Essays on the Weekly Parashah from the Rabbis and Professors of Yeshiva University
Edited by D. Z. Feldman and S. W. Halpern
Maggid Books, 2010, 518 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 8, 2011
Fifty-six rabbis and professors composed the essays in this volume. Its tile means "From the Tent" and refers to several traditions about the tent contained in Midrashim, the ancient parables and sermons that teach important lessons, and the Torah. These sources associate the tent with Torah study. Midrashim say that the patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, studied in a tent. They picture his grandmother Sarah's tent as a place where the light of Torah shined. The pagan prophet Balaam praised the Israelites during the days of Moses: "How goodly are your tents, Jacob." The Midrashim understood the seer to see the tent as a place of study, the site that assured the survival of the Jewish people. The Torah mentions the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Assembly, during the days of Moses, from which divine teachings were taught. The volume shows the "breadth and depth of the ‘tent' of Yeshiva University" and the variety of approaches to the understanding of the Torah by its Orthodox rabbis and professors, as seen in the following examples.
The introductory essay, written by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, the Chancellor of the University, quotes extensively from mystical texts and Chassidic literature. Yet, he takes a rational approach. He makes it clear that a Jew cannot "get away with frumkeit, with piety, alone. A student of Torah must be pious, but piety itself is no guarantee or substitute for scholarship."
The essay on the portion Bereishit by Rabbi David Fohrman explores the Torah verses about the Sabbath. He examines the conundrums: Why did the all-powerful God need to rest? Why do Jews recall and celebrate the divine creation by resting, not by creating? Does the Sabbath actually remember the rest and not the creation? Is rest more important than creating? Why? What is the meaning of work, rest, and even life after death?
Rabbi Hayyim Angel offers a scholarly examination of two people who are mentioned very briefly in the Bible, but who appear in Midrashim in interesting stories that have no basis in the Bible itself. One is Pharaoh's daughter who saved Moses and the other is Chur, who the Torah states helped Moses' brother Aaron hold up Moses' hands when the Israelites fought against Amalek. Who were these two people? Why did they do what they did? What happened to them?
Rabbi Kenneth Brander tells readers the views of various ancient and modern scholars as to when and why the practice began to read a portion from the prophets, called the haphtarah, after the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath and holidays, and how the practice was different in different countries at different times. He mentions the views of Hai Gaon, Shmuel Weingarten, Zachariah Frankel, Massekhet Soferim, David Abudraham, Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, Heinrich Graetz, Reuben Margaliot, and others, some not Orthodox Jews. He points out that the Haphtarot generally have a positive message, except for one haphtarah, the one on the portion Vayeishev, and he explains why.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech discusses the controversy between the Jews and early Christians about the Ten Commandments, how the dispute led to a radical change in the Jewish worship service, and how a Christian censor altered a text in the Bible commentary of Rashi.
The books final essay, by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, observes that every time that the Bible lists the sons of Jacob, it does so in a different order. He notes that not only is the order in Moses final blessing not chronological, but it omits the tribe of Simeon. Why, he asks, did Moses give these blessings? Were they a prophecy that would predict the future Jewish history or was he commenting on the then-current situation? Why did he mention them in the unusual order? Why did he omit Simeon?
In short, this volume offers a wealth of information in an easy to read format and reveals facts about Judaism that most people do not know. The book shows that Orthodoxy does not have a single approach to life. The authors approach the Torah from a literary, historical, mystical, rational, theological, and philosophical manner, among others, and they do it well. Readers may not agree with every view that is presented, since they are so diverse, but among the fifty-six essays, they will find dozens that inform and delight them.