Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual: Authorship, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Exegesis,
Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy
By Moshe Sokolow
Jerusalem, 2015 • 219 pages
Orthodox Jews grow up familiar with the Bible stories from hearing them during the weekly Torah readings and studying them in yeshivah. Knowing the text and characters so closely from our youth, we often fail to think about basic questions, such as where these stories come from, who wrote them and how accurately these stories are portrayed after thousands of years. We know the standard commentaries by name but often fail to ask who they were and what influenced them to explain the Torah in that way.
Every Yeshiva College student is required to take an “Intro to Bible” course that offers an overview of Hebrew Scripture and its history. I remember my experience taking that course, which was full of lively discussion and debate as we reexamined the familiar text and its commentaries. These issues touch on sensitive theological matters, which is why it is so important that the course be taught by Orthodox scholars. However, a mature understanding of the Bible requires thinking about many of these issues, especially those that arise within Talmud and traditional commentaries.
Dr. Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education and the associate dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University, encapsulates this course in his book, Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual. He carefully describes the different opinions on issues of authorship of later books of the Bible, placement of the books in the divisions of Prophets and Writings, the transmission of the Masoretic Text and the different approaches of Biblical commentators. Dr. Sokolow writes concisely and carefully. Fully aware of the minefields of Biblical criticism and archeology, he explains that Orthodox Jews should not feel bound to respond to speculative theories, but he nevertheless provides a survey of Orthodox scholarly responses.
In his precision, Dr. Sokolow avoids polemics and apologetics. However, he also omits the back-and-forth arguments, a wise editorial decision but one that causes the book to lose the liveliness I remember of my “Intro to Bible” course. This book serves as an excellent refresher for Yeshiva College graduates who have long lost their college notebooks. It is also an important resource for any Orthodox Jew curious about how the Bible we know came to be.
Review originally featured in Jewish Action