Bringing the Prophets to Life
By Neil N. Winkler
Gefen Publishing House, 2011, 193 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 7, 2011
Many Jews consider the Bible to be the sacred text revealed by God to the Israelites trough Moses. Multiple commentaries were composed on the Torah. Some emphasized the Torah's literal meaning, such as the commentaries of Rashbam, David Kinchi, Gersonides, and Abraham ibn Ezra. Others focused on what they considered mystical implications, such as Nachmanides. Still others contain Midrashic interpretations, such as Rashi and Malbim. Yet, despite the strong devotion to the Torah, during the past couple of centuries, since the beginning of the enlightenment, Yeshivot, schools of Jewish learning, abandoned the teaching of the Torah. They taught instead only the Talmud, and rabbis delivered sermons based on imaginative Midrashim rather than the literal meaning of the Torah text. The change occurred because beginning in the early 1800s, there were many attacks against the wording of the Torah and the perceived discrepancies, attacks that the rabbis of that time did not want to address.
Today, there is what can be called a revolution in the thinking about teaching Torah. Some Yeshivot, especially in Israel, have begun to teach Torah to their students and, what is more, they are explaining its literal meaning without Midrahim, they are addressing the issues raised by the Bible critics, and writing books about it. Bringing the Prophets to Life is such a book.
Rabbi Winkler focuses on the literal meaning of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. He notes that in "recent years, however, traditional students (meaning those who are very observant Orthodox Jews) have taken to heart the words of the venerated commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), who while commenting upon the midrashic approach to Shemot (Exodus) 6:4, wrote: "But this analysis [midrash] does not fit into the text for a number of reasons." Winkler then quotes Rashi, who was well known for enjoying and quoting Midrash, as saying that the verse must be understood as it is written, without the midrashic elaboration. The new method is to do so with all verses.
Rabbi Winkler starts by addressing why the particular prophetical book that he is analyzing was written: What does it want to teach? How does it teach it? He looks at the history of the time when the events described in the book transpired. He examines the principle person in the drama – such as Joshua in the book Joshua and Samuel and King David in the book Samuel - and the rest of the people. For example, while looking at the book Joshua, he delves deep into his character, how he acted during the days of Moses, before he became the leader of the people and how he acted when he became the people's leader. He finds that Joshua was absent during crucial events in Israel's history and made crucial errors virtually every tome that he is mentioned in the Five Books of Moses.
The first time that the Torah quotes Joshua was when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Joshua waited for Moses on the mountain and was not present at the incident of the golden calf. He and Moses hear shouts from the Israelite camp. He tells Moses what he thinks is happening in the camp, and he is wrong. The second quote is his advice to Moses regarding two elders who prophesied in the camp, against Moses' wishes, and the advice he gives is wrong again. The third time that we hear about Joshua was his failure to speak when the ten spies described the land of Canaan as being unconquerable. He left it to Caleb to speak and defend Moses. Additionally he was unable to show leadership in persuading the ten men to give a favorable report. Given this past history, it is not surprising that the Israelites were doubtful that Joshua had the ability to lead them. Rabbi Winkler tells what changed their minds.
While the rabbi writes that he will present the plain meaning of the text, he does occasionally refer to Midrashim, but does so to support his interpretation. For example he quotes a Midrash that asks why Moses was told to remove both shoes when God appeared to him at the burning bush, while only telling Joshua to remove one shoe, according to a Midrash's interpretation of a verse. Rabbi Winkler uses the Midrash to support his view that while Joshua was a great leader, he was not a great as Moses.
In summary, this is a refreshing and lively look at several prophetical books that generally analyses the people, events, history, ideas, and themes in the books, by examining the text itself and not imaginative midrashic elaborations.