That has been the predominant question gnawing at so many of us since the inauguration of Donald Trump last month. At first, the answers entertained were stentorian—Organize! Galvanize! Resist! Then, slowly, we began to learn that even the most committed citizen cannot be sustained in a state of perpetual outrage. Nor should we be: Not least among the indignities of the way we live now is how much of our emotional and intellectual bandwidth is consumed by thinking and talking about the president, an obsession that would, if left unchecked, do little but cloud our judgment, sour our joys, and lead us to collapse.
And so, what now? One answer is elementary—we’re Jews; we read.
We’re not the only ones, of course: Readers across the land are sweetly responding to the rise of arguably the most book-averse president in memory by joining book clubs, and good luck trying to find a copy of 1984 or It Can’t Happen Here or any other portentous novel about life under a government that delights in alternative facts. But as you contemplate what to read next—and you should, because few human activities have the power to soothe the soul and assure it that there’s meaning beyond the bitter quibbles of Washington, D.C.—why not read something Jewish?
Our people, you may be aware, have been in a pickle once or twice before in the past 5,000 years. When pushed, prodded, or challenged, they often produced works of tremendous insight and clarity. We’re masters at composing what the late Leonard Cohen so aptly called manuals for living with defeat, which he meant in the existential, not the political, sense. Here are a few titles that stand out, guides for the perplexed in these most perplexing times:
Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Upright), by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto: Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who founded the 19th-century movement of ethical contemplation known as Mussar, once quipped that “all the classical works of Mussar demonstrate that man must fear God. The Mesilat Yesharim tells us how.” Composed by Luzzatto, a prominent 18th-century Italian rabbi, the book is divided into portals, each dedicated to a different virtue like piety, humility, or cleanliness. As only true masterworks do, it succeeds in piecing together disparate insights into a coherent system of thought. How does one live a moral and worthy life? Think of yourself, Luzzatto helpfully instructs, as a pig herder who somehow stumbles into royalty: It may be tempting to focus on all of your worldly riches, but if you are honest and humble enough to remember your origins—that whole bit about ashes to ashes and dust to dust—you soon realize that worldly riches have a strange way of falling short of satisfying your soul. To do that, you’d have to be true to your calling, which, Luzzatto states right at the book’s beginning, is simply about taking pleasure in the Divine Presence. And like all pleasure that is true and deep and nurturing, this one, too, requires the training of body and spirit alike, a lifelong process that focuses on diligent ethical contemplation.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): Drawn primarily from the Mishnaic tractate Avot, or fathers, this work delivers the ethical teachings of the great rabbis of the third century. Many Jews read one chapter a week for months out of the year, but even those who’ve never cracked it open will surely recognize some of its better-known aphorisms, like “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” which was attributed by the internet to Emma Watson but was coined by Hillel the Elder. Anyone seeking guidance on how to persist in a political reality that often seems overwhelming, though, may do better to heed Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work,” he observed, “but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
The Wisdom of the Truth, by Yehuda Ashlag: Rav Ashlag, who passed away in 1954 in Jerusalem, is the Lou Reed of Kabbalists: Other great and learned rabbis may be more famous and influential, but few will leave you as moved, as charged, and as ready to see the world and your part in it in a radically different light. That was Rav Ashlag’s mission when he sought to popularize what had previously been the purview of the learned few. God, Ashlag teaches us, is an all-giving presence who wants his creations to be happy, whereas his creations, us miserable mortals, are wrapped up in their egos and are busy taking whatever and whenever they can. Our mission, then, should we choose to accept it, is to cultivate the creator within us, learn to give, learn to overcome the darkness that threatens to hollow out each of us and open ourselves up to the light. Rav Ashlag’s work is as fiercely intellectual as it is mystical, and his intricate accounts of creation and the nature of the Divine, greatly served by Rabbi Michael Berg’s clear and accessible translation, are spellbinding.
Machaneh Yisrael and Nidchei Yisrael, by Israel Meir Kagan: In 1881, Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, wrote a small book addressed to Jewish soldiers forced to serve in the czar’s army. He advised them to remember their morality and to be as kind and as compassionate as the situation allows, but at the same time not to bother themselves with chumrot, or stringent interpretations of Jewish law. Army life, the great rabbi realized, sometimes called for compromises, and Jewish soldiers shouldn’t feel tormented when asked to perform duties, like shaving, that they’d ordinarily try to avoid. He called the book Machaneh Yisrael, or the camp of Israel, a military reference but also an allusion to the book’s message of leniency and open-mindedness. A decade later, in 1893, the Chofetz Chaim wrote a very different book for a very different group of Jews: Nidchei Yisrael, or the Rejected of Israel, was addressed to those Jews who were leaving Europe for America. For them, the eminent rabbi had nothing but warnings, restrictions, and castigations. Reading the two works side by side is a reminder, very useful these days, that the greatest minds are always mindful of context, always respectful of life’s shifting circumstances, and always ready to bend the rules to make life more bearable.
Breakdown and Bereavement, by Y.L. Brenner: Has there ever been a more cheerful title to a novel? Brenner, who was murdered by Arabs in Jaffa in 1921, was an experimental modernist, a closeted homosexual, and an intellectual who revered Nietzsche and disdained Zionism’s zeal even as he reluctantly became one of the movement’s most influential writers. He refused to pen the sort of ideologically driven propaganda so common with his peers at the time and instead explored sex and madness and all the other engines that have driven our species to despair since its dawn. Brenner’s work has lost none of its vitality, and anyone looking for a good wallow in the sweet, thick mud of joyful hopelessness could do no better.
Next time you reach for that post on Facebook, then, or that snarky tweet, or any dubious distraction, just stop. Better words await, better books just within your reach.
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