This is an excellent, though deeply flawed, resource for anyone who wants to learn more about Judaism. Excellent because it covers a wide variety of topics but still, in many cases, in more detail and depth than even many fairly well-educated Jews would know; and deeply flawed because, well, I’ll get to that.
The first chapter focuses on synagogues and prayer, discussing the most important prayers like the Sh’ma and the Amidah, ritual objects like tallitot and tefillin, and synagogues and the major Jewish movements. There’s a section on “gay and lesbian synagogues” (bi and trans people are never even mentioned). The descriptions are accurate and informative. Shabbat is only briefly discussed.
Shabbat is in the next section, which is on sacred time and holidays. The opening discusses one of the major differences between Judaism and many other religions: other religions have sacred places, Robinson says, referencing Abraham Joshua Heschel. Jews have sacred time. A synagogue is holy because Jews pray there, not because synagogues are inherently holy places. The section on Shabbat enumerates the various categories of forbidden work, which does not do most modern Jews much good, but Robinson later translates that into more straightforward directions on the major activities forbidden to twenty-first century Orthodox Jews. (People looking for directions on how to live an Orthodox life, however, should read Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s To Be a Jew, which focuses on Orthodox practice. George Robinson, FYI, is Reform, and Essential Judaism has to cover many other topics, not just practice.)
This section follows the Jewish ritual around from Rosh HaShanah to Tisha b’Av, with brief descriptions of each holiday. Robinson goes into some detail about Sukkot and the Four Kinds and the Passover seder, especially the Four Questions. One problem I noticed with the section on Yom Kippur is his statement that one does not wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur because “one does not ask forgiveness while wearing the skin of another of the Creator’s creatures.” That’s great, and as a (sort of) vegetarian I think that’s very moving, except that wearing, say, a leather belt or a leather kippah on Yom Kippur is perfectly kosher.
In Chapter Three, the topic turns to the Jewish life cycle. Despite the flaws I’ve picked out of the earlier sections, I think they’re for the most part very well done. I have more problems with this section. Part of this is just that Essential Judaism was written fifteen years ago, so some of the positions Robinson discusses are out of date, like the Reform position on abortion. He quotes the position of the Reform rabbinate as being for abortion when the life of the mother is at risk, but saying they can’t “encourage” abortion in other cases, whereas my observation is that now most Reform rabbis are more whole-heartedly pro-choice.
Nowhere in the entire section on marriage is same-sex or same-gender marriage discussed. Again, I think this is because Essential Judaism was written fifteen years ago. I have a more recent book of his that discusses the Torah and has a short Torah commentary, and as I recall there’s a quite reasonable section on the Torah and queer people.
The next chapter focuses, as the chapter is called, on “Living a Jewish Life.” This is the chapter that most discusses how to actually practice Judaism. As I said, Robinson has to describe practice for all of the major movements in sixty pages, so readers looking for a more in-depth discussion of Jewish practice shouldn’t count on this to be their guide. But this chapter isn’t supposed to give the reader a detailed description of how to practice Judaism; it’s supposed to introduce the reader to the basics: the mitzvot, an overview of how to keep kosher (there’s a more detailed guide in the appendices), and so on. There’s a short section on sexuality, which again—written fifteen years ago—never even mentions queer people.
The Hebrew Bible is the topic of the next chapter. The opening pages talk about the Tanakh in general, giving the names of the various books in Hebrew (and cautioning readers that even most Jews won’t know the Hebrew names), giving an overview and explication of the Tanakh as a whole. Robinson goes into some details on how the Torah is read over the year. Then he gives short summaries of the various books of the Hebrew Bible. (Readers who enjoy this section should check out his 2006 book, Essential Torah.) The summaries rarely go into much depth, but they do an a very good job of acquainting someone new to Judaism with the content of the Jewish Bible.
The chapter on rabbinic commentary on the Torah goes into some detail on the various ways of reading the Torah. He discusses the different Jewish factions at the time of the Second Temple, such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The history of the Talmud, the Mishnah and the Gemara, is also given, from when it was first written to its life in medieval Europe, where it had the dubious distinction of being one of the most burned books. There’s a brief section on later rabbinic debates.
Chapter Seven is, appropriately enough, on Kabbalah and other Jewish mysticism, which I will not talk about here.
The cold(ish), hard(ish) logic of philosophy is discussed in the next chapter, from Philo to Maimonides to Heschel and more recent philosophers. Note that Robinson only includes philosophers who focused their efforts on religion, so many are not included. This is totally understandable; if Robinson did try to include them, the book would probably be three times as long.
The final chapter is on Jewish history “Beyond the Rabbis,” as Robinson says. My criticism of this is how incredibly Eurocentric it is, apart from the sections on Zionism and Israel. Mizrahi Jews are never even mentioned. This is a very common problem in books written by Ashkenazi Jews: they’re happy to talk about Maimonides and Judah HaLevi and the rest, but as soon as they get to modern times, it’s US and Europe and that’s it. As you may have noticed, this is more a critique of the genre as of this particular book.
One of the aspects of Essential Judaism that I really appreciated was how progressive the religious parts of this book are. I realize to some more traditional Jews this might not be a good thing, but I really liked it. For example, Robinson uses gender-neutral language when referring to God throughout the book. When he talks about a hypothetical modern-day Jew, he often uses feminine pronouns, instead of using masculine ones and insisting they’re gender-neutral. Overall, despite, as I’ve said, the problems I teased out, Essential Judaism is a fine place for someone new to Judaism to start.