Interview with Rabbi Francis Nataf

Rabbi Francis Nataf
Rabbi Francis Nataf

Author of Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus

Q. What is something you would like readers to come away with after reading your book?

I want readers to realize that authentic and serious interpretation of the Torah is not a thing of the past. The title, Redeeming Relevance (redeeming is a verb here) is meant to express the idea that one can find relevance in the text without being superficial or artificial. I would like people to take a fresh look at the text and look for patterns and literary devices that are not well known. My experience is that the Torah is so rich that there are many things still undiscovered and it is often these new discoveries that help us find new meanings that resonate with us. Of course, I think it is naive not to know how to read the text and what the great commentators of the past have said. But it is critical that we not stop there. Otherwise, the Torah risks becoming a relic of the past. My interest is that the Torah continue to be studied as a book of life but also that this study be a serious one. I mentioned in my first book that Torah study has to be a combination of art and science. One has to be creative and rigorous at the same time.

Q. Which teachers/educators/writers have had the greatest impact upon you?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is my teacher and my inspiration. I learned many things from him. As relates to my writing, I learned to trust my intuition about the beauty and knowledge that exists outside of the yeshiva but I also learned that this can only properly be integrated by someone who is a true Torah personality. In bible study itself, I was greatly influenced by my teacher Nechama Liebowitz. More broadly, I have been influenced by Rav Kook’s writings and those of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, both of whom found godliness in everything around them. That to me is an inspiration as well as a challenge. More recently, I am fascinated by the work of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Though I think his answers are not always satisfying, he is asking what I see to be the bigger questions wherein there is an interface between Judaism and the state of western civilization. It is however disappointing to me that very few people and especially orthodox Jews seem to be interested in these type of questions.

Q. Which biblical character do you most admire or identify with?

I am a big fan of Yehuda. He is someone who gets the job done, steps up to the plate without fanfare and takes charge when the need arises. He is often contrasted to Yosef and it is precisely in this contrast that he shines. Even a Jew is tempted to self-admiration when he is head and shoulders above everyone else. That is Yosef’s problem which Yehuda avoids. I think this issue of proper modesty is one that is constantly found in the bibles heroes, both men and women. What is interesting, however, is that, influenced by the west, we have also come to admire some of the heroes that were less emblematic of this approach.

Q. What books are you currently reading and/or studying?

I study a great deal of Midrash and Aggadah. I continue to be fascinated by how the rabbis go about finding meaning in the text. Both their insight and their creativity are an inspiration.
I am reading a lot of works on religion and state. Most recently, I have been studying the relationship of Islam to the state and seeing a great deal of similarity with the Jewish tradition. In general, our world is at a crossroads. It is something that all societies are confronting and there are no easy choices. It is becoming clearer that humans need religion and a connection to god. At the same time, historical forces originating in the enlightenment have made religion more and more difficult for the elites to access. I just finished reading Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community. In it, he pleads convincingly for healthy communal values. While many people agree with him, you can’t just say, “let’s care about each other.” without a motivating structure as provided by traditional religion, people are simply not able to put the interests of the community before their own.

Q. What advice would you give to authors writing a book in the same genre as you?

Perhaps the best advice to any writer is simply to write and write so more. Unless you write your idea down, you will simply lose them. At the same time, try not to be in a hurry to publish. Examine your ideas. Tell them over to others and see how they react. Seek to refine and be open to criticism. If you do this, you will come out with a much better book.

Q. What is your next writing project?

I am actually planning to take a break in the redeeming relevance series. I hope to come back to it, but right now, I very much want to write about the Jewish political tradition. One idea is to write about the Judeo-Islamic ethic. People speak about the Judeo-Christian ethic. Certainly, Christianity also has its roots in Judaism. The problem is that by the time you get to the 19th and 20th century, the ethic has become much more Christian than Jewish. In Islam, however, there is much more in common and this needs to be explored. Ultimately, people need to see god in all that is around them. Like Judaism, Islam provides that. There are Christians who also see god in everything that is around them, but I believe that Christianity is less conducive to this than Judaism and Islam.

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