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You Shall Be Holy: A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1 by Joseph Telushkin (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 95-97 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

One of the staple “bits” of Johnny Carson’s heyday on TV was his recitation of some innocuous list from the news. Second banana Ed McMahon would respond enthusiastically, “Your list included EVERYTHING that anyone would need to know.” Johnny would turn with mock contempt and reply, “Not so, Buffalo Breath!” He would then read his own hilarious additions.

The Carson classic occurred to me because Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book You Shall Be Holy: A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1 does contain EVERYTHING a person needs to know about certain Jewish ethical topics. There is just no other way to think about this book as you read through the 500-plus pages of scholarship that cover such topics as humility, anger, speech, and revenge. And this is only volume 1! The book is an outstanding collection of excerpts from the Torah, the Talmud, and many other ancient texts, as well as the ideas of modern thinkers. Telushkin weaves a patchwork of tales of our ancestors, old and new rabbinic thought, the sayings of wise men and women, and even such disparate examples of modern times as stories of LBJ, Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, and NBA bad-boy Latrell Sprewell!

The biggest problem with You Shall Be Holy is: what are we to do with it? Not many will actually sit down and read the tome cover to cover as I did—it just doesn’t lend itself to that. The book is difficult to digest in just a few sittings, because each chapter contains short entries in no certain order. They are all interesting, but each entry does not necessarily flow from the preceding or to the next.

The volume is a great reference book, but if you put it on the shelf, you may never use it correctly. You are not supposed to refer to the text after you commit the ethical lapse. You really need to study it before you are faced with moments of ethical indecision, so that the teachings presented by Telushkin can prepare you for them. Perhaps the book could best be used as a text for a year-long weekly ethics class in a synagogue, in a law firm or hospital or other workplace, or in a ḥavurah or study group. The rich stories are inspirational for individual reading, but also are perfect for group discussion and reflection.

I assume that Rabbi Telushkin wrote this book to encourage people not only to learn and reflect, but also to actually change behavior. For that reason, I actually prefer an earlier Telushkin book. Don’t get me wrong—this is an unbelievable compilation of information from every conceivable Jewish (and sometimes non-Jewish) source. The bibliography alone, a spectacular compendium, is worth the purchase price. But it is so overwhelming that one wonders if and how it can effectively change the life of the reader.

I thought Telushkin’s The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living (published by Bell Tower in 2000) was nearly a perfect book, because it presented a new, explicit value—something to reflect on—each day. For instance, I remember now, twelve years later, something I read in the book. When you are interrupted by a loud siren, instead of being annoyed, say a silent prayer that the fire truck or ambulance or police arrive at the scene on time to save a life and help the distressed. That “Jewish ethical value” for a particular day stuck with me because it was practical and specific.

I do have one quibble with You Shall Be Holy, and maybe it arises from my role as a teacher of ethics to beginning law students. Rabbi Telushkin jumps right into his topics without taking the time to fully and carefully define ethics in general, and Jewish ethics in particular, to the average American Jew, who might have some Jewish education but not much depth in this field. Maybe Rabbi Telushkin should have started this book with a disclaimer: “Do not use this book at home by yourself as a first book of Jewish ethics! Consult your rabbi before starting a regime of ethical study.”

“Doing what is...

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