Book review and interview: Judaism Alive

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Book review

Judaism Alive by Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn (Gefen Publishing House 2015)

Rebecca Klempner.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, the Dean and Rabbi of Yavneh Hebrew Academy here in Los Angeles, has just published his first book. Judaism Alive invites readers to use Torah-based concepts to live up to their potential. Lively and insightful, it offers something for readers at many different stages of life and at different levels of sophistication. The book is accompanied by a CD, also entitled Judaism Alive.

Accompanying CD

In the introduction, Rabbi Einhorn relates a personal story of his harrowing escape from a mob. That event caused him to make a choice to live a life in which “every day is filled with a sense of purpose.” (p. xi) Since the Zohar explains that G-d created the entire universe with the Torah as its blueprint, Rabbi Einhorn concluded, “[t]he Torah must be the most effective manual for empowering us to lead a life of meaning and achievement.” (p. xii) Thus, he looks into Torah sources for guidance on living a life of fulfillment.

Judaism Alive is divided into three sections, each organized around a major figure in the Torah – Abraham, Joseph, or Moses – who epitomizes certain concepts that Rabbi Einhorn would like to focus on in that section. Referencing Philip K. Dick along with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Marianne Williamson along with Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, Rabbi Einhorn weaves together a truly diverse array of sources into an integrated plan of action with Torah at its core. His handling of both Jewish and secular sources impressed me greatly.

Because I wanted to complete the book in time for the review, I read Judaism Alive straight through, but I would recommend that readers pace themselves more slowly and read a single chapter at the time, stopping between them in order to digest the material. Moreover, each chapter concludes with two to three concrete strategies with to help them apply the concepts within that particular chapter.

At the beginning of the book, I found myself comparing Judaism Alive to the works of Stephen Covey or Malcolm Gladwell – both quoted in the book – but as it progressed, I became increasingly aware of ways that its genuine Jewish perspective set it apart from other self-improvement books. As a matter of fact, in a few key areas, it veers clearly away from competing books, which sometimes put human effort and desire at the center of success rather than G-d.

My favorite parts of the book were the most personal touches, stories that happened to Rabbi Einhorn himself, and places where his deep love of learning Torah and sense of wonder at the universe peeped through. The book does have a few shortcomings: I would have appreciated it if each section – not just each chapter – finished with a summary. I also would have liked some guidance on how to choose one’s life’s mission and to identify one’s strengths, in specific terms. How does one decide they want to write a book vs. start a company, for example?

Finally, I think that while the book contains material that certainly applies to the lives of women as much as men, connecting some of the idea of “mission,” “potential,” and “success” to the unique experiences of women’s lives might have enhanced the reading experience for me.

The timing of Judaism Alive’s release could not be more perfect. Not only does the topic lend itself well to the introspection and planning many of us do around the High Holidays, but the end of the book contains a section entitled “Seasonal Wisdom to Inspire,” which contains inspiration and anecdotes perfect to share at this time of year. I’ve already had an opportunity to share several of the divrei chizzuk contained there this Elul.

Recently, I got the opportunity to chat with Rabbi Einhorn via email about Judaism Alive.

Pic for the interview part - CAN YOU EXTRACT THE CIRCLE

Rebecca Klempner: Please tell me about your journey to the rabbinate.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn: I always knew I wanted to be a Rabbi. I enjoyed leadership roles from a young age, the opportunity to impact lives through creativity. There was a moment in time when I flirted with becoming a lawyer, but my wife’s parents sat me down and asked me, “Where is your passion?” I knew right away: a life of Torah leadership.

RK: How do you envision “Torah leadership,” as opposed to simply “being a rabbi?”

SE: Torah leadership means using the message of Torah, its stated principles, and its subtext to influence a generation to live better.

RK: While Judaism Alive is full of Torah thoughts, its over-arching focus is more on success and self-actualization. How did you select this topic?

SE: Self-actualization and personal mastery are necessary components of proper shemiras hamitzvos. If my life is not in balance, how can I hope to accomplish anything? My kavana is lacking if my life is in shambles.

RK: I like that response!

The book’s style is accessible both to those who already life an observant lifestyle and those who don’t. Are you targeting observant readers, secular ones, or both?

SE: My target is anybody looking for a “pick me up,” a recharge. I know that I broke rule #1, but when I wrote I tried not to have anybody specific in mind. Just write.

RK: Late in the book, you state that Modern Orthodoxy should not represent a middle road so much as “living with Hashem fully in everything we do.” Do you feel that the mindset you are suggesting…is related to how you read so many different genres and authors, and yet also continually tie them to your Torah worldview?

SE: Yes.

RK: While your book certainly fits in with the “self-improvement” genre, I got the sense that your definition of success is somewhat different than how someone like Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar or even Eckhart Tolle would define it. Can you summarize your definition of success?

SE: I would define success very much in line with the Vilna Gaon in Even Sheleimah: either you’re moving up up, or you’re moving down down. Success is not about a destination. Rather, it’s about moving in the right direction. Are we growing in the way we help others live a better life? Are we improving our ability to study Torah? Etc. Success is a constant avodah of moving in the right direction.

RK: I love the story you tell of your meeting with the Kaliver Rebbe as a high-school senior. Knowing what you know now about self-improvement and Torah, what advice would you have given an 18 year-old you?

SE: Oh, there’s so much. There are so many distinctions I have learned at this point in my life that I do sometimes wonder what would have been had I started with those mindsets in high school. But you know what? Sometimes it’s important for our growth not to know those things too soon. It’s important for us to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. It’s important for us not to stumble on something life-changing too early because when you hear information too early that you’re not ready for, you run the risk of ignoring it later on.

RK: Why did you decide to release your CD at the same time as the book?

SE: Because I really felt the two were tied together.

RK: How do you perceive the connection between the album Judaism Alive and the book?

SE: The music on the CD is really a partial result of living Judaism Alive. The book speaks to expressing your spirituality in all of its colors. I felt that I had some music to share with the world that was of a growth-minded nature – so I went for it. The song “Mishmar,” for example, is a fun song that attempts to capture the simplicity and ecstasy of a group coming together to celebrate Torah. On the other hand, “Hold On,” is a meditation on sustaining emunah in the face of tragedy. This is what Judaism Alive means to me.

You can find Judaism Alive at Jewish bookstores nationwide and online via Amazon.com