"500 QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ON CHANUKAH"
Book Launch Address
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Sunday 13 November 2005
My sincere thanks to my friend, Mr Clive Boxer for acting as Chair for this event, and also for his most generous and complimentary tribute. I thank him also for proof-reading the book and for his glowing review in Habimah.
I also thank the shul H.E’s, Mr Ronnie Metzger for co-ordinating the event with the publishers, Mrs Ruth Franks for organising the catering arrangements, Mrs Brenda Dresner and shul office staff for assistance with sending out of the invitations, Caretaker Ram for setting up the PA system and other assistance, Richard Hyams and his team, as ever, for security.
Special thanks to the staff of Vallentine Mitchell, Toby Harris and Jenny Kinson, for organisation of the launch, and sales and promotion of the book.
Particular thanks to my friend, Mr Frank Cass, for having rescued this book from looming oblivion after my original publishers, Jason Aronson of New Jersey, went out of business just as my book was about to roll off the presses.
As always I have to acknowledge, as ever, my overwhelming indebtedness to Gloria for all her support and encouragement. It is a pleasure to have with us members of our family: Harvey and Lorraine, Suzanne and Keith, and our grandchildren. Judith and Bob in Manchester could not make it, and we insisted that Lewis and Sue give priority to an induction ceremony for new enrolments at Norrice Lea Cheder. They and their children all lead such busy lives that it is very difficult to find a time when we are free together to meet up. One of the main reasons I write these books is that the launches offer an opportunity for a family reunion. This time, however, we only managed to assemble half the family. I suppose as this is an official event, I should welcome my son-in-law, Mr Keith Barnett, in his capacity as a Vice-President of the United Synagogue.
Last, but by no means least, I thank all of you, my dear friends and members of this wonderful Stanmore community, as well as other friends from further afield, for your presence and support today. As far as our shul is concerned, I owe a debt of gratitude to the HE’s and to successive generations of past HE’s over the past 20 years, who have all encouraged me in my literary and other endeavours. The happy and friendly relationship that I have enjoyed with them, and with my community, has enabled me to have that tranquillity of spirit that is such a spur to research and writing, and to burning the midnight oil, which, in the case of a Chanukah book, was an absolute necessity!
To write a book today is a far more challenging exercise than when I was a student. In those days, English language writers on Judaism were part of a small, select coterie of well-known authorities. The average Jewishly-committed home could be expected to display on its bookshelves around twenty-five core volumes which included the works of such worthies as Cecil Roth’s histories, Abraham Cohen’s ‘Everyman’s Talmud,’ Simon Lehman’s books on the festivals, Isidore Epstein’s theological works, Herman Wouk’s This is my God, Joseph Halperns’s history books, Montefiore & Loewe’s Rabbinic Anthology, James Parkes’ books on early Jewish-Christian relations, the Jewish Encyclopedia, Nathan Ausubel’s Treasury of Jewish Folklore, volumes of sermons by Chief Rabbis Hertz and Brodie, and Harris Swift’s popular volume of sermons, Because I believe. A student’s library would also have included the writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch, A.J.Heschel’s philosphies, Gershon Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Louis Finkelstein’s The Pharisees, and the works of Max Dimont and Leo Jung.
That was the average religiously-cultured Jew’s library. Since then the number of English-speaking graduates from the numerous yeshivot and seminaries that have sprung up has multiplied by thousands. In my day, with the exception of Nechama Leibowitz, there were no women scholars and commentators. Today all that has changed. The impetus of the internet has also helped to stimulate hundreds of rabbis to put down their thoughts on a weekly basis, to seek a global Jewish readership and to get their ideas published in book form. So today the competition is enormous.
The result of this should have been a dramatic rise in literary, scholarly and creative standards. Lamentably this has generally not been the case, and so much of what is published today is squarely within the fundamentalist genre, reflecting the lurch to the right, the closure of such Centrist Orthodox institutions of learning as Jews’ College and the failure of the United Synagogue to define itself ideologically and to train rabbis who would direct their communities accordingly.
Most modern-day Orthodox tracts are devoid of historical perspective, view midrashim as textual reality, are naïve in the extreme, and totally exclude the fruits of modern scholarship.
I make no apology for lamenting the passing of Anglo-Jewry’s premier training college for rabbis, where, in my day, in addition to Talmudics, students had to take university degrees which gave them the broadest and deepest grounding in Biblical studies, ancient, medieval and modern Bible Commentary, history and literary history, Hebrew grammar, Hebrew poetry, liturgical studies, Midrash and Jewish philosophy, and where they were expected to read scholarly journals which at the same time served to enrich their own vocabulary and expository and analytical powers.
So I am most grateful that we have a publishing house like Vallentine Mitchell, with such exacting standards, and I am proud and grateful that they chose my book for publication. It is a sobering thought that it is 16 years since they last published a book of my biblical studies, entitled Moments of Insight. I wish them every success in the future as they expand their range of Judaica. They are making a very important contribution to Jewish scholarship, as they have been doing for the past 50 years and more. And we are proud that the proprietors of this distinguished publishing house are our own Stanmore members, Mr Frank Cass and his son Stuart. There are times when it pays to have a little protektzia.
So, once again, thank you Stanmore Shul, thank you Vallentine Mitchell, and thank you friends all for your presence and support here today. I sincerely hope that you will find my book informative and enjoyable, and may I wish you all, albeit rather prematurely, a happy Chanukah.