I receive requests to write book reviews weekly. I have written over 8,700 reviews. Many of them are reflections by rabbis on the Bible. I think that Rabbi Evan Hoffman’s writings are the best. He is the rabbi of Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle, New York. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University. He delivers sermons to his congregation and also disseminates a weekly essay series titled “Thoughts on the Parashah.” I am one of the thousands who receive his weekly “Thoughts.” As I read them I think how much I would have enjoyed being a member of his congregation and heard his wisdom weekly. This book is called “Parashah Themes in Historical Perspective” published by Gefen Publishing in 2021. It combines some of his delightful sermons with his incisive learned analyses of many Jewish subjects for each of the more than fifty weekly Torah portions read in synagogues and at home. It contains comments on the views of many dozens of rabbis and scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, ancient and modern, scholarly, yet written in an easy to read eye-opening manner that even non-scholars would enjoy. They are treasures. The following are some of a multitude of examples from his writings on Genesis.
- It is clear that Rebekah originated the deception of her husband Isaac to obtain his blessing for the son she preferred, Jacob. However, it is unclear whether she disliked Esau. In fact, rabbis as well as scholars differ on the matter. She heard of Esau’s promise to kill Jacob and advised him to flee. She said in Genesis 27:45, “Why should I be bereaved of both in one day.” Who were the both? Did she mean Isaac and Jacob or Esau and Jacob? Rabbi Hoffman tells us the opinions of Midrash Rabbah, the Babylonian Talmud Megilah 14a, Sotah 13a, the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch Pseudo Jonathan, the Bible commentators Rashi, Maharsha, Torah Temimah, and others as well as modern rabbis such as Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik. He explains why each maintained their view.
- There were famous highly respected Talmudic rabbis such as Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan, mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 58b, who strongly opposed allowing non-Jews to observe Shabbat. Rabbi Hoffman tells us the opinion of the French Jewish rational thinker Meiri, born in 1249, why he held this view, while discussing the bad effect the non-Jewish observance had on Jews, and the non-Jewish ideas of the Roman Seneca the Younger who died in 65 CE, Augustine, and Tertullian, among others, as well as the Jew Josephus.
- At the end of his discussion on the first biblical portion, Rabbi Hoffman writes: “As we begin the annual Torah reading cycle, let us recognize the virtue of an expanded intellectual horizon. While a Jew is obligated to maintain a regular course of study in Talmudic and halachic literature, these staples of Torah learning should not come at the price of complete ignorance in other areas. The book of Genesis can be a point of departure for expanding one’s knowledge of philosophy, cosmogony, cosmology, epistemology, ancient history, linguistics, etc. We will not reach Exodus chapter 12 [which contains the first biblical law] for many weeks. The stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses can, with advantage, be viewed as sources for a broadly defined multidisciplinary ‘Torah.’” They are also Torah.
- Rabbi Hoffman notes that Genesis 14:18-20 is obscure. It tells how Abraham gave Melchizedek of Salem a tenth of the booty he acquired in his war to save his nephew Lot. “Many questions emerge.” Who was Melchizedek? What is Salem? Why did he function as both priest and king? Did he worship the same God as Abraham? Why is the three sentence story placed in the middle of a larger narrative, the story of Abraham rescuing Lot? Rabbi Hoffman gives explanations from over a dozen sources: the fact that in Judaism the priestly and political powers are separated, the position of the Dead Sea Scrolls Q11Melch in regard to Melchizedek that he was a kind of angel who battled against evil, the New Testament Hebrews 5:5-6 that this king-priest was a conceptual antecedent to Jesus , Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 2 that he was a messianic figure who was born circumcised, Seder Olam 21 that he was Shem the son of Noah, critical scholars who asserted that the three verses about a king-priest of Salem, which they see as another name for Jerusalem, was placed in the Torah to bolster King David’s decision that Jerusalem should be the temporal and spiritual capital of Israel.
- Among much else, Rabbi Hoffman discusses the claim by Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14, Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b, Midrash Rabbah Genesis 61:1, Rashi, Nachmanides and many others that Genesis 26:5 is asserting that the patriarchs observed all of the 613 Torah commands and even the laws developed by rabbis, even though the Torah was not given to the Israelites until many centuries after their death. In 26:5, God tells the patriarch Isaac that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan “Because [his father] Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Rabbi Hoffman points out that rabbis and scholars had difficulties finding differences between God’s voice, charge, commandments, statutes, and laws. He tells how the view that the patriarchs observed all the 613 commandments as well as rabbinical ones is contradicted by the Torah telling us that Jacob married two sisters, which violated Leviticus 18:18; Jacob set up a monument, which violated Deuteronomy 16:22, and many other similar violations. Nachmanides answered the problem by his remarkable claim that the divine Torah commands were only binding in the Land of Israel, and our observance of them outside Israel is a rabbinical decree.
In short, readers of Rabbi Evan Hoffman’s splendid two volume book will encounter scholarship that is eye opening, profound, easy to read, understand, and enjoy.