Covenant & Conversation
Genesis: The Book of Beginnings
A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Maggid, 2009, 356 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 2, 2011
Sir Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and one of the world's leading Jewish intellectuals. He is the author of about two dozen books. This is the first of his so far two volumes, with three more to come, with commentaries on the weekly synagogue Torah readings. He discusses the first of the five books of Moses, Genesis, in this volume. He offers four or five incisive, relevant, and rational essays on each of Genesis' ten portions. He introduces his commentary by describing the value of reading and understanding the weekly Torah portion: The weekly reading creates an encounter between the now of today and the then of the Bible, the moment and the eternity. It gives a "sense of living out a narrative, the biblical story, to which we ourselves are writing the latest chapter." He writes that many Bible commentaries examine the Torah through a microscope, looking at details, fragments in isolation, while he "looks at it through a telescope: the larger picture and its place in the constellation of concepts that make Judaism so compelling."
Rabbi Sacks' writing is clear and his explanations are delightfully rational. He tells us that the book Genesis "is not theology. Genesis is less about God than about human beings," about how to live. He is unafraid, as some rabbis appear to be, of citing non-Jewish sources, for as Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) said: the truth is the truth no matter what its source. And he cites medieval and Bible commentators. Unlike many others, he is careful to state when a tradition is not in the Torah itself, but is a Midrash (parables written by rabbis to teach moral lessons); such as the Torah does not identify the servant Abraham sent to secure a wife for his son Isaac, while some Midrashim (plural of Midrash) identify the servant as Eliezer.
All of the rabbi's commentaries are interesting and informative and many are superbly so. He tells us, for example, that the "name of (Abraham's son) Ishmael's second wife (in a Midrash), Fatimah, is highly significant. In the Koran, Fatimah is the daughter of Mohammad. Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (the Midrash where this story appears) is an eighth-century work, and it is here making an explicit, and positive, reference to Islam." He goes on to explain that both Jews and Muslims identify Ishmael with Muslims and the fact that the Bible itself reports "that both sons (the brothers Isaac the Jew and Ishmael the Arab) stood together at their father's funeral tells us that (although Ishmael was sent away from Abraham's home) they too (like Abraham and Ishmael in a Midrash) were reunited."
The rabbi includes some very interesting literary analyses of biblical stories. He devotes eight pages to The Tragedy of Reuben the patriarch Jacob's oldest son. What did Reuben do wrong that his father told him on his death bed "unstable as water, you will not be pre-eminent"? What was the flaw in Reuben's character? Rabbi Sacks analyses every reference in the Bible to Reuben and discloses a fascinating in-depth study of the man. We learn, among other things, that a person can mean well and even act well, but unwisely, and destroy himself and his family. We are also reminded that despite the desire of many Bible readers, there is no biblical figure that did not make a mistake.
Similarly, he compares the biblical accounts of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Jacob's son Judah, whose story is told in Genesis 38, and Ruth, the ancestress of King David, and the comparisons add a new dimension to both tales.
In summary, Rabbi Sacks has given us a fresh air, sensible, meaningful, and relevant interpretation of the Bible, without an overreliance on Midrash. He tells us what the Torah itself says, and he does so very well, clearly and interestingly.