Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion
By Reuven Hammer
Gefen Publishing House, 2009, 310 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 6, 2009
The delivery of sermons is an interesting and frequently destructive phenomenon. While many rabbis stands at their pulpit and gives the impression that they are about to explain the Torah, tell their congregants exactly what the Torah is stating, the truth is that rabbis hardly ever do so. Instead, most rabbis use their twenty minute period of instruction to offer an imaginary midrashic elaboration of the biblical text, telling the audience something that the Torah itself does not even suggest.
One of the Chief Rabbis of Israel, an apparently learned and certainly respected man, delivered a sermon in which he told the assembled congregants that the story of the patriarch Abraham destroying his father's idols and being sentenced for his crime with death by fire, is stated in the Torah. Where? The rabbi s said that the Bible states that Abraham came from Ur Kasdim. Now Ur, said the rabbi, means fire; thus the Torah is saying that Abraham was saved by God from the fire at Kasdim.
Now this is not even close to the meaning of the biblical words. The noun Ur is the name of a city. The word for fire is not Ur, but or; the two are spelt differently in Hebrew. This is an example of a rabbi misinforming his congregants of what is in the Torah.
Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer does not do this. He received his ordination and doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Northwestern University, respectively. He is the Head of the Rabbinical Court of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel. The Jerusalem Post prints his column "Tradition Today." He write in Entering Torah that it "is important to know not only what the Torah meant when it was written, but also what it has meant within Judaism since then" and to be able "to distinguish between the two." He writes that the Torah contains a "worldview concerning the nature of God and of human beings." It tells us "how we are to live." Thus his sermons contain both modern ideas and traditional interpretations.
Hammer mentions Midrashim frequently, but does so only to show what the ancients understood about the biblical events, and not to assert, as the Chief Rabbi, that what the Midrash says is what actually happened. Midrash is only a parable, a learning tool. Thus, for example, while most rabbis name Abraham's servant who went to obtain a wife for Abraham's son Isaac in Genesis 24 Eliezer because a Midrash gives the servant this name, Hammer does not do so because the name is not in the Torah.
Rabbi Hammer recognizes that bible readers may be troubled by biblical laws such as those involving slavery. He compares the relatively compassionate biblical code on this subject with the harsh rules of the ancient king Hammurabi. He explains that the Torah is not offering the final word on this and other subjects. The Torah recognizes that slavery was unfortunately an accepted social practice of its day. The Torah did not condone slavery. It attempted to mitigate its harshness and wean the people from it. The Torah rules were "the beginning of a gradual change leading toward that which would be the ultimate goal," the eradication of slavery.
Rabbi Hammer's worldview and some of his interpretations are different than the one I wrote about in my Maimonides books; however, he presents his views clearly and many readers will enjoy his work and be provoked to think about it and learn more about Judaism.
Hammer emphasizes beliefs: "it is belief and not reason that will determine what one thinks (about what the Bible says and how to behave)."
Hammer quotes the thirteenth century mystic Nachmanides who castigated the patriarch Abraham for resorting to an apparent lie when he came to Egypt and tried to protect himself by claiming that his wife Sarah was his sister. Nachmanides argued that Abraham should not have lied. He should have had faith that the ever present and protective God would save him and his wife. Hammer writes that having faith is the message of this biblical tale.
In his discussion of the Numbers 20:12 story of Moses hitting the rock rather than speaking to it as God had commanded, Hammer states that Moses was punished for not having faith that God could provide a miracle that water would sprout from a rock by just speaking to it. Lacking faith, Moses hit the rock. He was punished by not being able to enter the Promised Land.
Similarly, while talking about the revelation at Sinai in Exodus 20, he write that we do not know exactly what occurred during the Sinai revelation, but what is certain is that we are taught that we should accept the "yoke of God's sovereignty" and "whatever rules God wished to place upon us."
Hammer states that the Torah tells its readers that human beings are flawed, imperfect. Thus, it is no surprise that the first human act is the breaking of a divine rule. People have free will, but "the incorrect use of free will casts us all outside of (the proverbial garden of) Eden." He emphasizes that "the most important thing that any human being can know (is) 'sin crouches at the door,' but we can overcome temptation. To be truly human is to learn how to do that and how to prevent oneself from becoming Cain."
All in all Rabbi Dr. Hammer's book of sermons is well worth the time spend in reading and thinking about his perceptive views.