Ten Questions with Bible Scholar R’ Ben Zion Katz

October 20, 2013

Reposted from TheTorah.comDocumentaryHypothesis-fullCover_1.5

1) How did you come across academic biblical studies?
I have been interested in these issues since my last year of high school, when I learned of E. A. Speiser’s Anchor Bible volume on Genesis from a young rabbinical student, and the following year at Touro College, where I took courses in Western literature and the Ancient Near East with Professor Albert Baumgarten. For me, this has led to a life-long passion where I have read much primary, scholarly literature in the field as well as material written for ambitious lay readers. The culmination of this study came upon my publishing a short book (A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis [Urim, 2012]) in which I have set forth my thoughts on these matters.

2) Can you give us a short overview of your book?
In the first 2 chapters of my book I critically examine the linguistic and literary evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis. In chapters 3-8, I demonstrate that traditional Bible exegetes can also be quite critical, in ways that would probably not be acceptable in today’s yeshiva world. In the concluding chapter I provide an approach that I believe is traditional and academically sound, based on early sources that assume the pre-existence of scrolls that Moshe then incorporated into the Torah.

3) As a traditional Orthodox Jew, why do you value academic study?
An academic by nature, I cannot shut off my academic brains when I study Jewish texts.  As an experimentalist and a practitioner of evidence-based medicine, it takes hard data to make me change my mind.  With this outlook, I believe that Orthodox Judaism today is much less broad than Rabbinic Judaism has been in centuries past, but at the same time, modern, academic Bible scholarship is not always the hard science many of its practitioners claim it to be.  Be that as it may, modern academic scholarship has much to teach the faith community who take the Bible religiously, be they Orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Christians.

4) Can you give us some examples of what academia has taught you about Torah?
Yes. The tragic story of Yiphtach and his daughter (Judges 11:29-40) cannot be understood without realizing that houses in ancient Israel were constructed on 3 sides of a courtyard, with the animals housed outside (where we today would often have a lawn); thus when Yiphtach rashly vowed that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house after his battle with the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-31) he thought the first thing that would come out to greet him would be an animal, not his daughter.  Egyptologists explain that Joseph’s Egyptian name Tzaphnat Pa-aneah means “sustainer of life” an apt name for the one who saves Egypt from famine, and that Moshe’s name means born of (water), while Ramses’ name means born of Ra.

5) Was there ever a time that in your life that you did not accept the traditional belief?
Not really.  I have never been convinced of the evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis. However, unlike a fundamentalist (and as I say in my book) I can outline the type of proof that would persuade me of its truth – e.g. finding a scroll similar to P or D. Right now, for me, the Documentary Hypothesis is like evolution without fossils.  If hard evidence were ever discovered, I would need to rethink my approach. Read the rest of this entry »

A Review of Passages

October 2, 2013

by Nira G. WolfePassagesWeb1

“For as his name is, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25): Passages follows meticulously the fifty-four weekly biblical parashot. Rabbi Michael Hattin presents his summary of the various texts by naming each parasha with a new descriptive title. He then leads the reader to a deeper and more profound understanding of the parasha. What is particularly notable is that the reader can beneficially implement what he learns from this book into his daily life.

Rabbi Hattin describes his technique clearly in his introduction. Each parasha starts with a synopsis, followed by the discussion of important topics and concludes with suggestions for further study. An outline of a specific parasha will illustrate Hattin’s method: 1. “Vayera” (Genesis 18:1-22:24); Avimelech’s Pledge: synopsis; The Theme of the Parasha and the Episode of the Akeda; The visit of Avimelech; The Elements of the Encounter; The Interpretation of the Rashbam; The Theme of Covenant; God’s Pledge to Avraham; Reevaluating the Episode of the Akeda; For Further Study. A list of “The Rishonim: 11th – 16th Centuries” concludes the volume.

Passages utilizes a unique format Read the rest of this entry »

Between The Lines of the Bible: The Legacy of Fractured Brotherhood

June 26, 2013

by The Curious Jew Between the Lines of the Bible Exodus

Urim Publications was kind enough to send me a copy of Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study from the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary on the book of Shemot quite a while ago. It has taken me a while to read the book, but it was well worth the effort. It is uniquely fitting to read this book before Pesach, and in fact, I think many of you might enjoy reading it, so I recommend ordering it today- that way, you’ll probably get it over Chol Hamoed and will have something interesting to read during the Second Days.

Between the Lines is a thoughtfully considered, well constructed, carefully written text. Etshalom has clearly put a great deal of thought into the issues he addresses, and focuses on overall themes in addition to specific literary techniques (including chiastic structure) in his analysis. His book is academic in nature, and for academic texts, is quite readable. However, I prefer narrative-style books, especially those that weave in the original Hebrew rather than making use of the English translation. They are easier to read, and thus accessible to a larger audience. Ideally, I would have liked this book to have been written more in the style of Rabbi Ari Kahn, who uses that method of writing. While this text does have the Hebrew quoted and highlighted at the beginning of each chapter, I found that flipping back and forth between Etshalom’s analysis and that first page was somewhat of an annoyance.

Topics included in the book range from the binary structure of biblical narrative when it comes to the roots of our subjugation in Egypt, to the different derivations of Moshe’s name, to literary patterns in the education of Pharaoh, studies of intertextuality, a comparison of major characters and a focus on sanctity in time. I am going to sum up one of the Divrei Torah that I found particularly beautiful below.

In Shemot 1:1-4 we read, “These are the names of the Israelites who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.’ Etshalom notes that:

If we compare this list to Read the rest of this entry »

A Review of Visions from the Prophet and Counsel from the Elders

May 19, 2013

visions:From The Jewish Action

 Nevi’im and Ketuvim, the books of the Prophets and Holy Writings, together with the Five Books of Moses, comprise the broad canvas on which the history, destiny and spiritual mission of the Jewish people are limned. In this survey of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Rabbi Hayyim Angel achieves a rare combination of breadth and depth. While focusing on broad themes and universal messages, the treatment is far from superficial or perfunctory. Rabbi Angel presents at least one chapter on each book of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, with each chapter analyzing in depth a representative aspect of the book. Using primarily peshat, the plain meaning of the text, Rabbi Angel marshals the Talmud and Midrash, traditional commentaries and modern scholarship in expressing a view of Scripture that is creative as well as subtle and nuanced. With his direct and engaging style, Rabbi Angel conveys his erudition and wealth of knowledge to the reader in a most enjoyable fashion. Here is a small sampling of Rabbi Angel’s thought-provoking conclusions:

Joshua’s flaws made him a more effective leader than Moses to bring the people into the land of Israel.

The Book of Jonah challenges us to be absolutely committed to God while respecting other people who espouse different beliefs.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, with all of its Read the rest of this entry »

Vision from the Prophet and Counsel from the Elders

May 12, 2013

by Gil Studentvisions

Torah expertise requires, at a minimum, mastery of the entire corpus of primary literature. Detailed familiarity with the texts is a necessary but insufficient requirement of Torah greatness. This includes the Bible, yeshiva curricula notwithstanding.

On the description of Moshe’s receipt of the tablets on Mt. Sinai, Rashi (Ex. 31:18) quotes a midrash that compares Moshe to a bride. Just like a bride wears 24 ornaments, so too a Torah scholar must master all 24 books of the Bible. Why, we can ask, does the midrash locate this sensible requirement in the second half of Shemos, which largely discusses the building of the Mishkan?

I suggest that the passage immediately preceding that verse discusses the obligation to observe Shabbos. The Mishnah (Shabbos 115a) states that you are forbidden to study Kesuvim, the third part of the Bible, on Shabbos because it detracts from attendance at the rabbi’s lecture. The Gemara (ibid., 116b) quotes a later debate whether the prohibition only applies to the location or the time of the lecture. Regardless, we see a clear limitation on Bible study.

You might have thought that this deemphasis on Bible study implies its unimportance. The midrash teaches us that we should not mistake practical priorities with abstract values. Even though local concerns require lowering the urgency of Bible study on Shabbos, in the end you cannot be a scholar without mastering the Bible. You might not find time to study Kesuvim on Shabbos but that is no excuse for ignorance.

We once discussed a chapter-by-chapter method to gaining familiarity with Read the rest of this entry »

A Review of Biblical Seductions: Six Stories Retold Based on Talmud and Midrash

April 14, 2013

 biblicaleddby Evelyn Pockrass

Although the title of her book may seem provocative, Sandra E. Rapoport, an attorney who spent twelve years litigating sexual harassment cases, provides serious, methodical analyses of the stories of six women in the Hebrew Bible. These women found themselves in what we recognize as disturbing relationships with men. The tales involve seduction, rape, incest, murder, fratricide, and loss, but also triumph and the birth of sons whose descendents became well known to future generations. Rapoport notes that God did not condemn these women (although some commentators have).

Rapoport is fascinated with the women and the men in their lives – Dinah and Shechem, Tamar and Judah, Batsheva and David, Amnon and Tamar, Ruth and Boaz, and the daughters of Lot. She translated portions of the Hebrew Bible and examines them in detail, explaining the derivation and meaning of names, places, words, and phrases. She parses rabbinic literature (Talmud and Midrash) and more current writings to fill in gaps in the biblical narrative.

More than a hundred pages are devoted to notes, an extensive bibliography, a source index, and a general index. Well researched, occasionally repetitive, but always thoughtful and compelling, Rapoport’s work is recommended for Bible study and women’s groups.

 This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

Recalling the Covenant

April 11, 2013

recallingcovenantby Rabbi Louis A. Rieser

This thought-provoking commentary draws on classical Jewish sources as well as contemporary archaeological discoveries. Rabbi Moshe Shamah writes with a deep concern that readers understand the plain meaning of the text with all its associations and symbolic allusions. Shamah assumes that the Torah is divinely inspired. He also understands that the Torah addresses a sophisticated audience; his carefully considered, thorough commentary does the same.

Recalling the Covenant follows the schedule of weekly reading common in the synagogue, featuring several studies on each portion. Throughout, one is aware of the debt Shamah owes to his teacher, Rabbi Solomon D. Sassoon. In particular he references Sassoon’s theory on number symbolism in the Torah, a theory that often reveals interesting insights.

Shamah’s blend of traditional and modern sources yields insight and wisdom. He offers a panoramic understanding that leads the reader to a deeper appreciation of the text. Shamah’s commentary enriches the intellect and the soul.

This is not a book for a casual reader. It challenges us to meet the text anew and consider broader associations than initially meet the eye. Recalling the Covenant is a rewarding book that examines the Torah for its own message. Highly recommended.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

Men and Women in the Torah

March 6, 2013

by Dr. Bryna LevymenandwomenintheTorahWeb1

Men and Women in The Torah is an encyclopedic survey of the biblical characters from Adam and Eve through Zimri and Cozbi. Rabbi Shlomo Wexler has woven an intricate and elegant tapestry of texts from Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim together with a vast array of rabbinic literature. In so doing, Rabbi Wexler has highlighted the seventy facets of biblical interpretation that enhance our understanding of each personality. In addition, he has masterfully sculpted the heroes and heroines of the Torah to serve as inspirational role models for all times.



A Review of Between the Lines of the Bible

March 3, 2013

Between the Lines of the Bible Exodus

by Yaakov Beasley

Having begun t read the parshiyot of our leaving Egypt, it behooves us to review one of the more important books on parshanut on Sefer Shemot to come out in the past several years Volume 2 of Rabbi Yitz Etshalom’s work Between the Lines of the Bible. Like his original ground-breaking volume, this book is hailed as an exemplar of the “new school” of Biblical interpretation, what is being called either the “theological-literary approach” or the “Gush/Herzog derech”. The roots of this methodology are two-fold, stemming from both the appearance almost four decades ago of a literary-based approach stream in academia that focused on the poetics and structure of the text as opposed to traditional critical questions about the formation of the text (and supposed pre-texts) and speculations as to the historical milieu in which it occurred; along with the revolutionary shiurim and articles that simultaneously emanated from the Yitzchak Herzog Teacher’s College and Yeshivat Har Etzion. (The exact relationship between the two streams has yet to be fully charted, see the author’s review of R. Etshalom’s first volume in Tradition 2009, 42:1, “Return of the Pashtanim” for the first attempt in this direction).

Within pages of opening Rav Etshalom’s book, one senses both the forethought and planning that went into achieving both of the goals that he set for it: to demonstrate the fundamental mechanics of how the “new school” reads the Biblical text, and to serve as an interpretation of Sefer Shemot. In this respect, volume 2 differs from volume 1, which used Sefer Bereishit as a springboard to present methodology, but not as a commentary on Sefer Bereishit itself. This time, the entries are sorted by chapter, and are meant to serve as a running commentary on Shemot as well. That R. Etshalom is an engaging speaker comes through in the clear and lucid prose; more importantly, especially for a book on methodology, he doesn’t simply present his conclusions, but guides the reader through his thought processes so that the tools can be applied elsewhere.

Almost of all the ‘tools’ of the “new school” toolbox are on display:  parallelisms, chiasms, differing points of view, archeology, philology, etc. Responsive to one of the criticisms of the first volume, where each chapter consisted of only one example to demonstrate it, in volume 2, R. Etshalom provides several examples of each pattern when it is presented. The first entry reveals R. Etshalom’s structuralist roots, as he attempts to find the underlying structure of chapter 1. Like his mentor R. Elchanan Samet, he divides the chapter (ignoring the first verses, which serve as the introduction to the entire book) into two equal halves, both in terms of verses and words, with Pharaoh’s first commands to enslave the Israelites comprising the first half, and his command to the midwives to kill the male children comprising the second half. However, unlike Samet who concentrates on the literary parallels between the two halves, R. Etshalom develops a philosophical explanation as to why the two halves are necessary, based on the principle of dual causality (events in the world unfold due to both Divine plan and human actions), and then attempts to find literary parallels for each half with their literary precedents in Bereishit.

Several examples from R. Etshalom demonstrate not only the strength of his readings, but the necessity for the usage of the “new school” methodology. In his analysis of the conversation between Hashem and Moshe in the attempt to convince Moshe to serve as the Divine agent to free the Jewish people, R. Etshalom notes that Moshe speaks seven times, beginning with the eager response “Here I am” “hineni“, and ending with the rejection “Send whom you will send [but not me]“. How did this change occur? By placing Moshe’s seven statements in a row, R. Etshalom Read the rest of this entry »

A Review of The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

February 19, 2013


From Jewish Media Review:

The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach provides a glimpse into the unusual way in which the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach received and transmitted Torah. It also aids the reader in bridging ‘œRabbi Shlomo Carlebach the great composer/singer’ and ‘œRabbi Shlomo Carlebach the great scholar/teacher.’ Those who sing his songs, but do not learn his Torah, only sing half a song. When Reb Shlomo speaks of Abraham and Sara, you are sure he is speaking about his own grandparents. When delving into the lives of Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, it is as if he is speaking of his own parents.

The teachings in this book of commentary are not just meant to be read - they are intended to be enjoyed and experienced as œholy music. Ultimately, they are intended as a lesson in living a holy life. Wherever Reb Shlomo traveled in the world, he brought several suitcases of holy books with him. This book makes Reb Shlomo’s teachings accessible to help us carry on our journey through life.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Reb Shlomo) was born in Berlin, Germany in 1925. He grew up with his twin brother, Eli Chaim and his sister, Shulamith, near Vienna where his father, Rabbi Naftali, was Chief Rabbi. In 1939, as the war began to escalate and the Nazis’ grip tightened, Shlomo and his family miraculously escaped to New York where he spent time learning by some of the greatest Torah scholars of the last century, such as Rabbi Ahron Kotler, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Even as a young boy, Shlomo’s vision and clarity of thought set him apart from his peers as being amongst the most brilliant of the scholars. Through that vision, courage, and a deep love of all people, Shlomo took on a mission and set off on a path that many didn’t believe in.

Reb Shlomo believed that to uplift, inspire, and bring joy to every human being was truly his reason for existing. Through his words of Torah, his music and his stories, Reb Shlomo touched the hearts and souls of all who were blessed to hear him. He sought to remind people that they are never alone, that there is one God who loves them, and that every person has a unique and important mission to discover for themselves. He was able to mend the spirits and lives of the most broken, distraught people worldwide, people of all faiths and cultures. Much of Reb Shlomo’s life was spent traveling the world, where he would sing with the poor, the lost and the lonely, and always swear he learned from them.

Even since his passing in 1994, many lives have been influenced and touched by Reb Shlomo’s teachings, messages and melodies.


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