Thursday, November 28, 2019

Audio and Essays Parashat Toldot

Book Review: Explorations Expanded

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz October 23, 2019 
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 halachamachshavaaggadata 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.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah Rabbi Shmuel Phillips - Reviewed by - Rabbi Ari Kahn

Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips

Reviewed by - 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 Expanded: Bereishit).

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.