Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 25, 2009
People of all faiths who love to read the Bible for what it says rather than to learn the laws it mandates and people who love to delve into the inner meaning of good literature will love this first book by one of America's premier rabbis.
The volume contains twenty well-written intelligent essays on the Bible. The first five discuss how the Bible should be read by offering many examples from many scholars. This subject of how to read the Bible may seem rather uncomplicated and intuitive, a subject that does not require explanation, but Hayyim Angel shows that it is far from being simple. People, including most clergy, think that it is obvious how to read the Torah, but they are wrong, and because they read it from the wrong perspective or from preconceived notions of what it is supposed to say, they fail to understand what they are reading, miss the depth of meaning in the text, and, what is worse, finish their reading with a completely wrong idea about what they read.
It is not easy to read good literature - and the Bible has shown itself over the past millenniums to be very good literature – because of the many ambiguities and obscurities contained in good literature. Thus, an intelligent reader, unlike the clergy preaching from too many pulpits, is able to mine the text for the large number of meanings – not one – that it contains, and each meaning, like the sparkle in a diamond, adds to the value and the overall appreciation of and delight in what is being read.
Rabbi Angel demonstrates the broadness and depth of the biblical tales in the remaining fifteen essays by offering the views of some four dozen highly respected Bible commentators, ancient and modern, beginning with the first commentaries that are in the Bible itself, because some statements in some of the later Bible books should be understood as comments upon what is written in earlier volumes.
Angel offers his readers the views of mystics such as Nachmanides and rationalist such as Maimonides and moderns writing today who delve into biblical passages as if they were examining good classical literature.
Angel raises many intriguing questions in his book and offers a host of fascinating answers, answers that add insights.
Why did the generally rational Bible commentator Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, write that Moses dropped the Decalogue – commonly called the Ten Commandments, even though the document contains more than ten commands – because he became tired? Is Moses' fatigue the plain meaning of Scripture? Can this excuse be found or even hinted in the chapter? Certainly not! Why then did Rashbam say it? Is it possible that he wrote this unusual commentary because during his lifetime overzealous Christians were saying that God forced Moses to drop the Decalogue because He, God, was breaking His covenant with Israel over disgust at their behavior with the golden calf, and he would renew it with the new Israel, Christianity? By writing that Moses was simply weary, Rashbam dispelled this notion.
Did Abraham "sin," as Nachmanides claimed, when he told his wife Sarah that she should say that she was Abraham's sister when the pair entered Egypt and Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him to take his wife – he should not have been untruthful, he should have had faith that God will save them? Was Nachmanides overstating the concept of "faith"? What do other commentators say? Does the wording in the Bible help us answer this question?
How could Abraham argue with God and have the audacity to suggest that God is acting unjustly in planning to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Can we also question God? Was Abraham right that God was unjust?
Did God actually destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, or was it destroyed by a natural disaster, such as an earthquake? If it was an earthquake, why does Scripture say that "brimstone (was) falling from heaven"? Did the ancients believe that earthquakes come from the sky, not from below the earth? Interestingly, our rabbi shows us that the ancients did indeed believe that earthquakes come from the sky, and the Torah speaks in human language. If this is so, rather than the Torah telling its readers about miracles, the Torah is asserting that all natural occurrences, although not miraculous, are the result of God having created the world, which includes these natural laws.
Why would the patriarch Jacob, Abraham's grandson, question God's explicit assurances and even feel that he has to remind God of his earlier promises to take care of him? Is the Bible somehow showing us that such questioning is right? Or, is the Torah simply telling us that this was a moment when Jacob was greatly afraid? If so, what could this patriarch be afraid of?
Who is the real hero in the biblical tale of Ruth? Boaz is the speaker in 21 verses, Naomi in 17, while Ruth, after whom the book is named, is the speaker in only 11 passages.
Does the scriptural book of Esther make the king the focal point of the entire tale, rather than Esther? Doesn't everything that happens revolve about him, what he wants? The king is mentioned about two hundred times in this short story.
Why did Jonah run away from fulfilling his prophecy? Can a prophet run away from God? Are there details to the story that are not stated, but which an intelligent reader should read into the tale? This last question permeates the entire volume.
Rabbi Angel is fully qualified to address these and the many other questions in his book. He taught Bible at Yeshiva University since 1996 and has published articles in a host of journals. He is the rabbi of the well-known Congregation Shearith Israel, popularly called the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.