May 18, 2024
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Reviewing: “The Revelation at Sinai: What Does ‘Torah From Heaven’ Mean?” Edited by Yoram Hazony, Gil Student and Alex Sztuden. KTAV Publishing House. 2021. English. Hardcover. 357 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1602804531.

(Review by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein)

Jewish Tradition tends to view the Sinaitic Revelation as a one-time event wherein God revealed His will as expressed in the Torah to the Jewish people. This book is a compilation of various scholarly essays that explore the hard questions about what exactly that means. For example, what was the nature of the content revealed at Sinai? Did it include all or some of the Written Torah as we have it? Did it include the Oral Torah? What about other rabbinic enactments?

Other matters probed in this book include the meaning of Divine communication. Did God actually present the Jews with a verbal message, or was His will somehow expressed in some other fashion? Rounding out the topics that appear in this compilation are discussions of Moses’ precise role in relaying God’s Divine Will and a comparative study about how the laws given at Sinai line up with the Hammurabi Code. This book also offers erudite critiques of the concept of an “on-going revelation” championed by Professor Benjamin D. Sommer of the Jewish Theological Seminary and others.

Overall, the essays in this book are all well written, well sourced and definitely well thought out. Besides the three editors, it also includes contributions from scholars like Rabbi H. Norman Strickman, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Lenn Goodman, Jeremiah Unterman and more. Some essays are better than others, and I felt at least one or two essays do not actually belong in this book, but I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

Reviewing: “The Age of the Parákletos: A Historical Defense of Rabbinic Knowledge” by Ron Naiweld. Lexington Books. 2022. English. Hardcover. 124 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1793655035.

(Review by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein)

The author begins this book with an introduction that criticizes French intellectuals like Ernest Renan for excluding rabbinic knowledge from within the accepted window of discourse. He finds it appalling that French historians would ignore such important rabbinic figures as the great Tosafist Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, and when they do not simply omit any mention of the Talmud (which was publicly burnt in Paris in 1240), they give it short shrift. As the author formulates it, “rabbinic knowledge was deemed by Christian authorities and intellectuals to be blasphemous, dangerous, and false” (page xiv) which eventually led to the reality that in France rabbinic knowledge was not to be taken seriously on its own terms, but only as mere data points to be manipulated for the benefit of greater causes (like French historiography).

Despite this promising introduction, the author then goes ahead and continues following the very trend that he decried. In the ensuing chapters, he offers an account of the origins of rabbinic knowledge and its underpinnings by appealing to such outside disciplines as Christology and Biblical criticism.

In doing so, the author mythologizes the Bible by characterizing it as a book aimed at merging two distinct conceptions of the deity (branded YHWH and Elokim) and the tensions behind that merging. This book also contrasts the more grounded worldview that it attributes to the rabbis with the loftier worldview attributed to Christianity. In that context, it argues that the first-century rabbis were more concerned with the practical ramifications (or parallels) to their theology in the actual political power structure applicable to their personal lives (e.g., in the way they related to the Romans who occupied the Holy Land) than their Christian brethren were. It is definitely an interesting read, but is sometimes hard to take too seriously.

Reviewing: “Patient: Taking Tefillah, Emunah, and Humor on a Journey to Healing” by Ann Goldberg. Tfutza Publications. 2020. English. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-1600917950.

(Review by Shira Yael Klein)

This book is a strange combination of a personal memoir about surviving cancer, combined with a book about tefillah (“Jewish prayer”)—a combination I understand in theory, but I found rather incongruous in practice. I was very interested in the personal story, but didn’t want to be bothered with the parts of the book that wanted me to take them seriously and actually change something in my life. I just wanted entertainment! I’m not sure if this is a shortcoming in the book or myself.

The “story” component of the book, which was the bulk of it, is both interesting and well written. The author’s candid and detailed account taught me a lot of things about cancer and chemo that I didn’t know before.

I was very touched by how the author’s whole family came together to support her and her husband with love, devotion and efficiency from beginning to end. The supportive children and siblings vied for the great privilege to help. The author and her husband worried about not overburdening their already-busy children. Everybody worried about everybody else, which meant that the family pulled together in the most beautiful way.

I’m very happy that—spoiler alert—there’s a happy end to the story. I wish the author and her family a healthy and happy life until 120!

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