Unlocking the Torah Text
An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha: Bereishit (Genesis)
By Shmuel Goldin
Gefen Publishing House, 2007, 312 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 10, 2011
This is the first of a series of books in which Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, with a BS in psychology and an MA in Jewish education and a teacher at Yeshiva University, promises readers "an innovative educational approach to Torah study." He divides his volume according to the weekly synagogue Torah readings. He starts each section with a summary of the most significant parts of the portion, then focuses on an idea in several paragraphs that he calls "Context." This is followed by some piercing questions and "Approaches," the latter being a number of suggested solutions. He frequently ends each section with "Points to Ponder," ideas that should be considered.
Rabbi Goldin's answers are generally solutions offered in traditional Jewish sources. He states that he will make a distinction between the literal meaning of the Torah texts and the Midrash, ancient rabbinical exegesis that generally fascinate most pulpit rabbis to the extent that many congregants come to believe that the Midrash that they hear during sermons and in schools is in the Torah itself, is true, and a message from God. He cites an instance where he taught a college class in Yeshiva University and many of the students in the class, boys who had a broad Jewish education, believed that a Midrash stating that the moon spoke to God is true because the Midrash says that the moon spoke. He writes that Midrash "was not necessarily meant to be understood literally."
Rabbi Goldin's questions are perceptive and thought provoking. For instance, he asks: Why does God say of his creation, after the creation, that it is good? Didn't he know what he would be creating and doesn't he have the power to do what he wants done? How can people have free will when God knows ahead of time what people will do? Also, since the rabbi believes that God is involved in human life, doesn't this involvement hamper free will? Why did God create a tree of good and evil and then forbid humans from eating it? The Bible says that Cain said to Abel, but does not reveal what he said. Why? The rabbi discusses the Noahide code that tradition states should be observed by non-Jews. How does this code affect the relationship between Jews and non-Jews? Why did Jacob's mother suggest to Jacob to lie to his father Isaac? Why does God test people? Why didn't Joseph contact his grieving father during the two decades that he was in Egypt?
Goldin follows the questions with some "approaches," suggested answers. His approaches rely on his interpretations of Midrashim and other solutions and addresses proper behavior. He quotes Midrash on virtually every page but, as previously stated, he never writes that the Midrash should be understood literally. Rabbi Goldin's approach is that God is involved in human affairs, and sometimes even forces people to act in certain ways. No part of the Torah, he teaches, is superfluous. This is the position of many Orthodox Jews today. It is the teaching of the second century Rabbi Akiva and not his contemporary Rabbi Ishmael who taught that the Torah speaks in human language.
The following are a few examples of his approach. Although not in the Torah itself, Goldin states that Abraham (who he calls by his Hebrew name Avraham) "engages in self-assessment; Lot does not." Similarly, he writes: "The contrast between Avraham and Lot in the Torah deliver a twofold cautionary message which reverberates to our times:" These are behaviors we should emulate. He explains the seeming redundancy "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak" as "the text is underscoring the fundamental relationship between the two patriarchs" that Yitzchak was "his father's son. This relationship defined Yitzchak's life and behavior." (Rabbi Ishmael would say simply that this repetition is a biblical poetic style, which reoccurs hundreds of times.)
In summary, Rabbi Goldin offers challenging questions about the Torah narratives with solutions that draw from midrashic literature or from traditional sages, without saying that the Midrash is "necessarily true."