by Yaakov Beasley
Having begun t read the parshiyot of our leaving Egypt, it behooves us to review one of the more important books on parshanut on Sefer Shemot to come out in the past several years Volume 2 of Rabbi Yitz Etshalom’s work Between the Lines of the Bible. Like his original ground-breaking volume, this book is hailed as an exemplar of the “new school” of Biblical interpretation, what is being called either the “theological-literary approach” or the “Gush/Herzog derech”. The roots of this methodology are two-fold, stemming from both the appearance almost four decades ago of a literary-based approach stream in academia that focused on the poetics and structure of the text as opposed to traditional critical questions about the formation of the text (and supposed pre-texts) and speculations as to the historical milieu in which it occurred; along with the revolutionary shiurim and articles that simultaneously emanated from the Yitzchak Herzog Teacher’s College and Yeshivat Har Etzion. (The exact relationship between the two streams has yet to be fully charted, see the author’s review of R. Etshalom’s first volume in Tradition 2009, 42:1, “Return of the Pashtanim” for the first attempt in this direction).
Within pages of opening Rav Etshalom’s book, one senses both the forethought and planning that went into achieving both of the goals that he set for it: to demonstrate the fundamental mechanics of how the “new school” reads the Biblical text, and to serve as an interpretation of Sefer Shemot. In this respect, volume 2 differs from volume 1, which used Sefer Bereishit as a springboard to present methodology, but not as a commentary on Sefer Bereishit itself. This time, the entries are sorted by chapter, and are meant to serve as a running commentary on Shemot as well. That R. Etshalom is an engaging speaker comes through in the clear and lucid prose; more importantly, especially for a book on methodology, he doesn’t simply present his conclusions, but guides the reader through his thought processes so that the tools can be applied elsewhere.
Almost of all the ‘tools’ of the “new school” toolbox are on display: parallelisms, chiasms, differing points of view, archeology, philology, etc. Responsive to one of the criticisms of the first volume, where each chapter consisted of only one example to demonstrate it, in volume 2, R. Etshalom provides several examples of each pattern when it is presented. The first entry reveals R. Etshalom’s structuralist roots, as he attempts to find the underlying structure of chapter 1. Like his mentor R. Elchanan Samet, he divides the chapter (ignoring the first verses, which serve as the introduction to the entire book) into two equal halves, both in terms of verses and words, with Pharaoh’s first commands to enslave the Israelites comprising the first half, and his command to the midwives to kill the male children comprising the second half. However, unlike Samet who concentrates on the literary parallels between the two halves, R. Etshalom develops a philosophical explanation as to why the two halves are necessary, based on the principle of dual causality (events in the world unfold due to both Divine plan and human actions), and then attempts to find literary parallels for each half with their literary precedents in Bereishit.
Several examples from R. Etshalom demonstrate not only the strength of his readings, but the necessity for the usage of the “new school” methodology. In his analysis of the conversation between Hashem and Moshe in the attempt to convince Moshe to serve as the Divine agent to free the Jewish people, R. Etshalom notes that Moshe speaks seven times, beginning with the eager response “Here I am” “hineni“, and ending with the rejection “Send whom you will send [but not me]”. How did this change occur? By placing Moshe’s seven statements in a row, R. Etshalom Continue reading “A Review of Between the Lines of the Bible“