Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review: I Kings: Torn in Two

I Kings: Torn in Two
Alex Israel
Koren Publishers, Magid Books/ Yeshivat Har Etzion

Book Review by Ari D. Kahn

The Jewish People has been known for over a thousand years as “the People of the Book.” Despite the pejorative intentions of those who first coined the phrase, the Jews have adopted it wholeheartedly, reveling in their reputation as a learned people, a nation whose identity and destiny are intertwined with the “book of books,” the Torah.

However, in spectacular irony, the Jews, especially those most orthodox and most educated, are often surprisingly ignorant of the Bible. Sections of the Tenakh that were not included in the liturgy came to be regarded as obscure. As Professor Nechama Leibowitz, the late great teacher par excellence of Bible often remarked, men who study in classical yeshivas know only the verses cited in the Talmud, and are able to locate them only insofar as they are cross-referenced on the Talmud folio. And therein lies the rub; the Talmud has become such an all-encompassing repository of Jewish knowledge and scholarship that all other books have been eclipsed by the Talmud’s huge shadow.

The return to the Land of Israel in the modern age brought with it a renaissance of Bible study. For the early pioneers and founders of the State of Israel, the study of Tenakh was a means of reconnecting the nation with its homeland and heritage, and they revitalized Tenakh studies in Israel’s nascent education system. More recently, the torch of Bible study has been carried primarily by the National Religious stream; the Tenakh curriculum in non-religious public schools has been cut back drastically, and the more traditional streams have preferred to maintain the Talmud-based system -- perhaps because they fear the nationalist and even Zionist messages contained within the Bible.

The return to the Biblical text has given rise to a cadre of dedicated teachers who have brought their own intelligence and creativity, as well as the wealth of tradition, to the study of Tenakh, while expanding the walls of the classroom to include the length and breadth of the Land of Israel. Rabbi Alex Israel has firmly established himself as one of the more important teachers of this school of thought, particularly for English-speaking students.

His first published volume is a guide to the Book of Kings, and it is neither a classic academic inquiry nor a commentary. I Kings: Torn in Two combines a traditional reading of the text and the classical commentaries with a smattering of academic insights and relevant archaeological findings. A broad introduction addresses larger issues that lie beyond the text, including the general perspective and concerns of the author of the Book of Kings, as well as the different perspectives of the events as they are retold in other books of the Tenakh. Israel’s work displays great sensitivity to the words of the Biblical text and great attentiveness to its underlying concepts. Adopting an ancient exegetical approach that is based on midrashic readings of the text, thematic connections that span between various books of the Bible are revealed. Israel is creative and knows when to look at symbols and when to read things literally, both in the Biblical text and the midrashic material.

In this volume, Rabbi Israel attempts, once again, to expand the limits of the classroom – demographically, not geographically. This book undertakes the challenging task of converting lectures given in the classroom into a vehicle to reach a larger audience. The results are sometimes uneven: On one hand, the reader is engaged, and is never left with the sense of hearing only one side of a conversation. On the other hand, when more than one solution to a textual problem is offered, the reader is left to wonder which resolution the author advocates, or to create a synthesis on their own. Thus, in an early chapter, Israel discusses the first chapters of the I Kings, in which the main protagonist, King David is elderly and infirm. Why, Israel quite rightly asks, are these chapters not the concluding sections of the previous book, II Samuel, in which the vast majority of David’s life is detailed? Two approaches are offered to understand the material, one political and the other religious, yet the reader senses that ascribing such a dichotomy to the Biblical text is somewhat forced. Is it not possible that both approaches are correct, and not necessarily mutually exclusive?

In a similar passage, Israel notes the threat posed by Adonijah, David’s son and self-appointed heir. Israel then carefully shows the correlation between this rebellion, which is ultimately thwarted, and the rebellion of Absalom, which ends tragically. The parallels are insightful; we are often guided by “result oriented thinking” and hence miss this important parallel. Yet Israel could have been more daring and gone further: After noting that both sons were “good looking,” he could have cited the Talmudic tradition that David had many children from “beautiful captive women.” This insight would draw a clear line of thought from the rebellious ways of David’s children back to David’s own impetuous behavior. This, in turn, could take us as far back as Deuteronomy, to a newly-enlightened reading of the section regarding the king who takes many wives and its relationship with the consecutive sections regarding the beautiful captive and the rebellious child.

I Kings: Torn in Two has much to offer any reader seeking instruction and insight that is based upon, but not limited to, the classical commentaries. This volume will surely enlighten and enrich any reader’s understanding of the words of the Prophets, but the leap to internalizing and applying the methodology it suggests may prove too great to be accomplished without the classroom setting. Even so, this volume will fill a void, particularly for readers whose language skills do not allow them direct access to the classical commentaries, and will help bring the English- speaking audience back to an authentic understanding of the Book of Books.

Rabbi Ari Kahn, Director of Foreign Students Programs at Bar Ilan University, is a teacher, communal Rabbi, and author. His most recent book in the Echoes of Eden series is Bamidbar: Spies, Subversives and other Scoundrels.

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