Tuesday, June 25th, 2024

Books of Interest: New Writings on the Torah

October 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Books of Interest

Created Equal

Joshua A. Berman, Created Equal:  How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Oxford University Press, 2008. 222 pages + bibliography & indeces.

Yitzchak B. Gottlieb, Order in the Bible (Yesh Seder La-Mikra): The Arrangement of the Torah in Rabbinic and Medieval Jewish Commentary,  Bar Ilan University Press & Magnes Press, 2009.  423 pages + biblioraphy and indeces.  [Hebrew]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation:  Genesis – The Book of Beginnings, Magid Press & The Orthodox Union, 2009.  356 pages.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Torah Lights:  Bereshit – Confronting Life, Love, & Family, Magid Press, 2009.  327 pages.

JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible, retold by Ellen Frankel, Illustrated by Avi Katz.  Jewish Publication Society, 2009.  240 pages.

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh:  Pocket Edition

Created Equal, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, presents a fascinating read of the social and political consequences of Biblical theology.  Rabbi Berman’s fundamental thesis claims that the theological and economic structure of the Torah presented a radically different socio-political understanding of man that offered equality to greater numbers of people.  The book proves this historical point by detailing the economic and political structures of other societies in antiquity and the theological frameworks that justified these systems.  Berman, a professor at Bar Ilan university and fellow at the Shalem Center, employs socio-critical theories which are somewhat complex, but his lucid and well-structured writing make this insightful and thought-provoking work accessible to scholars and lay readers alike.  This is a welcome addition to the growing literature of Biblical scholarship that addresses the  socio-political implications of the Bible’s teachings. 1

Yitzchak Gottlieb’s book is a very impressive systematic presentation of the concept of ein mukdam u-meuchar ba-torah as found in Chazal, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban.  Gottlieb analyzes each figure on their own terms, explaining their perspectives on the schematic order and conjunction of the Torah’s laws and narrative.  Additionally, Gottlieb separately lists and briefly explains each time these figures employ this concept.  This book is a valuable resource toward helping us understand this central question of Biblical interpretation.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of divrei Torah on the Torah portion written for newspapers or email distribution.  Two of modern Orthodoxy’s finest writers have now collected their respective essays into books.

Covenant & Conversation is a compilation of 4 short essays on each parasha from Chief Rabbi Sacks.  Frquently philosophical, yet almost ending with a  homiletical message, the essays draw on classical Jewish sources as well as contemporary religious thinking.  As with all literature of this nature, I found some essays more insightful than others, but overall the work is deep and inspiring.  Concise yet profound, these frequently poetic ruminations make for perfect reading for the lay person or scholar who wants something deeper out of his weekly supplemental parasha reading.

Torah Lights is a collection of Rabbi Riskin’s weekly parasha columns that have regularly appeared in The  Jerusalem Post and other Jewish newspapers.  Rabbi Riskin employs a number of different interpretative strategies, yet always finds a way to deliver a timely message that appeals to a broad audience.

Also of Interest:  The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible is a noble attempt to summarize for children major Biblical stories, from creation until Daniel.  Frankel includes an interesting short essay discussing the difficulties of “translating” Biblical stories for children.

JPS has also recently reissued their beautfiully designed Hebrew-English Tanakh, the most frequently cited English translation in academic literature, in a “pocket edition” convenient to carry in a backpack or briefcase, with a series of options for cover colors.

Here is last year’s books of interest on Sefer Bereishit:

Oct 25, 2008
New Books on Sefer Breishit
Chaim Navon, Genesis and Jewish Thought, Ktav Publishers, 2008. 379 pages.The gem of the new books on Breishit is Rabbi Chaim Navon’s series of profound yet accessible philosophical reflections on Sefer Breishit. Navon, who serves as a rabbi in Modi’in and teaches at a number of yeshivot in Israel, uses Breishit as a springboard for philosophical discussions on major topics such as Man’s place in the world, Guilt and Shame, The Road to Faith, and The Image of God. Navon uses the full range of Jewish and secular sources, ranging from midrashim to Rav Soloveitchik, Plato to Spinoza. The essays, originally published for a series in the Virtual Beit Midrash, are long enough to provide nuance and profundity, yet are quick reads and remain comprehensible to scholars and laypeople alike. This is a highly recommended work which will be enjoyed as both a reading companion to Breishit and an accessible entry into the world of Jewish thought.

Yitzchak Etshalom, Between the Lines of the Bible, Yashar Books, 2006. 288 pages.

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s first book is a very effective English introduction into the world of peshat-oriented Biblical interpretation that has emerged within the last 20-30 years in the religious-Zionist community. Organized by theme and method, rather than by parasha, Etshalom seeks to delineate central tools that contemporary writers use to explain Sefer Breishit, such as chiastic structures, intra-Biblical parshanut, and historical background. Etshalom also dedicates a number of chapters to showing how literary readings of the Torah can create effective responses to Bible critics. The chapters are clear and informative, and while more advanced scholars might find some of the chapters rudimentary, the book serves as an excellent introduction to modern literary Biblical interpretation and a stimulating companion to Sefer Breishit.

Rabbi Francis Nataf, Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis, Urim Publications, 2006. 125 pages.

As the title indicates, Rabbi Francis Nataf’s Redeeming Relevance seeks to provide meaningful new interpretations relevant to the contemporary cultural context. Nataf believes that recent generations have become fearful of new interpretations to the Torah, abandoning a long tradition of Torah commentary that addresses, explicitly or implicitly, current issues. The 6 essays in this work use a combination of traditional commentaries and literary awareness to give a reverential yet human depiction of the Biblical characters, and then conclude with a homiletical lesson. These are serious yet accessible essays with thoughtful and timely messages. The book includes a short yet telling introductory letter from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, praising Nataf for avoiding the excesses of “eye-level Tanakh study” and “fus[ing] reverence for our greatest with awareness of their humanity.”

Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, Urim Publications, 2006. 182 pages.

A work that utilizes more nuanced and sophisticated literary technique to explore character development is Shmuel Klitsner’s Wrestling Jacob. Longtime teacher of Tanach at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, Klitsner focuses on the 2nd half of Sefer Breishit and the story of Jacob. Klitsner uses unique word choices and parallels to argue that difficult literary passages should not be “resolved,” but should rather be understood as delivering a deeper subtext or meaning. Klitsner’s uses these literary nuances to analyze Jacob’s moral development and his struggle with his family relationships and his own role within the divine covenant.
As he writes, “It would seem that the real drama of the biblical text lay precisely in the thorny complexity of intensely human (and at times tragically faulted) heroes functioning in the arena of morally ambiguous interaction with friends, family, and foes and simultaneously in the orbit of divine covenant.”
This is an innovative and scholarly work that deserves careful study.

Also new from Urim: Moshe Sokolow, Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz, Urim Publications, 2008. 285 pages



- Shlomo Brody

  1. We hope to have a guest post next week from Rabbi Berman, based on this book, about Parshat Breishit and the story of creation. []
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