I recently met an intelligent Soviet immigrant interested in learning more about Judaism. He would like to start with understanding the basics. Such as:

How do we understand G-d?

What are the foundations of Judaism?

What is the purpose of mitzvos?

While I'm sure putting these questions out on j-se will elicit a number of excellent answers, a better option for him would be books or audio/video shiurim that have put effort into structuring the information in a palatable way.

Any ideas on specific materials or areas to look?

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    See also judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/6988. – msh210 Oct 18 '11 at 19:05
  • @msh210 - Ha! I see that I gave almost the same comment there about Horeb as I did here for Monica's suggestion of it. – Isaac Moses Oct 18 '11 at 19:13
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    does he seem to be more 'mystical' or 'rationally' inclined? there are many different approaches out there.. – Ariel K Oct 18 '11 at 22:22
  • @Ariel K, My impression is rational. – YDK Oct 18 '11 at 22:43

JewFAQ does pretty much exactly what you're looking for, I think. They have nice writeups about all kinds of issues, from basic issues of belief to various areas of practice, categorized nicely and presented on different levels for people with different levels of experience.

If the person is more comfortable reading Russian than English, he might do well with some of the many books translated into Russian through Shvut Ami, an organization that exists to help Russian Jews reconnect with their heritage. (I'm aware of Shvut Ami thanks to the strong support that R' Rakeffet, one of its founders, frequently lends it in his lectures.) There's a lot to choose from there, including a whole section on Contemporary Jewish Philosophy and three works by R' Aryeh Kaplan: including [a re-translation of] his excellent, readable translation of the Torah.

  • Looks like a great site! I'll check it out. – YDK Oct 18 '11 at 18:18

I echo (and up-voted) Isaac's recommendation of JewFAQ.

For when he wants to take the next step (which I presume he will): these are the same foundational questions/topics that need to be addressed when somebody wants to convert to Judaism. Books I have seen rabbis have conversion candidates read include:

And, of course, a chumash with good commentary.

(I haven't read Nine Questions, but I've read all the rest of these and would recommend them.)

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    +1 for Horeb. I've only dipped into parts of it, but I've seen that it does a great job of exposing the whats, hows, and whys of Jewish observance in a well-organized and inspiring manner. – Isaac Moses Oct 18 '11 at 18:55
  • Monica, based on the baal-teshuva tag the question author has tagged the question with, I assume his/her acquaintance is already Jewish. – msh210 Oct 18 '11 at 19:10
  • Thanks, Monica. I may have 1 or 2 of those stored away from my b-mitzva. – YDK Oct 18 '11 at 19:14
  • @msh210, yes he is, but I think Monica was just trying to compare beginners. – YDK Oct 18 '11 at 19:16
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    @msh210, yes, I didn't mean to imply that the asker isn't Jewish -- just that the same resources are good starting points for both. – Monica Cellio Oct 18 '11 at 20:55

I would recommend the Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Vol. l and Vol. 2. This is a collection of short works written for intelligent young people by the famous Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on exactly the topics you are interested in. This includes works on Maimonides' Principles, how to think about God, and basic expositions on mitzvos.

You might also want to get the Aryeh Kaplan Reader, which also has some similar material (especially his Collegiate Hashkafa sedries).


In order:

  • Shaare Teshuva (Rabenu Yona)
  • Derech Hashem (Ramchal) (The translation by R' Aryeh Kaplan, published by Feldheim, is recommended because it explains a little of the text in parenthesis and in the back it has lots of source references e.g. Gemara, Zohar, and the Ari z"l.)
  • Chovot HaLevavot (Rabenu Bechaye)
  • I was decidedly underwhelmed by R' Zamir Cohen's book, but the others are excellent if a little weighty for a true beginner. – LazerA Feb 2 '12 at 3:01
  • What's special about the 1983 edition of Derech Hashem? – LazerA Feb 2 '12 at 3:02
  • @LazerA: That's the version published by Feldheim that comes with all kinds of source references. I also highly recommend the (hebrew-only) edition with the commentary of R' Chaim Friedlander, also published by Feldheim, but that's for someone with several years of Torah background. – Chanoch Feb 3 '12 at 1:52
  • @Chanoch The current edition of R' Aryeh Kaplan's translation published by Feldheim doesn't have the source references? The edition I own, copyright 1997, has about twenty pages of endnotes that reference sources. Does the earlier edition have more? – LazerA Feb 3 '12 at 16:08
  • @LazerA my 1983 red edition translated by Aryeh Kaplan has many, many sources. – Hacham Gabriel Feb 3 '12 at 16:18

Although there are vast stores of great Jewish literature that provide this sort of "basic," yet vital knowledge (the Kuzari and even The Guide for the Perplexed come to mind), the book I would like to recommend for the modern beginner is Herman Wouk's This is My G-d.

This book stands apart for having a truly limpid, plain writing style that is fiercely charged with intelligence and deep coherence. It is by turns light and solemn; worldly and otherworldly; engaging and admonishing. It makes you think--and it makes you do. Every time I feel indifferent to a mitzvah, I read what this book has to say about it and am shaken to action. Every time I feel like I have lost my grip on Judaism, I return to this book and feel I have returned home.

I would also recommend the writing of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, as well as Hirsch's Horeb--as others have mentioned.


I have seen the book "Masterplan" given to bar mitzvah boys to explain some of these topics.

  • Masterplan is an excellent book for beginners, but I think it may be hard to get these days. – LazerA Feb 2 '12 at 3:04
  • @LazerA you can read it in that link :) – avi Feb 2 '12 at 6:48
  • Well, you can read large parts of it. – LazerA Feb 2 '12 at 13:49

Much of Chassidus (especially Chabad) is about explaining G-d, and the purpose of Mitzvos.

I assume he cannot read Hebrew, so here are two English sfarim on this subject:

  1. Derech Mitzvosecha (MITZVAS HAAMANAS ELOKUS). Contains relatively difficult philosophical ideas but yet a good reading.
  2. Lessons in Tanya on the Unity of G-d.

One could also go to http://www.chabad.org which has a large library of articles/books on the subject.

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    Those are great for someone who wants to study those authors in the original. If there are books written in English (or Russian) based on those works, that would help. – YDK Oct 18 '11 at 18:22
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    @YDK the links are to translations with running commentary. – Shmuel Oct 18 '11 at 18:40
  • what I meant was that the translators are doing a linear translation of the original. It's not a fluid read for beginners. A "based on" book would be better. – YDK Oct 18 '11 at 19:07
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    Chabad is very active in Russia. They've got a Russian version of their website, and I'll bet they have lots of materials in Russian. – Isaac Moses Oct 18 '11 at 19:52

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