Book Review: Studies In Jewish Law, Custom And Folklore

Studies In Jewish Law, Custom And Folklore, by Jacob Lauterbach

I first heard of the author of this book because it was mentioned prominently in a sermon by one of the deacons in the congregation I attend [1].  I suppose in retrospect it should not have been surprising that a researcher whose approach to the Mishnah and Talmud was highly critical should have been a German-educated scholar who learned about the documentary approach from some of the original “scholars” of that accursed tradition.  Yet although my feelings about the creators of the documentary hypothesis are negative in the extreme, there is much to commend the author’s response, not least because he tends to view traditions with a high degree of charity and because the evolutionary approach of the author works when dealing with human traditions like those of orthodox Judaism and various reform efforts in a way that is not the case when one looks at genuine revealed religion.  All of this means that my thoughts on the author are complicated, in that I see a great deal of validity in his approach when he looks at historical examples of traditions within Judaism but at the same time think that he takes this approach too far at times, as when he argues that the conception of the day within the Creation account as extending from sunset to sunset was a late phenomenon.

The contents of this book consist of various essays and responsa that the author write and that were collected after his death as being worth reading and also generally accessible not only to Jewish audiences but also to a wider audience of readers interested in Jewish scholarship.  About 80% of the book is taken up by the essays, and the remaining 20% by the much briefer responses to various theological and practical questions, some of which are of great contemporary interest.  After an introduction of the author’s education and approach which was quite illuminating, the book then contains six essays.  These essays are as follows, an examination of the superstitious origins of the glass breaking ceremony at Jewish weddings, the naming of children in Jewish folklore, ritual, and practice, the origin and development of two Sabbath ceremonies involving myrtle and/or other fragrant plants, the ritual for the kapparot ceremony, the belief in the power of the word, and the attitudes of the Jew towards the non-Jew.  The rest of the book is taken up by five responses about birth control, covering the head, the ordination of women as rabbis, the Jewish views about autopsies, and the heterogeneity of burial practices among Jews.

By and large this book succeeds wonderfully at demonstrating both the author’s approach to careful textual and historical research as well as his general moderation in dealing with doubtful questions.  The essays and responsa show a high degree of nuance and the author addresses questions that are still of major interest among Jews as well as in the wider world of revealed religion.  Particularly interesting is the author’s lengthy essay on the positive view of Jews towards both Christians and Muslims, which is an essay that should be far better known and far more widely read, especially given the threats of anti-Semitism present both in the author’s lifetime and for us today.  Likewise, the author demonstrates that many ‘Jewish’ customs spring from popular superstitions about the behavior of demons and angels that we would do well to reject entirely.  Even in cases where the author argues points about scripture that I would disagree with, in general I find the author to be winsome in his approach and generally someone whose thoughts are well worth reading if not always right.  Although it is likely that few people will find this book, those who do will find a lot well worth reading and appreciating.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/17/where-did-the-pharisees-go-wrong/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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