004). Also pricey but worthwhile: Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Jackie Feldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) [הצנזור, העורך והטקסט: הצנזורה הקתולית והדפוסהעברי במאה השש עשרה (מאגנס, תשס”ה)], a fascinating deep-dive into one aspect of early modernity as experienced by Jews.
40. Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford, 2003)
Though focused on the Ari (Shlomo Luria), Fine’s study also serves as a wider window into the Kabbalistic world of 16th-century OIttoman Tzfat (Safed), the city teeming with luminaries including Moshe Cordovero, Chaim Vital, Yaakov Berab, Shlomo Alkabetz, Yisrael Najara, and, of course the Mechaber (Yosef Karo), author of the book that changed everything: the Shulchan Aruch. It’s beautifully written and an arresting tale (for a nonfiction scholarly book!). On Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel in the 16th century, see also Abraham David, To Come to the Land: Immigration and Settlement in Sixteenth-Century Eretz-Israel, trans. Dena Ordan (University of Alabama, 1999) [אברהם דוד, עלייה והתיישבות בארץ-ישראל במאה הט”ז (רץ מס, תשנג)].
As impactful as the Lurianic Kabbalah has been on Jewish thought and practice, if there was a study in English of Yosef Karo, I’d have picked Karo to showcase. In Hebrew there are two recent books that both look excellent: מור אלטשולר, חיי מרן יוסף קארו (אוניברסיטת תל אביב, תשע”ו) and חגי פלאי, ירון בן-שלום, ומשה אידל, ר’ יוסף קארו: היסטוריה, הלכה, קבלה (זלמן שזר, תשפ”א).
Modernity, Holocaust & Israel Studies
41. Zion Zohar, ed., Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times (NYU, 2005)
This volume of essays covers an impressive array of topics, beginning with the medieval foundations (Part 1), moving into early modernity (Part 2), then modernity, reaching into the 20th century (Part 3). (Its Part 1 offers one of the better overviews of medieval Sefardi Jewish life I’ve found.) If you want more, see Harvey E. Goldberg, ed., Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries: History and Culture in the Modern Era (Indiana, 1996); it covers a notably diverse array of communities and experiences and presents the work of an international group of leading scholars.
42. David Biale et al., ed., Hasidism: A New History (Princeton, 2017)
This massive tome is the fruit of many scholar’s work, but what makes it such a standout is not just its comprehensive scope and deep analysis, but the model of collaborative scholarship in creating a multifaceted narrative history. It’s simply a joy to read, all 900 or so pages. For earlier (and still important) work on Hasidism, see Gershon David Hundret, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism (NYU, 1991).
To round out the picture, pair it with Allan Nadler, Faith of the Mithnagdim (Johns Hopkins, 1997), Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism (Yale, 2014), Gil S. Perl, The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship (Academic Studies Press, 2013), and/or Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning (Littman, 2014).
43. David Sorkin, Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries (Princeton, 2019)
A wide-ranging analytical history, Sorkin’s book fulfills its ambitious promise. For a classic that was groundbreaking in its time and remains important, see Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, rev ed. (Syracuse, 2000), which really is about the end of the Middle Ages, also known as modernity, and his follow-up, Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870 (Syracuse, 1998).
44. Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuanian in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (University of California, 2006)
What I especially appreciate about Hundert’s history is the way it guides you through a deep understanding of the period and its processes. Also great: Israel Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 (University of Pennsylvania, 2006) and Antony Polonsky, Jews in Poland and Russia: A Short History (Littman , 2013) (this is mostly a modern history; his larger 3-volume work treats medieval and early modern history more thoroughly but is harder to find).
45. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe (Princeton, 2015)
This socioeconomic history situates the shtetl materially and contextually. Compare it to the anthropological-conceptual Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, rev. ed. (Schocken, 1995) by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, or Jeremy Shandler’s meta-historical approach in Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History (Rutgers, 2014)
46. Adam S. Ferziger, Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity (University of Pennsylvania, 2005)
Essential reading on the emergence of Orthodoxy as a modern category in Judaism. Ferziger’s Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State, 2015) brings the story up to the present as it unfolded in the US. A good treatment of the position of Orthodoxy in Israel in English is Daniel Mahla’s Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion: From Prewar Europe to the State of Israel (Cambridge, 2020), which is unfortunately pricey.
47. Olga Litvak, Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism (Rutgers, 2012)
The Haskalah is really two movements, intertwined but distinct: one in Western and Central Europe (Germany, Austro-Hungary, France) and one in Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Poland). The story is often told through the lens of the former, where it hews more closely to the contours of the Christian Enlightenment. Here Litvak presents a revisionist interpretation that concentrates instead on the latter, suggesting that Romanticism, rather than Enlightenment, is the paradigm through which to understand the Haskalah. I’ve generally avoided revisionist views in favor of scholarly consensus, but here I think Litvak’s presentation merits consideration.
For an account focused on the earlier Haskalah in Germany, see Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment, trans. Chaya Naor (University of Pennsylvania, 2011) [(זלמן שזר, תשס”א)מהפכת הנאורות: תנועת ההשכלה היהודית במאה ה-18]. He has a number of other works of interest here, not all of them easy to get; I’ll mention the companion volume on the 19th century in Hebrew: (מגנס, תשע”ד) מלחמת תרבות: תנועת ההשכלה היהודית במאה ה-19.
48. Dan Miron, From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking (Stanford, 2010)
If you’re going to read a single volume on modern Jewish literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew, I don’t think you could do better than From Continuity to Contiguity by Miron, a foremost literary critic and scholar. This is, however, one of most expensive books on my list, whereas Miron’s other works in English are reasonably-priced paperbacks. On Yiddish lit, there’s his A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Syracuse, 1996) and The Image of the Shtetl and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination (Syracuse, 2000), the latter being more theoretical. On Hebrew poetry, see The Prophetic Mode in Modern Hebrew Poetry (Toby, 2009).
On American Jewish literature, see Benjamin Schreier, The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature: Ethnic Studies and the Challenge of Identity (University of Pennsylvania, 2020).
49. Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A History, 2nd ed. (Yale, 2019)
Sarna’s interpretive history is the work of lifelong scholarship, and the second edition brings it up to the 21st century. Also great: Hasia Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (Yale, 2018), which focuses on the great waves of immigration that brought most American Jews to the US, and her own comprehensive account, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 (University of California, 2006).
50. Götz Aly, Europe Against the Jews, 1880-1945, trans. Jefferson Chase (Picador, 2021)
Noted Holocaust scholar Aly’s book narrowly won out over Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust (Metropolitan Books, 2021), as well Robert S. Wistrich, Hitler and the Holocaust (Modern Library, 2003). They’re all important accounts of the events leading up to the Shoah both in Germany and in Eastern Europe. In German: Europa gegen die Juden, 1880-1945 (Fischer Verlag, 2017).
51. David Engel, The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews, 3rd ed. (Routledge, 2021)
It is, of course, a difficult task to select a single book to cover the Shoah; I chose Engel’s because it offers methodological framing, a thorough history, and engages interpretive questions. A great companion volume on the writings that came out of the period and in response is David G. Roskies and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Brandeis, 2013).
52. Georges Bensoussan, Jews in Arab Countries: The Great Uprooting trans. Andrew Halper (Indiana, 2019)
When a Jewish intellectual is brought to trial on charges of falsehood, it’s a sign of the power of their words (e.g., Deborah Lipstadt). Bensoussan withstood such a trial for speaking about Arab antisemitism, and won. This book, originally published in French [Juifs en pays arabes: le grand déracinement 1850-1975 (Tallandier, 2012)], tells the story of the hundreds of thousands of Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in the years 1850-1975, too often overlooked in light of the European theater.
In Hebrew, a new volume edited by Aviad Moreno, et al. is ההיסטוריה הארוכה של המזרחים: כיוונים חדשים בחקר יהודי ארצות האסלאם (מכון בן גוריון, תשפ”א)
53. Shlomo Avineri, The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State, rev. ed. (Basic Books, 2017)
This immensely readable, slim-but-comprehensive volume is a particularly clear account of the development of the idea that built the modern state of Israel, written by a Hebrew University political scientist. It was originally published in 1980 as הרעיון הציוני לגווניו (עם עובדת תש”מ) and appears with a new foreword and concluding chapter in the revised English edition.
54. Anita Shapira, Israel: A History (Brandeis, 2014)
It wasn’t easy selecting just one book to represent modern Israel; my criteria were that it be written by an Israeli scholar, be representative of a mainstream scholarly perspective, cover the pre-history of the state from c. 1880, and, like all the other selections, be readable and accessible. Shapira’s award-winning history fit the bill. It was originally published in Hebrew in 2004 [ככל עם ועם: ישראל 1881-2000 (זלמן שזר, צשע”ד)], so designed for an Israeli audience as much as an Anglophone one.
Have thoughts/opinions/complaints/suggestions? I’d love to hear them. I plan to update this post periodically so I’ll take your feedback into account.
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