While he was no theologian, Groucho Marx was onto something when he said, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong”. With some license to the man born as Julius Henry Marx, if you don’t find deep meaning in the Torah (Jewish Bible), then you are reading it wrong.
It’s incredulous that one can read the Torah, the written word of God, and not be incredibly moved. Incredulous or not, the reality is that even with myriad translations, for many people, the Torah is still a closed, and sadly, irrelevant work.
As the annual cycle of public Torah readings commences this week with sefer bereshis (Genesis), an incredibly insightful and unique new book is Genesis: From Creation To Covenant (Maggid Books 978-1592644773) by Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet (director of the Tanach Program at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi).
The original approach Grumet takes to Torah is in part based on the Yeshiva Har Etzion method. This uses an analytically rigorous, creative, interpretive method, based on both traditional and academic sources, whose output has deep meaning. This organic approach and understanding of the Torah and Torah philosophy is particularly appealing for many who may find other approaches unsatisfying.
In addition, Grumet uses a humanistic reading of the various narratives that transform the Biblical characters into archetypes. Grumet is particularly bold at times in his interpretive approach. But that boldness in chorus opens the text to a relevance heretofore unknown. He transforms the patriarchs and matriarchs into real people, facing real problems and life struggles. This more personalized approach adds meaning, depth, and make the text real.
While his approach is firmly grounded, I only found one case where he seemed to veer off course slightly. This is when he categorized Esau as a tragic character, and not an evil person.
For many western readers, the book of Genesis is a challenge to their contemporary minds and scientific sensibilities. This includes everything from the talking serpent in the garden of Eden, people who lived nearly a millennium, to Noah’s ark, Abraham’s binding of Isaac, and more. Grumet interprets and explains these accounts in a modern and meaningful manner.
With that, Grumet doesn’t attempt to reconcile the Torah with science, such as the approach Gerald Schroeder takes in Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible. He writes that the Torah is not concerned with science. Rather the Torah is interested in God and God’s relationship with people. To which he astutely noted that the physics and timing of Creation are for scientists to explore, the religious significant of the Torah’s creation saga, or the Tower of Babel (and the myriad other narratives in Genesis) are for religious thinks and students of the Torah to probe.
With his keen eye to the text and underlying narrative, Grumet has written a masterpiece that brings new meaning to the Torah. He uses his mastery of the Hebrew language to uncover new meanings and understandings. The reader doesn’t have to know Hebrew to appreciate Grumet’s approach, but it certainly helps. This is especially true when he deals with verb usage, terminologies and roots.
He notes that the book of Genesis tells a profound story of God’s relationship with Man in terms that are both very Godly and simultaneously very human. A deep understanding of Genesis transforms the way we read the rest of the Bible and the way we read the rest of human history.
But extracting that meaning requires a scholar with a perceptive eye and ability to read the nuanced text; which is precisely what Grumet does. By focusing on the specific words used, literary structure, word counts, contrasting narratives and much more; this approach will transform the way in which a person approaches and reads the Torah.
This is a very different book from anything most people have read. While valuable to all readers, I think the book is particularly valuable for high-school and college students whose searching minds may not find the answers they need in more established approaches. Grumet’s approach is firmly and completely rooted in traditional and classical sources. Those needing a contemporary approach will find this to be a rare book with myriad insights.
In Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar, Yael Unterman writes that the approach Leibowitz took to Torah interpretation was so innovative, that many of her students saw this as before Nehama and after Nehama. Similarly, many a reader will find their understanding of Genesis will be categorized as before Grumet and after Grumet.
The essence of the Torah is God’s search for a meaningful relationship with humanity. In Genesis: From Creation To Covenant, Grumet has done a remarkable job of making God’s message much clearer and accessible to all.