Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings
Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh
By Hayyim J. Angel
With a Foreword by Rabbi Shalom Carmy
KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2009, 261 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 8, 2009
This is the second book by one of America's premier rabbis. People interested in the study of Bible and how it should be studied, and people who like to read fascinating Bible interpretations will enjoy this well-written book.
As in his first volume, Through an Opaque Lens, Hayyim J. Angel presents twenty intelligent essays on the Bible. The first four discuss how the Bible should be read by offering many examples from many scholars. These four are followed by sixteen chapters that analyze various biblical episodes.
Should a Bible reader depend on ancient and modern Bible commentaries to understand what Scripture is saying? Angel answers "Yes and No." He emphasizes that people who study the Bible must consider commentaries, but not allow what the commentators say to draw their eyes away from the biblical text itself: commentators are not "substitutes for the text." We use the commentators "to teach us how to learn and think; but we also need to distinguish between text and interpretation." Angel, in a word, encourages people to use both the wealth of available scholarship and their own minds as they mine the text for meaning.
If so, may an observant Jew seek Bible interpretations from non-Jews? Angel quotes Maimonides who said that the truth is the truth no matter what its source. He also quotes Maimonides' son Abraham who reminded his own readers that the ancient Jewish sages accepted views based on whether they are true, "not because the one who says them is who he is." Angel tells the fascinating tale of Hai Gaon, one of the greatest rabbinic leaders of the tenth century who sent his pupil to the Catholic Patriarch to ask him how he understood a particular verse. Angel also cites other great rabbis and commentators opposed to such openness because of the potential influences non-Orthodox commentaries may exert. This tension lies at the heart of many of the controversies in Jewish history. Rabbi Angel personally adopts the view of Maimonides and other adherents to his viewpoint and cites non-Orthodox scholarship when he finds it helpful.
Does this mean that there is no difference between Torah study in a Yeshiva and a secular academy? Rabbi Angel answers: "In theory, the text analysis in the yeshiva and the academy could be identical, since both engage in the quest for truth. The fundamental difference between the two is that in the yeshiva, we study Tanakh (the Bible) as a means to understand revelation as the expression of God's will." The yeshiva scholarly study impacts a Jew's worldview and life; while study in the academy is pursued for intellectual delights.
Thus, the crux of Rabbi Angel's very refreshing volume is what Rabbi Carmy calls in his Foreward, "literary-theological." Angel delves into the biblical text just as any scholar would, fearlessly, vigorously, determined to mine it for all that it says, using all available resources; but remaining faithful to the axioms and commitments of traditional Jewish teachings.
Angel raises a host of interesting questions throughout his book and answers them well. If a person believes, as many sages do, that there is no chronological order in the Torah, how does this idea affect our understanding of many biblical tales? For example, did Joshua send spies to Canaan before the events narrated in chapter 1 of the book Joshua? If the events are out of order, why did the narrator place the events out of chronological sequence? What are the literary implications of the deviation from chronology?
The Bible was translated into Greek in a document called the Septuagint around 250 BCE. The Septuagint has a different order of chapters than our current Bible in I Kings: chapter 21 follows chapter 19, and 20 and 22 follow 21. Is the Septuagint's version of the story of Ahab more logical? Why did the Septuagint have its order of chapters and our text a different order?
Did King Ahab, the husband of Jezebel, have any good traits? What did the Talmuds and Midrashim say? Why were there different opinions?
The Bible commentator Malbim and the Tosaphists who wrote comments on the Talmud state that prophets do not say what will happen, but what should happen. Why is this view significant? How does it affect our reading of the books of the prophets?
The prophet Jeremiah was opposed by many religious leaders who "served God," yet they were wrong. How is this possible? What does it tell us about our lives today?
Is it proper to interpret statements made by biblical figures by saying that they were mistaken or deliberately misrepresenting the truth? Or, do biblical figures always speak the truth?
Rabbi Angel quotes Rabbi Yuval Cherlow who speculates that the spies who gave an evil report during the days of Moses were "pietists who believed that remaining in the desert was spiritually preferable to entering the land of Canaan." Didn't the spies fail to understand that the Torah requires Jews to live in this world rather than remaining secluded in isolation?
Do different books of the Bible sometimes offer totally different theological perspectives? For example, it appears that all the early biblical books, from the five books of Moses through the book of Kings state that children are punished for the misdeeds of their parents, while Ezekiel and the book of Chronicles, written after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE say "No," "the person who sins, only he shall die (Ezekiel 18:4).
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.