Words of Wisdom Woven from the Weekly Parashah: Bereishis
By Shira Smiles
Feldheim Publishers, 2010, 208 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 6, 2010
Shira Smiles' book of twelve chapters focuses on the twelve Genesis portions read weekly in synagogues. She spices her writings with delightful stories. She offers her readers one approach to the interpretation of Torah. Even readers who might disagree with her worldview, a view held by many Orthodox Jews, will find her well-written and well-researched presentations interesting, informative, and thought provoking.
For example, there are two different ways to interpret the Torah, the ways of Maimonides (1138-1204) and Nachmanides (1194-1270). The former was convinced that God created the world, did so well, and that no corrective measures are necessary. God left the world to function according to the laws of nature. This does not mean, Maimonides wrote, that God could not change nature; it means that God chose not to do so. Nachmanides disagreed. Nachmanides felt that one of the greatest Torah secrets is that God is involved in earthly matters daily, there are constant miracles every second, no leaf or snowflake falls unless God makes it move. Shira Smiles, a well-respected teacher and lecturer in Israel, takes the Nachmanidean approach.
Thus she asks: since God is involved in everything on earth, what should human do? She answers by focusing on her interpretation of Genesis 1:26. The verse describes God saying, "Let us make man in our image." Since God is one, to who does the plural "us" refer? Smiles replies that the Torah is stating that humans are God's partners in the daily creations. People, she adds, should aid God in creating a better world every day.
She cites a sermon by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Why are there two versions of the creation of humans in Genesis 1 and 2? The first, said Rabbi Soloveitchik, speaks about rational people; the second of those who are spiritual. People, Smiles writes, have both natures and have a duty to improve both. This, of course, is not what the Bible says, but it is a good sermon.
This example highlights another of Shira Smiles' methods. Torah interpreters take two approaches. Some, like Abraham ibn Ezra and Rashbam seek the plain meaning of the biblical passages. Others, such as Rashi and Nachmanides, and this is the popular way of Jews, Christians, and Muslims today, try to mine the scriptural words, phrases, and passages, for homiletics, for frequently interesting but imaginative lessons that are not at all explicit in the biblical words. Smiles and the authors she quotes fall into this group of seeing the Bible say what is contained in post-biblical sermons. She fills her book with the homiletics of contemporary rabbis. Virtually all the close to fifty references in her Bibliography are rabbis who wrote after 1990. Thus, for instance, she tells us as a certainty, that Abraham sent his servant Eliezer, to acquire a wife for his son Isaac, because this is the name contained in post-biblical writings, even though the Torah itself does not name Abraham's servant.
Another example of sermonic readings is her handling of the fourth century CE Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Five Books of Moses, called Targum Onkelos. Onkelos clarifies Scripture's somewhat ambiguous Hebrew chamas, "corruption" – the wrong committed by the people killed by the flood from which God saved Noah – with the more explicit Aramaic chotfin, which means "robbers." Smiles prefers to translate chotfin as "grabbers," because this fits the point she wants to make, and says that Noah's generation was filled with "self-centered people" who were interested only in themselves, the kind of people we should not be. Again, this is not what the Aramaic translator meant, but it is a good sermon.
Other views of Shira Smiles include the following: Abraham's good deeds were physically implanted in his soul, and these character traits are physically passed into the DNA of his descendants, making Abraham's descendants biologically unique. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and as a result all of their descendants are contaminated with the original sin. Before the eating of the fruit "evil was something external."
And, so, this is a book that will provoke thought. The stimulating ideas should encourage readers to study the Torah. Fans of Shira Smiles will also enjoy a tape that she made of 89 of her classes, a set of two CDs.