Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier is a the founder of www.TheShmuz.com, featuring hundreds of hashkafa shiurim, and the author of several books, including “Stop Surviving, Start Living” and “Two Minutes a Day to Bitachon.”
What books are you currently reading?
I just finished Robinson Crusoe, which is a gold mine. There is such depth of meaning in this book. And because I am writing a book on marriage now, I also just read The Female Brain, by psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, which is a brilliant work that demonstrates that women are fundamentally different than men.
In the 1960s, the feminist movement and “progressive thought” advanced the notion that men and women are the same. Science now has clearly disproven this, but so many people were educated under this delusion that it became part of the culture. This delusion is a major obstacle in marriage because if you believe your spouse is just like you, you’re going to treat her (or him) like you would yourself. I’m writing a book on marriage now and am researching male-female differences.
What other marriage books are you reading? What books would you recommend to struggling couples?
One book that made a tremendous difference in my own marriage was John Gray’s excellent Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
Other books I would recommend are You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen; The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and First, Kill All the Marriage Counselors by Lauren Doyle – which is a phenomenal book and a game changer. It’s not for everyone, but there are some marriages that can literally be saved by it.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?
I had a passion for reading and read anything from The Hardy Boys to any book I could get my hands on. My parents would put me to bed, and I’d sneak out or read under the covers for hours and hours.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Either Chovos Halvavos or Mesilas Yesharim. I cannot tell you how profound an influence these works have had on me. But you need a very real mussar education for these sefarim to work. They’re not books you can just crack open and read.
If you could recommend one book to Jewish leaders, what would it be?
A rabbi today needs to be a therapist, so I believe he has to be able to recognize symptoms and make recommendations. The problem is that much in the field of psychology is extremely nebulous. Psychology is not just a developing social science, but also extremely unproven with many different schools of thought. So the question, from a pragmatic standpoint, is: What type of therapist should I suggest to someone with a specific problem?
I therefore recommend What We Can Change and What We Can’t Change by E.P. Seligman, a former head of the American Psychological Association. Seligman examined all the outcome surveys in various fields of psychology and gives you a much better understanding of which therapies really seem to work and which don’t.
What genre do you enjoy reading the most?
What I consider really valuable are books by intelligent people who spend years honing in on one small area of life and then put that information into a book. For example, Thomas Eisner wrote a book called For the Love of Insects, which is really phenomenal. Another example is Through a Window: My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall. She tells you what chimps are really like in the wild, and you can only do that if you’ve actually slept for 20 years in the jungle as she apparently did.
I own two businesses, so I’ve read quite a number of business books. One that I highly recommend, which was life-changing for me personally, is called E-Myth by Michael Gerber.
In the self-help genre: I would recommend works like Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which I believe is one of the best books written in the past 100 years. It won’t teach you good middos or humility, but it will help you effectively interact with others once you have a certain objective.
Another significant book is Feeling Good by Dr. David D. Burns, which was published in the early 1980s and was the first work that really dealt with negative thinking creating negative moods. There is also Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman – a must-read – and The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson was a Harvard-trained cardiologist and his book was the first that really promoted the idea that your state of mind affects your physiology.
On history, some excellent works are The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest; Hitler by Ian Kershaw; Atlas of the Holocaust by Martin Gilbert; Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen; and The Greatest of Friends: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, 1941-1945 by Keith Alldritt.
Some other books that are well worth reading are Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Outliers and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Are there any books on Jewish thought you would recommend?
Only one that really sticks out in my mind: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s If You Were God. To me it was an eye-opener.
You lecture publicly on helping Jews understand their purpose in life. What are the best books on this topic?
The mussar sefarim: Mesilas Yesharim, Chovos Halvavos, etc. But I felt there was a real dearth in this area, which is why I wrote Stop Surviving, Start Living, which I like to call the first perek of Mesilas Yesharim translated into 21st century language.
Years ago, many rabbanim thought reading novels was a waste of time. Do you read novels? Or just non-fiction?
A good novelist has the power to take you places you can’t otherwise go. One of my favorite authors, for example, is Jack London, who wrote works like Call of the Wild and White Fang, which really take you into a dog’s mind (even though we obviously don’t know what dogs think).
So novels allow me to appreciate things I otherwise couldn’t – for example, what it was like to live through the Industrial Revolution or America in the 1920s when your boss said, “If you don’t come in on Shabbos, don’t bother coming in on Monday” and you lost your job and there were no other jobs. Those worlds are foreign to us, but reading a novel brings you into them. And only then can you appreciate the brachos we have today.
What books might people be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
I actually own four copies of Alcoholics Anonymous. I sincerely believe this work was divinely inspired because there is such depth and wisdom in it. The 12 steps are a life-changing mussar process.
I also have many books by Richard Dawkins, who is the leading mouthpiece for atheism today. I find his books so phenomenal because he’s a brilliant zoologist and he’ll describe in extraordinary detail the complexity of a cell or an animal. His punch line always is, “And this too evolved…,” but for me, the fallacy of his argument is so ridiculous, and his books are just a tremendous chizuk in emunah.
Your parsha column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. What kind of books would you recommend to an aspiring writer with a yeshiva education like yours?
I came out of yeshiva not knowing a comma from a period. The way I learned to write was having Hemingway in one hand and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in the other. Other great writing books are The Art of Fiction by John Gardner and On Writing Well by William Zissner.