Abravanel's World of Torah
A Structured Interpretation - Bereshit
By Zev Bar Eitan
Renaissance Torah Press, 2012, 582 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 19, 2013
Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a famed and well-liked statesman, philosopher, and Bible commentator. He chose to be expelled from Spain in 1492 with his fellow Jews, although the king and queen of Spain were willing to grant him an exception, because of the many financial and political contributions he made to their country. He travelled to Portugal where several years later he and other Jews were again expelled. Abravanel's books, including his commentaries on the Bible, reflect his intelligence and his wide knowledge and understanding of literature and science, Jewish and non-Jewish.
However, while sharp and quite thought provoking, his works reflect a somewhat non-rational approach to life, for he frequently understood the Bible literally. Thus, for example, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was convinced that it was impossible for a human to wrestle with an incorporeal angel (for many, including Abravanel, interpreted the "man" mentioned in Genesis 32:23-33 as an angel) and for a human to defeat an angel. Maimonides therefore read Genesis 32:23-33 as a dream prompted by understandable agitation. As in Genesis 28, when Jacob left home and was fearful of his brother Esau who promised to kill him and worried about his future away from home in his exile, the Bible states he had a dream, so too here when he was returning after an absence of some two decades and was still fearful that his brother Esau might kill him, he had another dream which expressed his anxiety. Abravenel strongly disagreed and argued that since the Bible does not say Jacob had a dream, the wrestling with the angel was an actual event. Besides, he insisted, the Bible states that Jacob limped after the encounter; why would a person limp after a dream? Needless to say, despite his wide reading, Abravenel ignored the fact that some vivid traumatic dreams are so impactful that people feel the hurt experienced in the dream, at least for a little while, upon awaking.
Whether one agrees with Abravenel or not, readers must agree that this discussion is worth reading because it raises many questions and causes readers to think, do angels exist, if so, how do they act, and does God need angels to help him?
Abravanel begins each section with many deep intelligent questions that sharpen readers' understanding of the biblical narrative and prompt them to think of their own way of understanding what Abravenel is questioning. The Hebrew original may have as many as three pages of questions for each section.
Zev Bar Eitan's book doesn't purport to be a literal translation of Abravanel's commentary to Genesis. His book has positive and negative aspects. As a positive, he presents Abravanel's thoughts in a vivid updated manner. For example, "The patriarch awoke, flabbergasted. A fifteen magnitude on the REM Richter scale" (page 355). Jacob instructs his messengers to his brother exactly what to say: "The messengers were drilled to tell how Yaakov rose rapidly through the business ranks before landing an executive position in a thriving and lucrative ranching establishment. His big brother need not concern himself about Yaakov knocking on the door for a handout. Mr. Entrepreneur had turned flush with a bulging financial portfolio (387).
Some readers, but not all, may see a negative. Because an English translation or version of the Hebrew is usually three times as long as its Hebrew original, because Hebrew can make a point briefly, Eitan leaves out many discussions that some people would have liked to read to allow them to delve directly into his ideas. For example, Abravanel's intriguing disagreement with Maimonides about the supposed wrestling with an angel, mentioned above, is deleted, as are many comments of other earlier writers with whom Abravenel disagrees, although there are some 700 footnotes and some refer to these opinions. So, too, all the questions with which Abravenel introduces each of his discussions are omitted. However some of the questions are inserted in a camoflauged fashion within Abravanel's discussions. Eitan's book is 582 pages long and would have had to be at least twice as long had he not abridged it.
Other readers might object to the updating of Abravanel's language. While making the reading enjoyable, the book's language, they might argue, beclouds Abravanel's style and the subtleties of some of his thoughts. Yet, despite the paraphrased modernistic readings and omissions, readers will obtain a wealth of information about Abravanel's views, insightful ideas not found in other Bible commentaries.
Eitan told me that people can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and they can purchase a book directly from him for $30.00 plus shipping.