by Amos Lassen
The beauty of Torah is that there is always something new and fascinating to learn with each reading. Personally, I never tire of reading Torah commentaries. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom shares how when traditional study meets academia and it’s rigor, we get even richer meanings of the written word. His emphasis is on how the academic fields of anthropology, archeology, philology, and literary analysis let us glean new meanings and more profound thoughts about the various writings in the book of Exodus and we can then better understand how these writings have become the backbone of the Jewish faith for thousands of years.
Rabbi Etshalom looks at what many see as the gap between academia and tradition and then successfully presents an argument for integrating archaeology, philology, anthropology and literary analysis into religious study of the Bible. It seems that academic and Torah have been at odds for so long and we now see that there are indeed methodologies that bring them together and believe it or not, this has brought about a revival of serious Torah study. (I am reminded of my mother’s standard answer to almost every question, “Do we really have to know why?”).
This is the second volume of “Between the Lines of the Bible” (I have yet to read the first) in which Rabbi Etshalom examines the sacred stories of the book of Exodus through his nuanced understanding of the Torah’s timelessness. I see this book as a “How To” guide and have enjoyed keeping it along side the original text as I make my way through the Exodus tale. Each chapter addresses a specific question that is raised by the text. That question then takes us to step-by-step answers that are the result of clear and understandable reasoning that in most cases uses modern Bible study methods. This does not mean that these new methods take the place of the old ones— they do not, they supplement tradition. Tradition is important and it has kept our religion alive— I do not see it ever being replaced by anything else. I believe that what makes this such a valuable book is that we are guided through the thought process as we read it. Remember that in Judaism there is more value in studying with someone else than in studying alone. Here you get to study with one of the best. By opening new windows to the study of Torah does not mean that we have closed other windows. The more windows we open, the more breeze we feel. Becoming comfortable with Torah is the goal but we should never feel so comfortable that we can close it off.