My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a Jewish Commentary of the Torah (The first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures), subdivided into the weekly readings. Being familiar with the text, but not raised in the tradition that provides the view point for this commentary, I was able to appreciate the wonderful insights that helped me better understand my own traditions (and in some cases even fill in the gaps). In fact, Rabbi Wittenberg provided a significant amount of context and explanations (such as how the Mishnah and Talmud are used to expand on the scriptural text) that even someone unfamiliar with his sources could understand how they contributed to his exegesis. In addition to his use of those more traditional commentary sources, Rabbi Wittenberg weaves in personal interpretations and contemporary opinions, along with various mystical approaches (such as Kabbalah), that provides a balanced and diverse view for Torah study.
Some of the other points that really got my attention are:
The Hebrew Bible, Gospels and Quran all contain ethically difficult passages. The Torah has disturbing things to say about war, gender relationships and those it regards as idolaters. From the earliest times the rabbis found ways of disarming such texts by reinterpreting them or declaring them no longer relevant. But the dangers of literalist, noncontextualised readings remain. Considering such passages from a historical perspective allows them to be seen in their social, economic and political context, not as the unchanging will of God, but as how that will was understood at the time of composition.
The Talmud explains that the world was created in ‘Ten Utterances’, the ten occurrences of the words ‘And God said’ in the opening chapter of Genesis, the ode to wonder with which the Bible begins. With typical exactitude, the Talmud notes that the phrase occurs only nine times, before resolving the discrepancy by counting ‘In the beginning’ as the first of the ten.
The rabbis exploit the Torah’s silence, filling the gaps in the narrative with legends. According to one of the most popular, Abraham’s father Terach was a manufacturer of idols. One day when his father was out and Abraham was left to serve the customers, he smashed all the idols, leaving the hammer in the hands of the largest. When his father returned, he furiously demanded to know what had happened. ‘A fight broke out among them,’ Abraham explained. ‘They attacked and destroyed each other until only the biggest was left.’ ‘They’re just lumps of clay,’ his father retorted.
No sooner is he named than we’re told that ‘Esau is Edom’ (Gen. 25:30), and Edom, to the rabbis, meant Rome, the empire that sacked Jerusalem and sent the Jewish People into two thousand years of exile. When Rome became Christian under Constantine, Edom became their oblique way of referring to Christendom.
People sometimes ask me ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ I believed God was there Himself–violated and blasphemed. The real question is ‘Where was man in Auschwitz?’ The issue, then, may not be, ‘Is God here?’ but, ‘Are we here? Are we listening to God’s cry?’
Maimonides’ analysis is based on the Talmudic observation that when a person repeats a wrong it becomes habituated. Our responses become so deeply engrained, especially when others endorse our decisions, as the yes-men around tyrants invariably do, that it’s almost impossible for us to change our ways and re-educate our conscience. According to Maimonides, then, God only hardens Pharaoh’s heart once he himself has done so beyond redemption.
In Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet is also a number. Noting that the numerical value of the word ‘Torah’ adds up to 611, a famous midrash on the verse, ‘Moses commanded us Torah,’ observes that of the 613 commandments, as they are traditionally counted, all but two were transmitted by Moses. The exceptions are, ‘I am the Lord your God,’ and, ‘You shall have no other gods beside me.’
Just as Midrash occupies gaps in the text of Torah, so it also vacates them. The place always remains free for further possibilities, the issues of the future. A defining characteristic of Midrash is that it doesn’t totalise; it never claims to be the only valid interpretation.
The laws were formulated by human beings in response to human conditions, under the guidance of God, to be sure, but subject to error like all other human institutions. … That does not render the Torah a purely human document; rather, it acknowledges that, even with the deepest spiritual intuitions, our understanding of God’s will suffers from the inevitable limitations of human thought, which can never entirely escape its historical and intellectual contexts.
The rabbi didn’t return the greeting but said loudly instead, ‘What an ugly man you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you?’ The fellow replied: ‘I don’t know. But go and tell the craftsman who made me, “How ugly is that vessel which you made.”’ (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 20a-b)
The Torah refers to no such instructions, but the rabbis fill in the gaps. Balaam’s parting advice to the Moabites after failing, because of God’s intervention, to deliver the curses their king had hired him for, is to try sex instead and seduce the Children of Israel away from their God. That’s why Moses orders his victorious officers to kill ‘every woman who’s slept with a man’ (Num. 31:17). … It’s been suggested that according to ancient Middle Eastern protocols of war, it was customary for the victors to claim that they’d killed off all their enemies, the more the better, but they didn’t actually do so. It was merely a boast.
Nafshekha is usually translated as ‘soul’, but ‘life’ is more faithful to the biblical context. It may only have been in the mediaeval period that the word’s meaning migrated from the immediately physical, as in don’t eat an animal’s blood ‘because the nefesh, the life force, of all flesh is its blood’ (Lev. 17:14), to the more spiritual notion of ‘soul’.
The Talmud is strict about learning. Of the three tears God is said to weep, one is shed for those whose life makes it all but impossible to study yet who nevertheless dedicate themselves to Torah. Another is for those who have the leisure to learn, but don’t.
I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.
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