Off the Shelf | Fresh insights into biblical figures Job, Jacob, Abrahamby howard freedman
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Reading along as the Torah portion is chanted in synagogue every Saturday morning, I’m sometimes struck by just how few insights I manage to muster independently. I feel especially grateful that I’m able to depend on a stream of books that help me engage with the same old texts in new ways. I’d like to share a few recently published ones that focus narrowly on specific biblical figures and books.
Hebrew University professor Yair Zakovitch is one of Israel’s best known and most prolific biblical scholars, but little of his work has been translated into English. We are fortunate that Yale has just released his “Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch” in its “Jewish Lives” series.
Zakovitch’s dense book is best absorbed in concert with a re-reading of the biblical account of Jacob. Adhering tightly to the biblical narrative, Zakovitch draws particular attention to problematic passages, linguistic anomalies, and scenes and phrases that connect to passages elsewhere in the Bible.
Zakovitch often steps back to explore the tensions revealed by the different strata of the text. Identifying the earliest version of Jacob with trickster figures found in many folk traditions, Zakovitch shows how the text developed to express both the impulse to hold Jacob accountable for his deceits, and to exonerate him because his actions were consistent with a divine plan. He also points out the many textual vestiges of the rivalry between the northern monarchy and the kingdom of Judah.
Harold Kushner’s first book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” was occasioned by the author’s horrific experience watching his son suffer and die in childhood from progeria, a condition that causes rapid aging. In an age when the self-help industry had not yet found its footing, Kushner’s message resonated astoundingly, and the modest congregational rabbi was suddenly a spiritual counselor to millions around the globe.
Three decades and a long rabbinic and writing career later, Kushner has returned to the same theme with “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” the newest title in Nextbook’s popular “Jewish Encounters” series. Particularly in light of the Sandy Hook massacre, the fundamental questions Kushner asks are eternally relevant. While his answers have changed somewhat, they do not stray far from his original assertion that we may have to give up an omnipotent divinity for a loving one.
This book is not a sermon, however. It is grounded in a solid examination of the Book of Job, employing the insights of Jewish commentators from over the centuries. Kushner spends little time on the “fable” of Job, focusing instead on the elaborate poem in which God is revealed through the voice in the whirlwind. Regardless of whether one finds his theological formulations convincing, it is rewarding to accompany Kushner as he wrestles with this extraordinary text.
Bradley Shavit Artson, who heads the rabbinical school at American Jewish University, contends with themes that are strikingly similar to Kushner’s in his new book “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, The Binding of Isaac.” Few episodes in the Bible are more difficult to comprehend or accept (as the father of a boy named Isaac, I’m particularly sensitive to this matter). Rabbi Artson begins with his own translation and close reading of Genesis 22, and then offers a series of short essays explaining how the text speaks to the challenges we face in our own lives.
Esteemed Harvard scholar Jon Levenson’s “Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” takes on a different set of questions about Abraham. The book’s backdrop is the growing tendency to embrace Abraham as a common bond linking Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. This trend, offering the possibility of fostering bridges between traditions in an age of extremism, is particularly visible in academia, as reflected in courses, books, and even a professorship in Abrahamic studies at Oxford.
Levenson supplies rain for this parade, warning against allowing good intentions to distort our vision. Surveying the understanding of Abraham within the three religions, he comes to the conclusion that each tradition offers a version of Abraham that does far more to model religious exclusivity than to provide common ground.
It is fascinating to read about the unique role that Abraham plays in each religion, with Paul embracing Abraham as the model for Christian faith; Islam making him the first in a succession of prophets, but with a biography at odds with the Genesis narrative; and rabbinic Judaism recasting the patriarch as an idol-smashing militant monotheist — a midrashic innovation hardly supported by the biblical text.
Although Levenson does seek to dampen the enthusiasm for a common Abrahamic bond, the book exudes deep respect for each of the three traditions.
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned
in this column may be borrowed from the library.
“Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, The Binding of Isaac” by Bradley Shavit Artson (200 pages, Jewish Lights, $18.99)
“The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person” by Harold S. Kushner (202 pages, Nextbook/Schocken, $24)
“Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” by Jon Levenson (288 pages, Princeton University Press, $29.95)
“Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch” by Yair Zakovitch (216 pages, Yale University Press, $25)
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