Each year, National Jewish Book Awards recognize outstanding books of Jewish interest in areas ranging from Sephardic culture to illustrated works for children. Begun in 1950 by the Jewish Book Council, the awards program has recognized such notables as Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, and Elie Wiesel.
This year’s winners include two writers and scholars from Bergen County.
Ora Horn Prouser’s “Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs” – a winner in the education and Jewish identity category – delves into a familiar biblical narrative to elicit new insights into both special needs and Jewish teachings.
Rabbi Eugene Korn’s “Jewish Theology and World Religions,” a finalist in the anthologies and collections category – explores critical issues both Jews and therefore Jewish thinking faces in relating to other major religions.
Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes, is executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Her family is deeply involved in the religious life of northern New Jersey.
Her husband, Rabbi Joseph Prouser, is the religious leader of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; her brother-in-law, Rabbi Randall Mark, heads Congregation Shomrei Torah in Wayne; her father, Rabbi William Horn, was the longtime rabbi at the Summit Jewish Community Center and now is its rabbi emeritus; and her sister, Dassy Mark, is Hagalil USY’s regional director.
Prouser trained as a Bible scholar, and for 20 years she was an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She said that though she now works as an administrator, she continues to teach Bible and to consult in the creation of Bible curricula.
“My interest has not only been in research but also in connecting Bible with education,” she said.
Calling her book “a modern critical literary approach to studying Bible,” Prouser said that “[Esau] is the one who brought me to the topic…. So much of the material written about him is quite negative, looking at him as evil and horrible – the epitome of everything bad we have ever experienced.”
But, she said, what came to her “out of the blue” was that Jacob’s brother shows the characteristics of a person with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
“That’s where the whole book started, with that little thought,” she said. Indeed, what was described in traditional teachings as negative and evil actually may be “misunderstanding a lot of beautiful, good intentions, missing the boat a bit. If we understand him as having special needs, he deserves empathy.
“He’s quite a positive character,” she continued, noting that this is shown “through his love for his family and the beautiful things he does for his father. Tremendous blessings and gifts” can come through if you read the story through the lens of special needs.
She said that she recently read an article announcing that the Israel Defense Forces will now accept people with ADHD into their combat units.
“At the end of the article, it said that the IDF has long sought out [people with ADHD] for intelligence work because of the creative way they have of thinking and putting things together. It’s a perfect example of how something can be looked at as a deficit or a gift.”
Prouser suggested that traditional texts go out of their way to emphasize the good qualities of those deemed to be “good guys, while they have piled on so much negative on those not chosen.”
She pointed out as well that the whole field of disabilities studies is “not that old. It hasn’t been that long that we’ve asked what it means to approach a text through disability studies. It’s the same as with feminist studies.” While women always were in the Bible, often they were not seen, and “only recently have we asked the question, ‘What does it mean to approach these stories through the lens of feminist studies?'”
The author said she is very gratified by responses to the book, both from people in the disabilities community and from traditional biblical scholars and educators – even from readers who may disagree with her conclusions.
“They feel appreciation that it’s a careful, methodological biblical study,” she said, stressing the importance of “not just using biblical characters to talk about something but doing careful textual analysis.”
According to the author, the book draws a number of conclusions.
“But my major conclusion is that our sacred literature shows openness and appreciation for special needs,” she said. “It’s something for us to be proud of and to use as an inspiration to do the same thing.”
She also hopes that the work will encourage people to “go back to the text.”
When people see themselves in the text – when they feel that their own stories are being told and appreciated – they may be more inclined to study. “I’ve learned that everybody wants to see themselves in the Bible,” Prouser said.
She noted that she is very excited about winning the award.
“I’m very gratified,” she said. “I worked on it for a long time, and I believe in it with all my heart.”
Rabbi Eugene Korn of Bergenfield, the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat and editor of Meorot: A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse, has been involved in issues relating to Jewish theology and Jewish ethics for a long time. An expert in the area of Jewish-Christian relations, for a time Korn also was director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
Korn and Alon Goshen-Gottstein are co-editors of “Jewish Theology and World Religions,” and he wrote one of its chapters, called “Rethinking Christianity: Rabbinic Positions and Possibilities.”
“My book is an attempt by Jewish thinkers to understand world religions and the issue of pluralism,” Korn said. “We live in a world where we are constantly interacting with others with different religious views.” He suggested that traditional Jewish thought has “lagged behind” in developing a theology that “helps understand the other.”
In his book, 15 Jewish scholars from around the world, representing a number of disciplines, “think seriously about how to understand in a positive way Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the phenomenon of the Jewish people being placed in a world where we interact with others. In a sense, it’s an attempt to bring Jewish religious thought into a pluralistic modernity beyond the shtetl,” he said. “We live in a pluralistic world. We have to think seriously about this.”
A statement from the publisher pointed out that “Jewish thinking regarding other religions has not succeeded in keeping pace with the contemporary realities that regularly confront most Jews, nor has it adequately assimilated the ways in which other religions have changed their teachings about Jews and Judaism. Many Jews who grapple with Jewish tradition in the contemporary world want to know how Judaism sees today’s non-Jewish Other in order to affirm itself…. ‘Jewish Theology and World Religions’ advances this conversation.”
Korn said his chapter provides a halachic analysis of how rabbis throughout history have looked at Christianity.
“As a traditional Jew with fidelity to halachah, I need to understand how halachah can guide me in relating to the Christian world and Christianity,” he said. That’s not at the top of the agenda for many traditionalists, “which is why the book had to be written.”
Korn pointed out that parts of the book were used by Yeshiva University when students from the university’s Center for the Jewish Future traveled across the country to meet with an evangelical pastor.
“YU contacted me and asked what [students] could read in preparation for this. I gave them this chapter,” he said, calling the book “an attempt to stimulate a conversation about how traditional and modern Jews can positively interact with … those believers who are not a part of our own community.”
David Nekrutman, executive director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, said that “Just like the State of Israel has a foreign ministry to diplomatically work with nations around the world, Judaism also needs its own ministry in dealing with other religions that takes into account the advancements of how faith communities look at our religion…. [This book] provides a template on how we can work with others without compromising Judaism’s core theological doctrines.”