Not long ago I was clearing out my desk (no, I wasn’t fired). I do that once in while to get rid of items long since forgotten — gum bands, old agendas — and make way for new papers and items I’d like to hang on to.
Maybe I should do that more often, because in my top left-hand drawer, nestled between some pocket directories, I found a tidbit of history, and maybe a suggestion of how Jewish thinking has changed in the past 75 years.
It was another pocket book, only this one was titled “A Book of Jewish Thoughts.” The red-cover hand-size book, dated 1943, was one of thousands the National Jewish Welfare Board distributed to Jewish U.S. servicemen during World War II. This particular copy, on its inside front cover, bore the signature of Albert W. Bloom, the first editor of The Chronicle.
The 150-pages of this tiny book contain a wealth of Jewish wisdom. Sources such as the Torah, Book of Esther, the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch and Ethics of Our Fathers are quoted. Verses from the triad of Spanish Jewish poets — Judah HaLevi, Moses Ibn Ezra, and Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Medieval scholars Rashi and Maimonides are side by side with modern Zionists Achad Ha’am, Theodore Herzl and Albert Einstein. There are even passages from non-Jews — George Washington, Robert Louis Stevenson Arthur Jamers Balfour Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, even Calvin Coolidge (go figure).
Pittsburghers will take some pride in knowing that Rabbi Solomon Freehof of Rodef Shalom Congregation made the book, contributing a thought titled “Jewish Prayer.” Here’s an excerpt:
“In ancient Israel … due chiefly to the creative idealism of the prophets religion became subjective, turning its attention from the world of outward performance to the inner world of thought and aspiration. With this deepening of the understanding, God was gradually envisaged as the one ‘who searches the heart. …’ ”
But here’s why I think this book is a barometer of the evolution in Jewish thought, or at least could be: It was based on yet another volume of the same title, that one compiled by Joseph Herman Hertz, the chief rabbi of the British Empire during World War I. He put together a book for British Jewish soldiers and sailors.
By the time of World War II The NJWB revised the book to fit the times. In the words of Walter Rothschild, the chairman of the Army and Navy Committee of the NJWB in 1943, who wrote its preface, “There are herein added many selections of special interest to the Jews of America.”
That’s probably how Freehof and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver made the book, not to mention a few dignitaries who aren’t as well known today.
Well, there are Jews in uniform today in the urban war zones of Iraq and the mountainous battlegrounds of Afghanistan. If “A Book of Jewish Thought” were revised for today’s servicemen, what Jewish thinkers would be added, what would they have to say to a modern Jew in uniform? Who would you choose?
(Lee Chottiner, the executive editor of The Jewish Chronicle, can be reached at email@example.com.)