Shavuot – A Harvest of Words and Ideas

Some of this blog post is reprinted from the Society for Humanistic Judaism‘s journal Humanistic Judaism (Spring/Summer 2011) with permission.

Shavuot (“weeks”) was originally the second of three harvest festivals, celebrating the first fruits of spring planting 50 days after Passover. Rabbinic Judaism added to this agricultural observance a belief that this was a date of divine revelation. Today we can observe Shavuot as a celebration of Jewish learning and literature, a harvest of words and ideas.

Around the year 90 of the Common Era, an assembly of rabbis decided which books would be included in the Hebrew Bible. While there was no question about the Torah or the Prophetic books, there were lots of questions about Ecclesiastes and Job, which at times deny divine justice, and Esther, which never explicitly mentions God, and the Song of Songs, which includes frank sexual imagery (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7a). In the end, these rabbis chose their canonical library of 24 books, even though they knew of other books like Ben Sira that were considered important but not important enough – Ben Sira is  cited as an authority in BT Ketubot 110b but also forbidden to be read in Sanhedrin 100b.

While Humanistic Jews certainly include the Bible, Talmud and other traditional Jewish literature in their potential libraries, our catalog is much broader. What books should any Humanistic Jew want to read as a basis for Jewish knowledge from a Humanistic perspective? They need not be considered “revealed” to still be “revelatory”! And we do have a bottomless curriculum of Jewish history, culture and literature rather than more commentaries on older commentaries.

catalog cover 2There are, of course, plenty of valuable and important books that our movement and its members have produced: you can find them on the publications pages of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (we have even started creating ebook editions!). And there are many other works from outside our movement that explore the past and present of secular Jewish identity and community. What I want to explore here are scholarly and meaningful texts on Jewish life that are both well-respected and relevant to Humanistic Judaism.


Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud – A profoundly meaningful and moving psychological exploration of religion from a secular thinker and a proud Jew. Freud also explores science and a secular philosophical perspective as sources of personal meaning.

Standing Again at Sinai by Judith Plaskow – A breakthrough work in Jewish feminism which raises important issues for all forms of Judaism, including Humanistic Judaism. While Plaskow’s answers to these questions are not always ours, her willingness to challenge even the basic language of traditional prayers and divinity is a parallel to our own.

Judaism as a Civilization by Mordecai Kaplan – An amazingly insightful and still-relevant (originally published in 1934) analysis of the Jewish experience in the modern world. Again, Kaplan’s answers led more to the Reconstructionist movement than to Humanistic Judaism, but his study of contemporary Jewish identity and many of his proposed solutions are the basis of Humanistic Judaism, from the very title of the book to his focus on varieties of Jewish activity and community outside of prayer and religious study.

The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten – A dictionary of some common (and not-so-common) terms and phrases from the deep reservoir of cultural resonance that is the Yiddish language. Rosten also approaches Jewish life from a well-informed but largely secular perspective – for example, in the entry on “Adonai” [the traditional substitute for YHVH, the divine name], he includes this joke. “’God, I know, will provide,’ sighed one disconsolate Jew. ‘I only wish he would provide until he provides.’” (p. 5)

The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to their History and Observance by Hayyim Schauss – The most important guide to the historical origins and evolution of Jewish holidays. Schauss draws very deeply on traditional sources as well as modern scholarship to provide clear descriptions of holiday observances across the centuries. Its only limitation is that it was written in 1938, and there have been notable developments since (e.g. the State of Israel or Humanistic Judaism). But it is still so relevant and valid that it is still in print.

The Lifetime of a Jew: Throughout the Ages of Jewish History by Hayyim Schauss – Like The Jewish Festivals, an essential guide to origins and development of Jewish life cycle ceremonies. These two books (Festivals and Lifetime) are basic textbooks for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism’s Leadership program because they are clear, concise, and authoritative.

The Zionist Idea: a Historical Analysis and Reader by Arthur Hertzberg – An anthology of the major thinkers that articulated the movement for a Jewish state in the land of Israel. In addition to Hertzberg’s marvelous essay of Zionist intellectual history, selections from a wide range of thinkers demonstrate how much of Zionist thought articulated Jewish identity as historical, cultural and national but not religious, and also many of the challenges that we still deal with today.


Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman – A well-written and researched account of the historical origins of the Torah, based on both archaeology and academic study of the text. Friedman clearly explains the “Documentary Theory” for the Torah’s development, as well as what evidence the Torah provides regarding the events surrounding its creation.

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neal Asher Silberman – An archaeological account of Jewish origins (and also a speaker at IISHJ Colloquium ’05), this work provides an up-to-date interpretation of the latest evidence that challenges much of the Bible’s historical account, even into the reigns of David and Solomon.

From Text to Tradition: A History of Judaism in Second Temple and Rabbinic Times by Lawrence Schiffman – A very readable history of the period between the final editing of the Torah around 500 BCE and the Rabbinic creation of the Mishnah around 200 CE. Understanding the varieties of Jewish sects in this period, and the books they created, is essential to the origins of Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook 315-1791 ed. by Jacob Marcus – An essential sourcebook (with explanatory footnotes) of the major documents, figures and events of medieval Jewish life. Topics covered include Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim relations, the development of Rabbinic law and commentary, Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, and medieval Jewish culture.

Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem –Still the major introductory textbook to Jewish mysticism from late Biblical and Rabbinic times through medieval Kabbalah and early modern Hasidism, even though it was written over 60 years ago. Scholem practically founded the academic study of Jewish mysticism, including uncovering the actual author of the Zohar.

The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane Gerber – A political, social and cultural history of the “Golden Age” of medieval Jewish history. For those who see medieval Spain as a flowering of Jewish culture in creative dialogue with the outside worlds of Islam and Christianity, this work provides crucial context and sources.

The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, ed. by Jehuda Reinharz and Paul Mendes-Flohr – THE sourcebook for the modern Jewish experience, from Emancipation and Enlightenment through religious change, Zionism, Jewish socialism, migration, modern anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and more. Detailed footnotes provide historical and cultural context for each selection.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard Sachar – A tremendously detailed and insightful historical account of the modern state of Israel, released in am updated version in 1996 through the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Sachar is both an insightful historian and an artful writer whose The Course of Modern Jewish History makes a useful companion to this work.

Jewish People, Jewish Thought by Robert Seltzer – A survey of Jewish history and intellection development, from the beginning to modern times, with a special emphasis on “secular Jewish thought.” This is a very good one-volume survey history of Jewish life and thought if one wants to find everything in one place.

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made by Irving Howe – A masterful study of the immigration and acculturation experience in America, with all of its diversity. Howe pays close attention to secularist, socialist and Yiddishist organizations and trends, including plenty of primary sources and pictures, to provide an intimate portrait.


Sefer Ha-Aggadah – The Book of Legends: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash by Hayim Nachman Bialik and Chaim Rawnitzky – An encyclopedic compilation of the most interesting and relevant stories and legends from rabbinic literature, including the Talmud, traditional rabbinic midrash, and many other sources. Including both rabbinic imaginings on the Bible and the deeds of the early rabbis themselves, Bialik hoped that Sefer Ha-Aggadah would be the backbone of a new Jewish folklore, and a route to appreciate rabbinic literature as literature rather than as binding religious law.

A Life of Poetry: 1948-1994 by Yehuda Amichai (tr. Benjamin and Barbara Harshav) – A breathtaking compilation of some of the best poetry (in English translation) of one of Israel’s finest poets, and an honoree at the IISHJ’s Colloquium ’95. Amichai’s poems articulate in beautiful language a deep commitment to both Jewish identity and modern values of love, human decency, and generosity.

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg – An engrossing historical novel imagining the life and times of Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah, a rabbinic heretic from the second century CE. As Steinberg presents him, Elisha’s quest for truth takes him into Greek philosophy and culture and away from traditional Rabbinic Judaism for many of the same reasons Humanistic Judaism began.

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi – A profoundly moving study of life in Auschwitz by an assimilated Italian Jewish chemist. Levi’s impassioned yet analytic voice brings new depth and definition to the experience, and his introductory poem, “If this be a man” (which was the original Italian title for the book), is ‘worth the price of admission.’

Night by Elie Wiesel – One of the first and best-read Holocaust memoirs long before it was an Oprah book selection. Wiesel’s piece, originally written in Yiddish at over 400 pages, was condensed into a searingly-intense French version, whose English translations make for profoundly moving reading at any age from teenage forward.

This list of 24 books represents a start, and of course not everything in every book agrees with Humanistic Judaism. Most are available on sites like, including in e-book editions. Our library, as the Rabbis’ Bible, can include debatable works with which we may disagree and in which we still find value. Having these books in your personal or mental library not only looks good, but is good for you as well.

Khag Shavuot Sameakh! Happy reading!

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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