Bringing the Prophets to Life
By Neil N. Winkler
Gefen Publishing House, 2011, 193 pages
Many Jews consider the Bible to be
the sacred text revealed by God to the Israelites trough Moses. Multiple
commentaries were composed on the Torah. Some emphasized the Torah’s literal
meaning, such as the commentaries of Rashbam, David Kinchi, Gersonides, and Abraham
ibn Ezra. Others focused on what they considered mystical implications, such as
Nachmanides. Still others contain Midrashic interpretations, such as Rashi and
Malbim. Yet, despite the strong devotion to the Torah, during the past couple
of centuries, since the beginning of the enlightenment, Yeshivot, schools of
Jewish learning, abandoned the teaching of the Torah. They taught instead only
the Talmud, and rabbis delivered sermons based on imaginative Midrashim rather
than the literal meaning of the Torah text. The change occurred because beginning
in the early 1800s, there were many attacks against the wording of the Torah
and the perceived discrepancies, attacks that the rabbis of that time did not
want to address.
Today, there is what can be called a revolution in the thinking about teaching Torah.
Some Yeshivot, especially in Israel, have begun to teach Torah to their
students and, what is more, they are explaining its literal meaning without
Midrahim, they are addressing the issues raised by the Bible critics, and
writing books about it. Bringing the
Prophets to Life is such a book.
Rabbi Winkler focuses
on the literal meaning of the books of Joshua,
Judges, Samuel, and Kings. He notes
that in “recent years, however, traditional students (meaning those who are
very observant Orthodox Jews) have taken to heart the words of the venerated
commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), who while commenting upon the
midrashic approach to Shemot (Exodus)
6:4, wrote: “But this analysis [midrash] does not fit into the text for a
number of reasons.” Winkler then quotes Rashi, who was well known for enjoying
and quoting Midrash, as saying that the verse must be understood as it is
written, without the midrashic elaboration. The new method is to do so with all
Rabbi Winkler starts by addressing why the particular prophetical book that he is analyzing
was written: What does it want to teach? How does it teach it? He looks at the
history of the time when the events described in the book transpired. He
examines the principle person in the drama – such as Joshua in the book Joshua and Samuel and King David in the
book Samuel – and the rest of the
people. For example, while looking at the book Joshua, he delves deep into his character, how he acted during the
days of Moses, before he became the leader of the people and how he acted when
he became the people’s leader. He finds that Joshua was absent during crucial
events in Israel’s history and made crucial errors virtually every tome that he
is mentioned in the Five Books of Moses.
The first time that the Torah quotes Joshua was when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the
Ten Commandments. Joshua waited for Moses on the mountain and was not present
at the incident of the golden calf. He and Moses hear shouts from the Israelite
camp. He tells Moses what he thinks is happening in the camp, and he is wrong.
The second quote is his advice to Moses regarding two elders who prophesied in
the camp, against Moses’ wishes, and the advice he gives is wrong again. The
third time that we hear about Joshua was his failure to speak when the ten
spies described the land of Canaan as being unconquerable. He left it to Caleb
to speak and defend Moses. Additionally he was unable to show leadership in
persuading the ten men to give a favorable report. Given this past history, it
is not surprising that the Israelites were doubtful that Joshua had the ability
to lead them. Rabbi Winkler tells what changed their minds.
While the rabbi writes that he will present the plain meaning of the text, he does occasionally
refer to Midrashim, but does so to support his interpretation. For example he
quotes a Midrash that asks why Moses was told to remove both shoes when God
appeared to him at the burning bush, while only telling Joshua to remove one
shoe, according to a Midrash’s interpretation of a verse. Rabbi Winkler uses
the Midrash to support his view that while Joshua was a great leader, he was
not a great as Moses.
In summary, this is a refreshing and lively look at several prophetical books that generally
analyses the people, events, history, ideas, and themes in the books, by examining
the text itself and not imaginative midrashic elaborations.