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Torah Tapestries

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Torah Tapestries

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Torah Tapestries
Words of Wisdom Woven from the Weekly Parashah: Shemos
By Shira Smiles
Feldheim Publishers, 2012, 190 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59826-002-1

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 12, 2012

This is the second volume of Shira Smiles' commentaries on the five Books of Moses, the Torah; the first, on Genesis, was published in 2010. This book of eleven chapters focuses on the eleven Exodus portions read weekly in synagogues. She spices her writings with delightful stories. She offers her readers one approach to the interpretation of Torah, that of the ultra-Orthodox. However, even readers who might disagree with her worldview, will find her well-written and well-researched presentations interesting, informative, and thought provoking.

For example, as I wrote in my review of her book on Genesis, "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; she is convinced that God interferes daily in human activity. She writes: We "yearn for Hashem (God) to liberate our minds, bodies and souls from this chaotic world." She is convinced, for example, that God interfered and forced the Israelites to worship the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain obtaining the two tablets of the Decalogue from God. Although there is no hint of it in the Torah, she is sure that God arranges that "huge masses of people" committed murder during the golden calf worship and had immoral sexual relations. But, she continues, God also intervenes on other occasions to save people from sinning.

As I pointed out in my review of her Genesis book, "Torah interpreters take two approaches (in understanding the Bible). 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 (second) group, of seeing the Bible say what is contained in post-biblical sermons. She fills her book with the homiletics of contemporary rabbis." Thus, for example, she notes that a verse uses the term "see" twice, ra'oh ra'isi. Many biblical scholars recognize that Scripture very frequently repeats words in this fashion for the sake of emphasis; in this case meaning, "I surely saw." Like Rashi and Nachmanides, Smiles ignores this typical biblical methodology and derives a homiletical lesson from what she considers an unnecessary word inserted in the Torah to teach a moral lesson.

Smiles also takes both the Torah itself and the Midrashim that interpret it literally. Also many of her interpretations are mystical in nature. For example, she states that humans have a dechiyusa, an inner kernel of vitality that Jews need to ignite. Among other things, this mysterious item causes Jews to do penitence for past misdeeds.

But, whether one agrees with her approach to understanding Torah, how to understand God, and what are a Jew's responsibilities, her ideas are often clever, interesting, and thought provoking. An example is her reply to the oft asked question, "How can the Decalogue require people not to covet, can people control their desires?" Although not even hinted in the biblical command, she replies that the desire alone is not a violation. A person violates the prohibition against coveting only when he or she begins to plan how to obtain the coveted item.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of eighteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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