Biblical Creativity

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I am tired of biblical commentaries that sound the same. Operating within the limitation of accepting all the main interpretations of previous generations, weekly commentators today sometimes seem like they all inevitably arrive at similar conclusions. And then someone breaks through that false image and shows how to be creative within boundaries.

R. Mosheh Lichtenstein made news a few years ago by arguing, against many of his colleagues, that biblical commentary must build on the midrashic framework rather than start fresh from the text. He did so himself in his book Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People. R. Lichtenstein’s premise is de rigeur in most Orthodox circles yet his creative handiwork in piecing together a coherent and novel approach from the variant interpretations sets him apart.

R. Ari Kahn, in his recent Echoes of Eden, follows suit (note that I was involved in the book’s publication). R. Kahn studied under R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and maintains a close relationship with R. Aharon Lichtenstein. It is, therefore, unsurprising that his approach matches that of R. Mosheh Lichtenstein. However, he was also influenced by R. Aryeh Kaplan and even edited some of the posthumously published second volume of Handbook of Jewish Thought. I assume that this is what opened his canon beyond midrash and traditional commentaries to include kabbalistic texts. R. Kahn absorbs the kabbalistic midrashim, interpretations from obscure mystical texts, and blends them seamlessly into his Soloveitchikian/Lichtensteinian approach.

This all seems too much for one book yet R. Kahn brilliantly succeeds in this daring collage. His book contains two essays on each weekly reading in Genesis. Every essay addresses a new topic. This genre has been done a thousand times over yet R. Kahn’s contribution is remarkably original. Using midrash, both from standard and kabbalistic texts, he psychologizes the biblical characters, looking into their motivations and reactions, and symbolizes them, attributing to them philosophical and theological significance beyond their personal identities, and with all that usually finds a message relevant to today.

On the section of Noach, writers find fertile ground when dealing with the sinning majority, the saving of Noach, his downfall or the tower of Bavel. R. Kahn, in his first essay, asks who Noach’s wife was. The answer, Rashi (Gen. 4:22) tells us, is Na’amah. R. Kahn devotes an essay to exploring her heritage, which requires investigating various family tree passages and using midrash and kabbalistic texts to complete her ancestry. When R. Kahn is done, we see a continuation of the Kayin-Hevel episode through the generations and we learn why so many people have names similar to Hevel. Na’amah was the daughter of Lemekh and his trophy-wife Tzillah; she was the culmination of Kayin’s family line. Yet despite her ancestry and upbringing — “born in hedonism and selfishness, heir to the dubious legacy of violence passed down from Kayin” — she became Noach’s righteous wife who was worthy of saving, unique among people. After learning about the post-Adam generations and Cham’s violation of Noach after the Flood, we understand Na’amah’s incredible story of teshuvah, overcoming her upbringing.

The story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt is full of difficult conversations. Accusations of spying and theft are met with non-parallel answers that serve as weak defenses. On close reading, it is hard to understand the flow of discussion. R. Kahn resolves this by positing that Yosef had a plan and was manipulating his brothers in order to elicit specific brotherly reactions. Carefully reading the text and getting into Yosef’s brain, R. Kahn shows how each step in the conversation leads to the next until Yosef is overwhelmed with emotion and reveals his identity. Yosef was not looking to exact revenge on his brothers but to remind them that there was someone they had forgotten; he wanted them to seek him. Unfortunately, they never did.

Why did Rivkah fall off her camel when she first approached Yitzchak (Gen. 24:64)? Rivkah left the corrupt world of Lavan to enter the pure world of Avraham and Yitzchak. The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 109) says that when Rivkah first saw Yitzchak, she prophecied that she would give birth to the wicked Esav, which caused her to fall. As she was finally entering a holy life, she learned of her unholy progeny. Kabbalistic texts connect Rivkah’s ordeal with Chava’s sin in the garden of Eden. Ever since that sin, evil is inevitable, even among the righteous. Esav will always exist; the echoes of Eden will continue to reverberate. Ya’akov’s job is to confront evil, to persevere and continue in the battle against all that is bad in the world.

Rather than focusing on Avraham’s actions and intentions when tying Yitzchak to the altar, R. Kahn explores Yitzchak’s experience. The midrash (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 30) states that Yitzchak, when tied to the altar, actually died but his soul returned when God called out not to touch him. Given the place and time of this event, we see a connection to sacrifices brought in the Temple centuries later. Just like Yitzchak, a sinner bringing a sacrifice is all-but-dead, living with a Divine death sentence. The sacrifice acts like Yitzchak’s death and frees him from his liability. He, too, is resurrected. The Temple’s service gives hope when all hope is lost. It restores people’s future, offering them a new beginning like Yitzchak had.

R. Kahn weaves together Scripture, midrash and a rationalist reading of kabbalistic texts. In his capable hands, the biblical characters become alive with human feelings and concerns, yet remain revered as righteous symbols of future events and theological theme. Within this paradoxical web of contradicting approaches, R. Kahn’s brilliance shatters all barriers and renders a coherent and sensitive reading that is true to his sources and delightful to his readers. Each essay is a crushing force of originality that resolves difficult midrashic questions with broad connections and overarching theories. There are many parashah books on the market, but few will challenge and reward you like this one.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

15 comments

  1. I dont think that it is accurate to equate R. Mosheh’s approach to the conventional Yeshivish ones. Based on my conversations with him on the matter I think he would be quite upset.

  2. It seems I was mistaken about R. Ari Kahn’s relationship with R. Aryeh Kaplan. They never actually met!

  3. “Using midrash, both from standard and kabbalistic texts, he psychologizes the biblical characters, looking into their motivations and reactions, and symbolizes them, attributing to them philosophical and theological significance beyond their personal identities, and with all that usually finds a message relevant to today.”

    Not to take anything away, but I’m left curious as to how his work compare/contrast with Dr. Avivah Zornberg’s ouevre in this regard?

  4. Rabbi Kahn – i will address my comments to you. What a book!!!! and this review does it some justice – though it is even better than this makes it seem. Beautiful! There is one thing that i would disagree with. to call your approach Soleveitchikian or Lichtenstienian is absurd. While they were/are brilliant in many areas of torah, your approach is not theirs. They were never as creative, or as theme oriented. you see patterns. you tie things together. You are closer to Hutnerian machshava than the Rav in your chumash style. It is somewhat shocking to me that the comparison was made… In my humble opinion, and i do not think that this takes away one iota from their greatness, you have not only far surpassed them in your drush, but in fact are engaged in an area that they seem to have never really invested in. [I dont think less of R Schach for not having been in to drush either.]
    Otherwise, it was a lovely review (though it probably could have been done without sideswiping the mainstream Yeshiva world – which you do not do yourself in anything i have ever read, nor do you stand for such a thing. We have ignored it in most of the hirhurim posts that we have read in the past , since their content is generally excellent, but I am sorry that your review had to be tainted by that… Please keep producing the sort of things that you have – we need it.

  5. I feel compelled to mention the RYBS work on Avraham:
    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2815937-abraham-s-journey

    BTW: Elchanan, have you read this book? I haven’t read Echoes of Eden, but Abraham’s Journey struck me as a deep and remarkable read of Avraham. Quite a bit of the book is also devoted to tangential issues (i.e. not about Avraham per se)

  6. Elchanan: though it probably could have been done without sideswiping the mainstream Yeshiva world

    Why in the world would you think it was a complaint against specifically the Yeshiva world? It goes on everywhere.

  7. Gary Pietruszka

    Yasher Koach And l’shana tova to you and the family
    So how do I purchase the book an original with a personally signed.

  8. Rav Gil, thank you for the overly kind review.
    To be considered a student of Rav Solovietchik or Rav Lichtenstein is an incredible honor.
    Elchanan – your words are also incredibly kind – but as someone who studied at with those two Gaonim and Gedolie Hador (3 years with the Rav and 4 years with Rav Aharon) – I can personally attest that I do not approach their level of scholarship in any possible manner.
    I am pleased that my book has been embraced by many, and I consider myself extremely fortunate.
    To set the matter straight – I never met Rav Arye Kaplan, when the second volume of a Handbook of Jewish thought was being prepared – the editor; Rabbi Avraham Sutton did give me some chapters to review and I did some editing work, those chapters were on halachik matters.

    Ari Kahn

  9. One of the greatest benefits of studying pshat is that you begin to understand where the midrash is coming from and why it says what it says. Conversely, if your “loyalty” to the midrash means taking it at face value as a simple historical record, then it is much harder to understand the ideas that the midrash’s authors wanted you to understand.

    Not knowing R’ Kahn or having seen the book, I have no idea if this particular criticism applies to this particular book. But in general, whenever I hear of some building a vort on top of a kabbalistic mashal on top of a midrash, I have to wonder if the interpretation in fact reaches down to the Torah’s “bedrock”, or if it is based on unstable and unexamined foundations that will collapse when a little pressure is applied to them.

  10. R Gil wrote in part:
    R. Mosheh Lichtenstein made news a few years ago by arguing, against many of his colleagues, that biblical commentary must build on the midrashic framework rather than start fresh from the text. He did so himself in his book Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People. R. Lichtenstein’s premise is de rigeur in most Orthodox circles yet his creative handiwork in piecing together a coherent and novel approach from the variant interpretations sets him apart”

    RML’s book is a wonderful work of Parshanut that eschews both a pshat only approach and the Maharal/R A Kotler ZL approach to Midrashim, Aggados Chazal and in undertanding the evolution of Moshe Rabbeinu from an assimilated member of the house of Pharoah to an Eved HaShem.

  11. @Steve Brizel- I was thinking along your lines: that this work would be similar to Maharal et al. Definitely a reason to make a quick trip over to Amazon.com for a pre-chag shopping trip.
    Yashar Koach to Rav Kahn on such a wonderful addition to our collection!

  12. R Gil wrote:

    “I am tired of biblical commentaries that sound the same. Operating within the limitation of accepting all the main interpretations of previous generations, weekly commentators today sometimes seem like they all inevitably arrive at similar conclusion”

    Please elaborate on what you meant. Which commentaries are you talking about?

  13. A true privilege to read this masterpiece, “Echoes of Eden,” written with careful observation and evaluation. So far I have read it twice …

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: