The best books about Jewish history

Joshua A. Fogel Author Of Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations
By Joshua A. Fogel

The Books I Picked & Why

Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works

By Herbert A. Davidson

Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works

Why this book?

The late Herbert Davidson wrote on medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophy, and Maimonides was a natural topic for him.  Of the roughly eight or ten biographical studies of Maimonides that I have read, Davidson’s stands out for the strength of its logical analysis and its great breadth.  It offers numerous insights into the polymath that is its subject.


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The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

By Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Martin S. Jaffee

The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

Why this book?

The collection of essay on the Talmud and early rabbinic literature is part of the immense “Companion” series that Cambridge University Press has been bringing out for some time.  I have read their volume on baseball and the Beatles and one or two more.  Each one of the essays in the Talmud volume is astonishingly insightful and, not always concomitant, a delight to read.  These are not the usual words associated with the Talmud.  In short, I enjoyed it immensely.


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Spinoza: A Life

By Steven Nadler

Spinoza: A Life

Why this book?

Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably read six or seven biographies of Spinoza, some considerably more helpful than others. Nadler’s study is a striking success of scholarship and biography. Spinoza’s story of being this deft thinker but also being excommunicated in Holland (and we still don’t exactly know why) can make for a great story, but that was not the case before Nadler’s book appeared. I was fortunate to be able to tell the author how I felt about his book in person.


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Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age

By Jay M. Harris

Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age

Why this book?

I have been for years intrigued by the character of Nachman Krochmal, the Jewish Hegelian scholar of the eighteenth century who wrote in Hebrew, but I was never able to find a coherent analysis of the man, his works, and his times that made satisfying sense—until I read Harris’s study.


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Jesus the Magician

By Morton Smith

Jesus the Magician

Why this book?

Finally, I offer Morton Smith’s earlier study of the real-life Jesus. Everything Smith wrote was worth the time to read.  His prose bristles with occasional invective, but always at the expense of figures from long ago. He takes no prisoners, shall we say, in his scholarship, and Jesus the Magician is exhibit A.


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