Men and Women of the Book
By Adin Steinsaltz
Maggid Books, 1994, 202 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 25, 2011
This book is part of Maggid Books' project beginning in 2011 to publish seven popular books by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The seven will be followed by new editions of more than twenty other works by this rabbi, including several previously unpublished volumes. Rabbi Steinsaltz is the well-known and highly acclaimed translator of the Talmud into Modern Hebrew with many scholarly notes explaining the text, the ideas behind the discussions, the history of the times and personalities, as well as much more relevant information.
This book introduces readers to twenty-five biblical personalities, thirteen men and twelve women, including well-known figures such as Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Abraham, and Joseph, as well as little-known personalities who should be known better, such as Michal, Jehu, Athaliah, and Josiah, all of whom made significant impacts upon world history. He devotes about eight pages to each person.
He tells readers that they should not expect an idealized portrayal because the "Scriptural style is almost always objective… The great men and women who serve as examples and models for all generations are not described only in terms of glowing admiration. Their failings, failures, and difficulties are described." He warns that the behavior of the Israelite ancestors shouldn't always be copied.
He states that he intends to "fill in some of the outlines in the picture (of these biblical figures), to clarify certain things hinted in the Scriptures." He says that no "biblical story is complete without these additional strata of content." These imaginative additions are interesting, but readers need to beware to differentiate the additions from what is in the Torah text. Unfortunately, Rabbi Steinsaltz does not always say what the imaginative additions are.
Yet the additions and interpretations are interesting. For example, he sees Eve as a "precursor or women in general." An analysis of her behavior, he says, helps readers understand women and their relationship to men. He focuses on a Midrash that the original divine creation was a single being with male and female connected back to back. He concludes from this that "Male and female are essentially part of one being." He shows how. This midrashic allegory is not only not in the Torah, but the Midrash apparently derived it from the pagan philosopher Plato's Symposium, without attribution.
Interestingly, he states that Abraham was not the founder of monotheism; people knew the concept of one God before him. Even during his lifetime the Torah reports that Melchizedek was a priest to the one God. Abraham's contribution "was simply (that he was) the first person in a long time to relate seriously to an old religious outlook which was primary and genuine." Steinsaltz discusses how the "graven image" developed from monotheism. He admits that the polytheists had many sophisticated thinkers. He recognizes that the "vivid legend of the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols…is not accepted by serious scholars."
In summary, Rabbi Steinsaltz gives readers an interesting brief portrayal of a couple of dozen male and female biblical figures and supplements these portrayals with thought provoking ideas.