Open Minded Torah

From baseball to the beit midrash

By Simon Rocker, January 12, 2012

By William Kolbrener
Continuum, £13.99

You may well leave a Limmud conference feeling regret at the speakers you missed during an overcrowded programme. This year I was particularly sorry not to catch William Kolbrener, professor of English at Bar Ilan University and author of a collection of short essays, Open Minded Torah, recommended by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks.

Kolbrener will make an agreeable literary companion over a weekend, an elegant exponent of 21st-century Torah im derech eretz, rooted in traditional Jewish commitment while open to wider civilisation. He moves effortlessly from personal experience to the world of ideas; from baseball to the beit midrash; from Torah and the sages of the Talmud to Freud, Greek myth or the contemporary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, often making surprising connections along the way.

One piece compares Odysseus and Jacob, two heroes with wounded thighs; another deftly uses Sophocles's Oedipus Rex to challenge those who brandish overconfident certainties in Israel. He ranges from an analysis of the deficiencies in the American Reform siddur or in the Artscroll translation of the Song of Songs (deprived of its love poetry) to a poignant account of trying to get his son Shmuel, who has Down's syndrome, into a mainstream Jewish school.

Arguing for a "Jewish multiculturalism" in Israel, Kolbrener champions cultured complexity over over-restrictive conformity. His cosmopolitan sensibility is a model for mainstream Jewish day schools to aspire to.

Last updated: 11:31am, January 12 2012