Review by Rabbi Ari Enkin • Torah Book Review
by Ilka Gordon, Beachwood, OH
Reading the Sacred Text provides a short overview of the Five Books of Moses. The book’s purpose as stated by the author is, “a serious reading based on the proposition that the Torah says what it means and means what it says.” Well written and easy for anyone somewhat familiar with the Torah’s content to understand, Lichtenstein discusses only the plain and literal meaning of the text. Each sacred book is treated as a unique literary unit with a distinct beginning and ending. Reading the Sacred Text is recommended for all libraries because it is unique in its literal interpretation of Biblical text and it is extremely interesting and enjoyable to read.
This review appeared in the AJL Reviews February/March 2016 issue.
Continuing Rabbi Francis Nataf’s innovative analysis of the Bible’s first five books, this volume focuses on some of the text’s most perplexing stories in the Book of Numbers. It weaves them into discussions about the individual and the community, religious leadership and its abuse, and about communication and disappointment. Taking a new look at Judaism’s most basic text, Rabbi Nataf reads the Bible in ways that make it more accessible and more exciting to study. The remarkable insights in Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers opens up completely new possibilities in the biblical text.
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator, writer and thinker, and the author of Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis (Urim, 2006) and Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus (Urim, 2010). He has also published numerous articles concerning Jewish education, Bible and Jewish thought. Rabbi Nataf received rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University and holds degrees in Jewish history and international affairs.
Reposted from TheTorah.com
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 »
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 »
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 »