Book review – Widen Your Tent: Thoughts on Life

One of the more famous commercials in television history was for the American stock brokerage firm E.F. Hutton. The line of “when E. F. Hutton talks, people listen” was meant to indicate the importance of the views of the firm.

With that, when one of the greatest Talmudists of the past 100 years speaks, he should be listened to. When it comes to Rabbi Shimon Shkop, who headed the Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah of Grodno in pre-war Europe, listened to he is. As one of the main students of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the creator of the Brisker method, a reductionistic approach to the study of Talmud, his magnum opus Sha’arei Yosher is one of the fundamental Talmudic texts and part of the curriculum in almost every Lithuanian yeshiva.

While the core text of Sha’arei Yosher is well known, far too many of its readers bypass its introduction. But by sidestepping the introduction, they miss an opportunity to understand R’ Shimon’s worldview, where he details the purpose of life and mission of man.

It’s not coincidental that some of the greatest Talmudists of recent memory (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik perhaps the two most prominent) wrote works of significant philosophy. While Talmud and philosophy may initially be thought of as two separate domains, they are in fact dependent on each other. That’s why the introduction to Sha’arei Yosher is so central to its overall content.

In Widen Your Tent: Thoughts on Life, Integrity & Joy (Mosaica Press 978-1946351555) Rabbi Micha Berger (full disclosure: the author is a friend and neighbor), has written a book that expands on that introduction, and provides the reader a path towards personal growth and spiritual refinement.

Had the introduction been printed as an independent work, Sha’arei Yosher would likely be one of the great mussar seforim. Perhaps its lack of recognition, is that just as people often bypass haskamas, they also bypass introductions, forwards, and prefaces.

Chapter 1 of the book is the introduction to Shaarei Yosher, in both Hebrew and English, and is freely available here. The remaining 8 chapters deal with how one can improve their character traits and spirituality. This is not a trivial endeavor, as Berger writes that our character traits are nothing less than the dimensions of our soul. If those traits are lacking, the spiritual repercussions are significant, and lasting.

At the very start, Berger highlights the inherent tension when dealing with a path in life. On one side, a Jewish religious life demands fully surrendering to halacha. But if a person’s sole focus is on halacha and its study, they run the risk of walking down a path, but not with more than a vague notion of where to go, or where they are going. Berger’s astutely shows that the fully enlightened path is one that has complete fealty to halacha, along with the deeper understanding of the function of halacha.

An central point the book makes is that while Sha’arei Yosher is one of the fundamental texts on the Brisker approach and R’ Shimon one of the greatest students of R’ Chaim Soloveitchik, one can’t discuss the abstract Talmudic rules and principles of doubt, majority, presumption (which form the core content of Sha’arei Yosher), without remembering they are elements within the pursuit of honesty and part of life’s big picture.

The title of the book Widen Your Tent is meant to expand on R’ Shimon’s concept that in order to grow as an individual and develop into a true Torah personality, one must think in much more cosmic concepts, and not limit themselves to their own, often myopic concepts of what the true self is. By expanding their own tent, thinking about things in a much grander concept with a focus on the big picture of life, can one find a true and deeper purpose.

In some way, Sha’arei Yosher can be seen as a companion text to Chovas haTalmidim by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Piaseczno Rav. R’ Shapiro saw that many yeshiva students left the world of the yeshiva and embraced the myriad isms of the time. They and others left Judaism as they felt it lost its mission, and was only focused on the externalities, without any meaningful shell. Widen Your Tent addresses that problem, and provides the reader with tools to get on that path of deeper meaning.

Berger has written a most helpful guide for the contemplative reader who wants to get back on track, or perhaps even get on the track for the first time, to a more meaningful relationship with their creator, and to understand their purpose in life. This is a deep and meditative book, to which people should certainly listen.

 

 

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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