Reviewing “Genesis: From Creation to Covenant,” by Zvi Grumet. Maggid Books. Hardcover, 510 pages, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-59264-477-3.
It was clear the moment I opened Rav Grumet’s new book that I was holding something wholly different—an approach to Bereishit inspired by recent scholarship, but filled with chiddushim (new interpretations) that were completely original. “Genesis: From Creation to Covenant,” the newest addition to Maggid Press’s “Studies in Tanakh” series, deserves the accolades it has received and will undoubtedly remain a classic study, useful to educators, students and inquisitive laymen.
In recent decades—some would find its source in the establishment of Yeshivat Har Etzion—the Modern Orthodox study of Tanach has been dominated by the literary critical method, which seeks to incorporate the academic discipline into the study of our holy texts. By applying modern concepts such as literary structure, punning and word repetition, scholars hope to glean insights that prove that the Bible is a work that is as sophisticated as the greatest works of Western culture—if not more so, owing to its Divine nature. This method of combining pure literary study with an appreciation of the nuances of Midrash and early parshanut (exegesis) has spread to many Israeli yeshivot and seminaries as well as day schools in the States.
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet is a leading educator and the director of Tanach at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, which teaches in this style; previously, he taught locally at TABC for nine years. Genesis collects the ideas that Rabbi Grumet first presented as lessons to his students, which he has now refined for the general public. Through his novel interpretations of the book of Genesis, Grumet brings insight into the philosophical, theological and psychological realities both of the text and our modern lives.
Upon opening to the table of contents, I immediately recognized that something was different. Usually, modern books about Tanach are structured either following traditional parsha divisions (Maggid has published Torah MiEtzion and Rabbi Sacks’ books in this manner) or the Christian chapter divisions (as, for example, Rabbi Alex Israel’s analysis of the Book of I Kings); Genesis, however, is divided based on the natural flow of the text, and chapters focus on anywhere from six verses to five full perakim. The book is additionally strangely divided into three sections: (1) the primeval history, consisting of perakim 1-11; (2) the journey of Abraham through Isaac’s blessing Jacob, consisting of perakim 11-28; and (3) the escape of Jacob through the death of Joseph, consisting of perakim 28-50. This new way of dividing the sefer lets the text speak for itself and acts as the primary background of Grumet’s analysis.
While his ideas are sometimes rooted in Midrash or other forms of traditional interpretation, Grumet incorporates so much of his own thought that each interpretation is fresh, so that readers feel like they are reading Genesis for the first time. Take, for example, the classic question: Why does God choose Abraham? The book notes that in Genesis 18, God explicitly states that Abraham bears the unique quality that he will instruct his children to act morally, but Grumet finds evidence even earlier—in the description of Abraham leaving Ur Kasdim. There, the narrative emphasizes the familial bonds of Terah’s travel group, indicating that Terah, like Abraham, recognizes the unique importance of the family unit. But the Midrash suggests that Abraham takes it one step further; using the metaphor of “studying in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever” (an obvious anachronism) as opposed to participating in Terah’s idol worship, the Midrash seeks to demonstrate that Abraham represents a new model, as he marries the values of family he learns from his father with the values of tzedaka and mishpat learned from Shem and Ever. [...] And so God chooses Abram, not his father Terah for whom the family is its own goal, and not Shem and Ever who carry the torch of tzedaka and mishpat but who are unable to transmit those values to their own children. (Grumet 124)
The book is not only original, but also incredibly thorough. Nearly every page has two or three footnotes, running the whole gamut of Tanach literature; it is clear that Grumet’s scholarly grasp exceeds that of his rabbinical degree. Side-by-side lie references to Genesis Rabbah (an early aggadic commentary), Rav Yoel Bin-Nun (a rabbi at Har Etzion) and Joel Baden (a secular Bible scholar at Yale). Grumet flawlessly synthesizes these views in his commentary, forming a picture of the Biblical narrative from the whole that the individual commentators had not conceived.
While mainly concerned with the literary aspects of Genesis in this book, Grumet cannot help but dive into contemporary issues facing members of the faith (although in his introduction, he says that he tried to avoid such topics: “Attempts to rationalize [the Torah’s] irrational elements only distort it and distract from its core message”). As such, those who seek a defense of the Jewish tradition will find a formidable ally in this book. Scattered in footnotes, short paragraphs and parenthetical statements are strong arguments that the Torah is meant to be read as a unity. Those who seek archaeological evidence of the mabul (Noah’s flood) have no foundation because “[u]nderstanding this story as un-creation followed by recreation renders any search for evidence of an actual deluge irrelevant.” Similarly, Genesis 12:6, which states that “the Canaanites were then in the land,” is not a proof that the Torah was written after the conquest of Canaan, but rather means that in the interim that Abram spent in Haran, the Canaanites had then moved into the land.
Still, Grumet’s primary intent was to write a literary analysis of the text, not an apologetic; where the textual issues become too expansive for a simple footnote Grumet either avoids the issue entirely or directs the reader to more authoritative books, such as Amnon Bazak’s “Ad HaYom HaZeh,” which discusses in detail modern defenses of Mosaic authorship and Biblical historicity. One gets the sense, though, that had he wanted to, Rav Grumet could have written a book of his own on the subject (perhaps we will merit such a book in the future!).
The sheer depth of “Genesis: From Creation to Covenant” is astounding and certainly deserving of the copious advance praise it received. The Torah’s timeless message is brought to life by Rav Grumet, providing answers not only to our generation’s burning questions, but also those of the future.
By Dov Greenwood
Dov Greenwood is a recent Frisch graduate and a summer intern at The Jewish Link.