New Readings in Tanach: Bereishit
Edited by Rabbis E. Bick and Y. Beasley
Maggid Books, 2011, 553 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 15, 2011
Many Jews consider the Torah a sacred text revealed by God to the Israelites through Moses. They have great respect and strong affection for the Torah. Yet, since the early 1800s, Yeshivot, Orthodox schools of Jewish learning, abandoned the teaching of the Torah. They taught only the Talmud and Orthodox rabbis delivered sermons based on imaginative Midrashim, rather than the Torah text itself. The abandonment of Torah study occurred when there were many attacks against the wording of the Torah and when there were allegations that the Tanach, the Bible, contained discrepancies. The rabbis of that time didn't want to address these attacks. However, for the past forty years, Orthodox Yeshivot, like Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, have resurrected and revolutionized the study of the Torah. This volume is the first of five books, each focusing on one of the Five Books of Moses.
This Har Etzion book contains four dozen essays by eighteen rabbis and one female scholar. The authors' approach is to avoid studying midrash and commentators, and to study the Bible through the Bible itself without the "necessity of outside interlocutors.... The essays "reflect a belief that the Torah is accessible even without (classical commentaries such as) Rashi."
The authors use a broad methodology. Instead of focusing on single words or isolated sentences, they base their examinations on an entire story, episode, or narrative, or in some cases on different books of the Bible, while they search for the meaning and significance of what is being said. They use literary tools to understand the Torah, for the "Torah is literature, divine literature, written not in a special divine language but in the language and style of man…. Different authors (in this book) use different literary tools, aside from the shared commitment to listening to every word." Two use "structural analysis," two "leading terms," two "plot analysis," three "character analysis," most "textual comparisons," and more literary methods.
For example, Rav Joshua Berman notes that the patriarch Jacob erected four matzevot, pillars, in Genesis 28:18, 31:45, 35:14, and 35:20. He raises and answers a number of questions about these pillars. What is a pillar and what is its significance? What exactly prompted Jacob to raise them? Why did he build them in these places and not in others? Why does he pour oil over the two pillars in Bet El and not in the other two places? What is accomplished by pouring oil on them? Is there any connection between pouring oil on pillars and anointing kings and high priests with oil? Why is Jacob the only patriarch who erected pillars?
Rav Yoel Bin-Nun addresses why Joseph didn't inform his father Jacob that he was still alive while he was in Egypt for over twenty years. Rav Bin-Nun analyses the Joseph episodes and shows that Joseph didn't contact his father because he was convinced that Jacob was part of the conspiracy to rid his home of trouble, just as Abraham sent Ishmael away and Rebecca urged Jacob to leave home. He cites persuasive evidence for his conclusion. Didn't Jacob, for instance, send Joseph into the hands of his brothers despite knowing their hatred for him? Why didn't Jacob come looking for him during the past two decades? God must have decreed, he thought, that he should live away from his family. Rav Ben-Nun uses his understanding to explain Joseph's reactions when his brothers came to Egypt searching for food for their needy families.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein looks into the theme of Joseph weeping, how and when he does so. He notes that Joseph's brothers never weep. "Their attitude is altogether pragmatic, practical, unsentimental. Even the suffering of their father does not move them to tears." Yet Joseph weeps eight times. Rav Lichtenstein notes that "the weeping has no uniform, monolithic, motivation or manifestation," and he analyses each of the eight times that Joseph wept and shows how they helped Joseph grow. He sees significance in the fact that Joseph didn't weep when tragedy occurred - when he was thrown in a pit by his bothers or imprisoned by his slave master – his own peril didn't move Joseph to tears.
Rav Yaakov Medan, to cite a last example, analyses the character of the patriarch Abraham by asking what there is in the Bible that prompted some Midrashim to invent the tale that Abraham's father constructed idols, Abraham smashed them, his act was reported to the king, he was sentenced to death by being thrown into fire, and was miraculously saved? This elaborate tale is not even hinted in the Torah. Rav Medan suggests that the rabbis who composed the midrash took it from the story of Gideon in the book of Judges and the story of Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria in the book of Daniel. The tale of a father being an idol maker and the son destroying the idols is what Gideon did and the three men in Daniel were thrown into the fire because they refused to worship an idol and were miraculously saved. The rabbis who composed the midrash wanted their readers to realize that Abraham had the same courageous and religious character as these four men.
But what prompted them to see Abraham being similar to these men? Rav Medan notes that both Abraham and Gideon fought a war against overwhelming odds in a strikingly similar way. Both went to war because people were killed or captured. Both restricted their forces, despite the overwhelming odds against them, to about 300 men. Both divided their forces before their attack. Both won by causing confusion in the enemy ranks. Since, the midrash states that Abraham destroyed idols and since the story of Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria's act is similar, the rabbis ended the Abraham midrash by having him thrown into fire and being miraculously saved. Thus, he goes on to say, by comparing the stories, we get a better insight into the character of Abraham.