New Readings in Tanach
By Rabbis E. Bick and Y. Beasley, Editors
Maggid Books, 2012, 471 pages
This is the second published volume in the five volume set of “Torah MiEtzion.” The first was on Bereishit, Genesis. This one is on the fifth book of the Five Books of Moses, Devarim, Deuteronomy in English. As I wrote in my review of the first volume, “Many Jews… have great respect and strong affection for the Torah. Yet, since the early 1800s, Yeshivot, Orthodox schools of Jewish learning, abandoned the teaching of the Torah. They taught only the Talmud and Orthodox rabbis delivered sermons based on imaginative Midrashim, rather than the Torah text itself. The abandonment of Torah study occurred when there were many attacks against the wording of the Torah and when there were allegations that the Tanach, the Bible, contained discrepancies. The rabbis of that time didn’t want to address these attacks. However, for the past forty years, Orthodox Yeshivot, like Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, have resurrected and revolutionized the study of the Torah.”
This Har Etzion book contains forty-five essays by seventeen rabbis. The authors evaluate the Torah by examining the text, not midrashic interpretations of it, even though Midrashim have separate didactic and sermonic values. The authors’ reasoning is generally logical, but based on the belief that the five books of Moses were divine revelations. Thus the last essay, by Yair Kahn, for example, discusses how the Torah’s final eight verses could have been composed by a divine revelation to Moses when they speak about Moses’ death and burial.
The volume’s preface states that Deuteronomy is “at least in part – a sort of summary or synopsis of the preceding books. This obviously leads to the highlighting of the differences between Devarim and the previous” books. Thus several essays, such as the second, also by Rabbi Kahn, analyzes what appears to be “outright contradictions,” even “senior moments,” differences on subjects such as the seventy elders who assisted Moses, the spies sent to reconnoiter Canaan, two versions of curses, and the encounter of the Israelites with the nation of Edom. Significantly, the Kahn states that Deuteronomy is not a repetition of the prior books, but Moses’ interpretation of what was previously said. God recognized that Moses’ opinions were correct and told him to include them in the Torah; thus they are divine in this sense.
Similarly, in the fourth essay, Amnon Bazak notes that there are five “significant differences between the two versions” describing the advice that Moses’ father in law Yitro gave him. Bazak explains them, and among other solutions writes that “Deuteronomy emphasizes the human aspects of each topic it addresses, both legal and historical.” Also, in the eighth essay, Yoel Bin-Nun analyses and justifies the many differences between the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy and Exodus.
In short, while the rabbis of former years chose to ignore biblical problems, the rabbis of Yeshivat Har Etzion see them as opportunities to gain deeper and wider understandings of Judaism.