Patterns in Jewish History
Insights into the Past, Present & Future of the Eternal People
By Rabbi Berel Wein
Maggid Books, 2011
An imprint of Koren Publishers, Jerusalem
Reviewed by Boris Segel - March 25, 2011
Historians have for years tried to chart the patterns in human history and to offer suggestions on how to avoid the repeat of adverse situations, following the advice proffered by George Santayana, that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!" In Patterns in Jewish History, Rabbi Berel Wein takes a similar tack, examining the patterns found in Jewish history, and pointing out examples where history has, or continues to, repeat itself, and how we might be able to break some of these patterns.
Along the way, Rabbi Wein tackles a host of issues ranging from antisemitism and assimilation to the role of women in Judaism and Jewish customs. The book consists of fourteen short chapters. Each chapter is devoted to a specific theme, such as health and medicine, Israel, and Torah study. In each he concisely outlines the basic history related to each topic, he hones in on the various patterns that have emerged throughout time, related to each topic, and then he addresses how these patterns have affected Jewish civilization, and how these patterns are affecting us today.
Although written from an orthodox perspective, Rabbi Wein's examination of Jewish history is neither pedantic nor religiously obstinate. Rabbi Wein acknowledges that Judaism is, and has always been, a fluid religion, adapting (albeit somewhat slowly at times) to new social norms, political necessities, and in the course of justice. For example, in the realm of justice, steps are being taken by Orthodox and Conservative communities to find a solution, within the realm of Jewish law (Halachah) to the problem of agunot (women whose husbands will not give them a get (divorce), which prevents them from remarrying. Some of these solutions range from prenuptial agreements to pre-arranged annulments that would go into force if certain events occurred. In the realm of changing social norms, while the Biblical practice of having multiple wives continues to be allowed in some Sephardic comminutes (mainly those located in Arab countries), for Ashkenazic Jews, the practice was formally banned in the 11th century by Rabbenu Gershom. He also issued a responsa which make it 'illegal' for a man to divorce his wife without her permission. Both of these major changes illustrate the fluidity of Jewish law and tradition.
Patterns in Jewish History is a fascinating book to read, both from a Jewish and general historical viewpoint. This is not a typical history book. Rather it is more of a collection of essays that represent Rabbi Wein's opinions on various issues. These opinions are based on his years of experience both as an Orthodox Rabbi and as a historian, lecturer, and teacher. This is a book which will not only introduce you to some of the timeless elements of Jewish history, but will also point out some of the unique features of Judaism, and the Jewish people, which have enable us to survive and prosper, even during periods of unbelievable hardship. Patterns in Jewish History is an unforgettable book that will encourage you to delve more deeply into the fascinating and vibrant realm of Jewish history.
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