How the Tal­mud Can Change Your Life: Sur­pris­ing­ly Mod­ern Advice from a Very Old Book

  • Review
By – October 6, 2023

In recent years, there have been a pletho­ra of pop­u­lar books on the Tal­mud, but few treat the sub­ject with as much rev­er­ence and atten­tion to beau­ty as Liel Leibovitz’s lat­est work, How the Tal­mud Can Change Your Life. Telling the sto­ry of rab­binic Judaism through the few dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties of each era of rab­binic his­to­ry, Lei­bovitz takes his read­ers through the devel­op­ment of the Mish­nah and Tal­mud, high­light­ing impor­tant themes like friend­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, and love, which appear in each time period.

In order to make these Tal­mu­dic dis­cus­sions more rel­e­vant to our mod­ern-day world, Lei­bovitz begins each chap­ter with a sec­u­lar anec­dote that links to the Tal­mu­dic themes he will dis­cuss. In one chap­ter, he uses the friend­ship of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as a yard­stick by which to assess the friend­ship of Rab­bis Yochanan and Reish Lak­ish. In anoth­er chap­ter, he begins his dis­cus­sion of Rab­bi Yehu­dah the Prince, who wrote and arranged the Mish­nah, by ana­lyz­ing mod­ern America’s great cat­a­loger, Melvil Dewey — the inven­tor of the Dewey Dec­i­mal sys­tem. These anec­dotes ground the chapter’s themes, and demon­strate why ancient top­ics of Tal­mu­dic dis­cus­sion can speak to our press­ing con­cerns today.

It is, how­ev­er, in Leibovitz’s analy­sis of Tal­mu­dic per­son­al­i­ties where he shines. Lei­bovitz not only respects the great rab­bis of Jew­ish his­to­ry, but feels deeply for them. He sees their strug­gles as an echo of their human­i­ty and writes with great pathos, mak­ing so his sub­jects leap off the page. It’s clear that Lei­bovitz is a mas­ter of the writ­ten word. 

Despite the title, this is not a self-help book. Rather than telling us how to use the Tal­mud to grow, Lei­bovitz shows us what we can gain from study­ing it. He writes in his epi­logue about how he found the Tal­mud anew as an adult dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult point in his life. Dur­ing that chal­leng­ing time, these rab­bis became impor­tant teach­ers and com­pan­ions to him. The book does not read like a sales pitch for Tal­mud study; rather, it invites read­ers to dig deep­er into the beau­ty and human­i­ty of the rabbis. 

The artistry of How the Tal­mud Can Change Your Life is that it tells us just enough his­to­ry, and intro­duces us to just enough Tal­mu­dic per­son­al­i­ties and rab­binic tales to whet our appetite and make us want to find out more. Lei­bovitz knows that his prose can prod us toward our own per­son­al explo­ration of the Tal­mud, and that it might just change our lives as well.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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