Judaism: A Very Short Introduction by Norman Solomon

Posted on Jun 9, 2023
tl;dr: Not recommended without pre-existing familiarity with Judaism

A part of the Oxford ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series, ‘Judaism’ by Norman Solomon aims to introduce key concepts of Judaism and Jewish history to the gentile reader. The book covers various aspects of Judaism and Jewish history in a fairly informal ‘question and answer’ style. The sections of the book include key faith concepts, the split between Christianity and Judaism, history of sacred texts, celebrations, spiritual practice, Zionism, persecution and more. With this many (big) topics in so few pages, it should be no surprise that these topics are covered very briefly. As such, it doesn’t really act as an introduction to Judaism so much as a review for the already familiar.

Failure to Inform

I mostly read this on a flight to Israel but felt less prepared than when I started. By trying to stay both approachable and very short, many things are simplified such that it’s more confusing than informing. There seems to be a base level of knowledge or familiarity with Jewish concepts and holidays that I simply do not have, but one might have if they had grown up around Jews. No single concept became better understood to me, and I am now left with a soup of general vocabulary and vague understandings in my mind.

Additionally, the author seemed more concerned with ensuring the reader had a good view of the religion and its people than really delving into the theological meat of it all as he dedicated useless lines to saying ‘well, they’re not all rich’ or ‘well, they don’t have horns’. I really don’t think the average reader of the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series is likely to believe either of those things. It read at times more like a book for racist children than for adults because it spent far too much time defending/preaching. For example, he left out the real controversies of the establishment of Israel, brushing over it with ‘well the Jews believe it’s their right and the Arabs were nasty too’. I get that the book isn’t about the conflict, but some mature, neutral discussion should be necessary in a book with chapters like ‘Twentieth Century Judaism’.

Approachability Should Not Sacrifice

As I’ve said, this book is poor at achieving its aims. I do not think this is necessarily the consequence of the ‘Very Short’ format since I have read others in the series that have explained things properly and succinctly. I think ‘Judaism’ suffered not because of the page count but because Solomon chose to dumb down the language used into a more conversational style. Thus, things couldn’t be (or weren’t) explained with the rigour I’m used to from the series and continually wasted words on ~approachable~ phrasing. For example, in explaining the Tzedaka (~10% tithe), he used useless phrasing like “so, you’re an idealist…” or “you, when you set up your home…” The whole section could have been summarised in a single paragrah rather than the four it took up, leaving more pages to some actually comprehensive discussion of salient topics.

Find Something Else to Read

I certainly am going to be looking for something for something more comprehensive and I think most target readers of this book would be too. Beyond this, it lacks the neutrality one might expect from an academic(ish) text. If you’ve got any recommendations let me know!