Explorations Expanded: Sefer Bereishit Rabbi Ari D. Kahn Kodesh Press 350 pages
There are many, many contributors whose work appears on OU Torah in the form of written divrei Torah and audio/video shiurim – so many that no one person could possibly follow all of them. (This is true even if that person happens to be the editor of OU Torah.) Accordingly, each of us may have a list of personal favorites when it comes to teachers of Torah – those whose approaches just resonate with our own personalities. I’m pleased to say that Rabbi Ari Kahn is on my personal “short list” of those whose approach to Torah speaks to me on a profound level. As such, I found Rabbi Kahn’s newest book to be the perfect companion to my sefer Bereishis studies.
I first became familiar with Rabbi Kahn’s pedagogy years ago, when I worked for NCSY. I visited the Overseas Students Program at Bar-Ilan University (of which Rabbi Kahn is Director) and sat in on one of his shiurim. I was most pleased a year or so later when we started running his shiurim on OU Torah, including the shiur of his that I had attended. Rabbi Kahn’s areas of expertise include halacha, machshava, aggadata and, of course, parsha. While it is this latter area with which we are concerned today, the breadth of Rabbi Kahn’s scholarship is readily apparent and informs his analysis of the themes of Sefer Bereishis.
A good book on parsha will contain a number of “aha moments” in which the author exposes readers to new ideas, causing them to think about familiar Bible stories in new ways. Explorations Expanded takes this to a whole new level, as Rabbi Kahn completely deconstructs the familiar, only to rebuild it in entirely new form. Take, for example, the akeidah, in which our forefather Avraham was commanded to offer his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to God. We can all agree that it was a test but are you prepared for the possibility that the test wasn’t what you always thought it was? (For that matter, we universally refer to this test as “akeidas Yitzchak” – “the binding of Isaac” – but God never commanded that Yitzchak be bound per se. For what reason might we use this particular designation? Rabbi Kahn has a suggestion!)
This book does not take the easy approach, nor does it whitewash our Biblical heroes. Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yoseif, Yehuda and others all might have been tzaddikim but that doesn’t mean that they were infallible. Explorations Expanded takes them as they no doubt were – righteous, yes, but also human and prone to all that that entails, including personal biases and occasional tunnel vision. Consider, if you will, the case of Noach, about whom there is a famous debate.
We are told that Noach was righteous “in his generations.” (Actually, it turns out that we’re not told that at all, but that’s another story.) The question is, how would Noach have fared in Avraham’s generation? Did he only possess the potential to stand out in his own times? Could he have excelled in Avraham’s day? (Again, we must leave aside for now the fact that Noach’s life and Avraham’s overlapped so that their “generations” were not mutually exclusive.)
Again flashing back to my days of working for NCSY, I once attended a Shabbaton the week of parshas Noach and many of the teens gave divrei Torah contrasting Noach with Avraham. By the end of Shabbos, one of the staff had apparently had enough and he gave a strongly-worded defense of Noach. Here, Rabbi Kahn seems to take an opposite approach, pointing out flaws in Noach that we might never have otherwise considered, not just when compared to Avraham but in his own right. And yet, Rabbi Kahn’s point isn’t that Noach was “bad” or “inferior.” Rather, it illustrates that Noach was a complex, nuanced individual. The same is true of our Avos and the same is true of us.
For my money, the entire purchase is more than justified by the second article on parshas Bereishis, which addresses the Midrashic concept of the 974 generations that preceded Adam, an idea that is not typically broached in particularly great detail. But the insights on Yaakov and Eisav, Sarah and Hagar, et al., are all equally valuable.
As the title suggests, Explorations Expanded takes Rabbi Kahn’s earlier work, Explorations, and expands upon it. There are new essays that were not part of the earlier work, while those that have previously appeared are both extended and newly annotated. Sources cited in the body of the work generally appear in both the original Hebrew/Aramaic as well as English translation; this is a boon for readers of all educational backgrounds. The copious footnotes provide many additional strata of information to excavate, though the sources cited there often appear only in their original languages. This may chagrin some readers but it may also represent a necessary concession to keeping the book a reasonable size.
Rather than reading Explorations Expanded parallel to my weekly parsha studies, I committed to reading it over the week of Succos so that I could write this review in a timely fashion for sefer Bereishis. This represented absolutely no imposition whatsoever as I found the book to be thoroughly engaging and I absolutely devoured it. Explorations Expanded receives a most enthusiastic “two-thumbs up.”
Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah
- Rabbi Ari Kahn
Torah study is a multi-faceted discipline, ranging from the
examination of biblical texts to the study of Mishnah, Talmud, and Kabbalistic
literature (and much more). Even the
first, most basic element, reading the text of the chumash itself, can
be approached from a variety of different angles. One approach focuses on the
so-called pshat, which I would translate as the straightforward, contextual
understanding of the text, but many more levels of understanding are available.
It is told of the famed Gaon of Vilna, a man who singlehandedly authored more
commentaries on esoteric Kabbalistic ideas than almost all of his contemporaries
combined, that toward the end of his life he returned to the text of the Torah
as his main text of study. The Vilna Gaon focused on the most basic Jewish text
as the source of the ideas developed in the Mishnah, the Talmud, the midrashim,
the Zohar, and the writings of the Rambam, precisely because he saw that all of
the wisdom accumulated and extrapolated over centuries of Jewish learning
emerge from this text. Law, philosophy and ethics emerge from the text of the
Torah, and often “between the lines,” as well.
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips’ recent work rests upon a similar
approach as it unlocks the Torah for this generation. His new book, Judaism
Reclaimed, facilitates a multi-faceted, multi-disciplined appreciation
of Torah ideas for modern readers. The book covers a vast array of topics and an
almost-dizzying number of sources. In a sense, Judaism Reclaimed is
a wonderful review of – and response to – modern intellectual discourse.
Rabbi Phillips “dusts off” the writings of Maimonides, especially
the Guide for the Perplexed, which some modern Jewish scholars have claimed is
more suited to medieval intellectual concerns, especially in the sections that address
Islamic or Greek philosophy (see, for example, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, The
Halakhic Mind). Judaism
Reclaimed has the Rambam weigh in on a host of modern issues. Similarly,
Rabbi Phillips shines another major light on the issues he tackles by bringing Rav
Shimshon R. Hirsch into the discussion. Rav Hirsch’s insights, presented deftly
and with great sensitivity and skill by Rabbi Phillips, quite often prove extremely
current, even prescient, and extremely forward-thinking. But these are far from
isolated examples: Judaism
Reclaimed cites a broad-ranging list of thinkers and writers, both
ancient and modern, to buttress arguments and illuminate the discussion
(including insights from my first published work, Explorations, which
has recently been re-published in a much-expanded version titled Explorations
If I were to voice any small criticism of Judaism
Reclaimed, it would not be with Rabbi Phillips’ enlightening and
engaging volume but with the recommendation for it penned by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,
who implies that Judaism Reclaimed introduces a new philosophical approach. I
found quite the opposite to be the case: The strength of the book lies in its
strong foundations, as it bases its arguments on – rather than departing from -
generations of Jewish and general philosophy. Rather than trailblazing a new path,
Judaism Reclaimed revisits, re-examines, clarifies; it makes the
old path newly accessible.
My second “criticism” regards tone rather than content, as
reflected in the title: The author believes that Judaism needs to be “reclaimed.”
Rabbi Phillips implies that evil or ignorant forces have attempted a hostile
takeover of Jewish thought. Consequently, at times his tone is strident when pointing
out and rejecting the inroads these forces have made.
These small criticisms aside, Judaism Reclaimed
is a wonderful introduction (for some, it will be more of a clear-headed
review) of major chapters in classical Jewish thought and intellectual episodes
of more recent vintage. The work is extremely well-written and well-informed, and
I have no doubt that it will serve as a reading companion, a source of ideas,
and a springboard for discussion for years to come.