Professor Louis Feldman received his PhD from Harvard University in 1951 and recently retired after teaching Latin and Greek at Yeshiva University for close to 60 years. A proud Orthodox Jew, Feldman is considered the world’s expert on Josephus and is the author of such works as “Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World” and “Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Listening to God, Plato’s Apology of Socrates, and a siddur. Rabbi Riskin was my student at Yeshiva University, and he recalls that I told him, “If your avocation is your vocation, you are a very lucky person.” That’s been my life motto.
What’s the best book on Judaism you’ve ever read?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks is an excellent writer but, more importantly, an excellent thinker.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?
My family was very poor and books were a luxury. But I went to the library often and read anything I could get my hands on. As I got older I became a more discerning reader.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of my parents giving me a used Encyclopedia Britannica. I actually think that was the best gift they ever gave me – I read it volume after volume!
My second favorite gift was a globe.
Why have you devoted so much of your career to studying Josephus? What makes him such an interesting figure?
Josephus is the primary source we have for the Jewish war against the Romans and is probably the closest to our American idea of a troubled fighter. He interests me because he was a man with a heritage but also “modern.” Today we would call him “modern Orthodox.” He was both an outsider and an insider to the Jewish people. He was both a Jew and a Roman.
If you could require Jewish leaders to read one book, what would it be?
I would suggest they read about Jewish history. I often quote Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Studying Jewish history has always intrigued me because it is an unbelievable history of an unbelievable people!
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the one you take most pride in?
Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World. It is a study of relations between Jew and Gentile in the Hellenistic and Roman world based on a wide variety of material including Philo, Josephus, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, the Church Councils, Church Fathers, Talmudic and Midrashic writings, and inscriptions and papyri.
While my other books are aimed at scholars, Jew & Gentile is aimed more at students and lay people. It therefore tends to oversimplify big questions, which in itself was very challenging for me. People want to read clear facts, but when it comes to ancient history, there really are few facts – there are mostly theories.
What books might people be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – in Latin.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
None I can think of.