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How the rabbis made history

The sages: character, context and creativity II, Rabbi Binyamin Lau, Maggid, £16.99

    The second of Rabbi Dr Benny Lau's monumental Chachamim series to be translated into English, this work, like its companion three volumes (three so far), looks at the development and challenges of the Jewish people through the lives and teachings of rabbinical leaders.

    Subtitled From Yavneh to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, this volume covers the tumultuous period after the destruction of the second Temple. It focuses on the struggle to develop a sustainable Judaism in a post-destruction milieu, the challenges posed by the Roman occupation of the Land and the development of rabbinic authority and education systems in Yavneh.

    He draws on an impressive range of contemporary rabbinic sources, medieval and other classic commentaries, as well as more academic scholarship. Of note are his references to Professor A.J. Heschel's approach to the seminal debates between Rabbis Akiva and Ishmael and his extensive use of scholarly historical works to support his understanding of the Bar Kochba revolt.

    The style is serious yet accessible, and Lau's text (expertly translated) reads less like a collection of discrete studies than a novel-like coherent whole. One way in which he achieves this is by segueing from one section to another using a particular rabbinic figure; the study of Rabbi Akiva's personal contribution to Torah study is followed by a study of his redemptive aspirations which partial fuelled the Bar Kochba revolt. An erudite and informative work, one I recommend.

    Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue

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