03 March 2014

Unauthorized, Unsolicited Review of an Excellent Textbook

When I found out that I would be teaching medieval Jewish history this year, I decided that instead of using a textbook I would compile a source-book of primary sources and give the rest of the information orally. My students are literate: I can give them sources in the original language. I believe that's far preferable to telling them “and he wrote an important sefer called the Kuzari, but we're not going to read any of it.

However, I had only two weeks to prepare the course. It would take me a few lifetimes to find all the passages I wanted. So I tried to take a shortcut: I went trawling through some textbooks.

To my surprise, I found that the textbook-writers had evidently sought out the same shortcut. They didn't cite primary sources; they cited academic secondary sources.

So I turned to those secondary sources, thinking that academics surely cite primary sources.
But they don't. They all cite each others' articles and books. So I ordered those books and looked at the bibliographies. Those, too, cite only secondary sources.
I tried tracking down, among other things, a particular halacha in the Sefer Hasidim. I have a Sefer Hasidim in my living room; I just wanted to know the number of the passage the textbooks were quoting. I tracked this halacha from bibliography to bibliography. And I discovered that no one in the chain of bibliographies had cracked the covers of a Sefer Hasidim since 1896, when Israel Abrahams wrote Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. For over a hundred years, academics have been citing this halacha to prove their theses, and not one of them has read it in the original.

If this were Jerusalem, I could knock on the twenty doors in my building like a meshulach and someone would know someone on the block who is fluent in every one of the primary sources I wanted. But this is not Jerusalem. So the clock was ticking and we were getting close to the beginning of the school year and it was looking like I was going to have to spend this entire year either trying to quickly skim every sefer ever written or else scrapping the idea of using primary sources, and both possibilities were greatly distressing...

and THEN...

...someone sent me a copy of The Chosen Path by Rabbi Binyamin Sendler.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Rabbi Sendler, so far as I can tell, actually did all that work that I could not do.
From his textbook, it appears that he went through everything ever written by the gaonim and rishonim, and excerpted the passages that are especially significant to Jewish history or that give a good picture of Jewish life at the time the sefer was written. He includes important excerpts from every work that I want my students to know about. He also includes relevant material from medieval non-Jewish writings and records. He did all the basic research that no one in the academic world has ever done (they all lean on Graetz, GAG ME WITH A SPOON who didn't do it either) and to top it all off Rabbi Sendler answers all the tricky questions about what is reliable and what isn't. He tells the story of history clearly. And he cites all his sources. Primary sources. The Chosen Path is my dream textbook.

The Chosen Path may be purchased here:

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