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Unlocking the Torah Text
An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Devarim
By Shmuel Goldin
Gefen Publishing House, 2014, 431 pages
This is the fifth volume in which Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, offers readers a very interesting “innovative educational approach to Torah study.” Rabbi Goldin has served as a rabbi in Englewood, New Jersey since 1984 and is a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis.
Rabbi Goldin divides his volume according to the weekly synagogue Torah readings and has as many as six essays on each biblical portion. He starts each section with a summary of the most significant parts of the portion, and then raises questions which prompt insights into the biblical portion even before the questions are answered. This is followed by a host of suggested solutions to the questions, generally from traditional Jewish sources. Many of the sections are followed by “Points to Ponder,” ideas that should be given special attention.
Rabbi Goldin’s approach is that God is the author of the Torah, but humans are encouraged to question and challenge the text. Everything in the Torah is true; events occurred exactly as the Bible depicts them, but we need to explore the events to understand them. He makes a distinction between the literal meaning of the Torah texts and Midrashic explanations, which frequently contains parables that should not be taken literally. He states he will give answers that fit the plain meaning of the text. He quotes Midrash frequently but never writes that the Midrash should be understood as a fact.
Rabbi Goldin’s questions and answers are perceptive and thought provoking. For instance, he asks: Why is the style of the book of Devarim very different than the style of the former books? Is Devarim also from God or Moses view? Did Moses change God’s laws? Why are there two versions of the Ten Commandments (He identifies the many differences)? Are the laws of the female captive and disobedient son rational and moral? Why doesn’t God end the Torah with a message instead of telling readers about Moses’ death?
One of the answers to why Devarim is different than the previous books is: “Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, for example, maintains that Moshe [Moses] tailored the dibrot [Ten Commandments] in Devarim in order to address the unique challenges faced by a generation about to enter the Promised Land.”
This may imply that the Torah continues to be developed by humans. After discussing the changes Moses made in many laws contained in the first four books of the Bible, Rabbi Goldin writes: “We receive tradition from the past generation, that tradition courses through us, and we then pass that tradition to the future. Inexorably, as the corpus of Jewish life courses through each individual, family and community in each generation, it is altered by a myriad of variables, the personal experiences, challenges, perceptions, aspirations and dreams of parents, teachers, grandparents, rabbis, communal leaders and whole communities all shape the continually developing character of our people’s legacy…. Human beings all, the rabbis naturally bring to bear their own perceptions and personalities as they apply their experience to the delineation of our nation’s legal path.”
Rabbi Goldin ends his book by stating: “The Torah starts with God and ends with man to teach us that God’s Book is just the starting line from which man’s real journey begins.”