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 the Bible through the Nach Yomi Companion. OU Press (where I serve in an advisory capacity) has published another book that offers a very different kind of biblical overview. R. Hayyim Angel’s Vision From The Prophet And Counsel From The Elders: A Survey Of Nevi’im and Ketuvim provides an overview of Nakh, the Hebrew Bible excluding the Pentateuch. Meaningfully engaging the Prophets and Hagiographa in a single book is no small task. It requires a master pedagogue like R. Hayyim Angel, whose Yeshiva University classes on Bible are legendary. (See here for a review of one of his earlier books: link)
The Bible contains a variety of literature–books of prophecy, history, poetry and wisdom–posing a significant challenge to anyone wishing to survey it all in a single volume. R. Angel’s strategy is to explain some of the key themes in each book, occasionally discussing discrete sections within a book or analyzing specific texts. In this way, he allows readers access to some profundity and relevance of the Bible via deep commentarial study while still providing a brief overview to each book. As we have come to expect from R. Angel, the result is stunning.
R. Angel resists the urge to summarize the story of historical books like Joshua and Judges. He instead highlights key themes, such as the contrast between Moshe and Yehoshua, as they appear throughout the books, incidentally surveying broadly the texts. R. Angel’s first chapter on Judges explores the continuity between Joshua and Judges, how passages in the earlier book set the stage for the latter. His second chapter studies Gidon, marking him a transitional figure between the saintly judges in the first half of the book and the more challenging judges in the second half.
Some chapters focus on moral or theological topics, such as Joshua’s command to obliterate the Canaanites and Lamentations’ response to destruction. Learning the Bible without such studies misses the point. R. Angel accepts that some biblical characters are flawed, such as everyone but the title character in Ruth. I find this quickness to find fault a bit unsettling but recognize R. Angel’s care in reading the text.
The book of Jonah, when seen chapter by chapter, is “a larger-than-life story of every individual who seeks closeness to God” (p. 172) and the moral ambiguities encountered in confronting divine justice. R. Angel devotes considerable space to arguing that the traditional approach accepts multiple authorship of Psalms. In a bird’s-eye overview of the entire book, he suggests an order to the collection of prayers. “Psalms goes through a process of transition, bringing readers on a journey from a stable world, to instability, and then provides mechanisms for encouraging repentance, faith, and hope” (p. 240).
R. Angel’s measured approach, his commitment to the text without discarding tradition, his command of commentaries without sacrificing originality, invites readers of all backgrounds to engage the Bible with an open but reverent mind. This masterful volume is an essential book, a gateway to Torah, to wisdom and to understanding, whether you read it on Shabbos or during the week.
(Yes, I know that technically this book only addresses 19 of the 24 books of the Bible)
This review first appeared on Hirhurim – Musings