Book Review: Viewing the Torah through rabbinic eyes

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One of the fascinating things about Torah study is that there is always something new to learn. Sometimes these ideas can be found by mining the writings of the sages (the ancient rabbis) and other times through reading the thoughts of contemporary spiritual leaders. Both of these can be found in Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s “A Year with the Sages: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion” (The Jewish Publication Society). In his introduction, Hammer, who died earlier this year, noted that he welcomed the invitation to write this work because it gave him “yet another opportunity to delve into the writing of the Sages, to probe ways in which they chose to interpret Torah, and to demonstrate how their thinking is still relevant to our contemporary life as Jews.” He considers not only the weekly Torah portions, but those read on Jewish holidays.
Each chapter is divided into four sections. Hammer opens with the Torah verses he wants to discuss. These are followed by a simple explanation of the Torah text. Hammer continues by offering writings from different sages that contain intricate, and sometimes contradictory, ways of viewing the portion. In conclusion, Hammer offers a “personal reflection” that allows him to speak of his own experiences as a rabbi – both as a pulpit rabbi for Conservative synagogues in the U.S. and his work for the Masorti movement in Israel. He also served as dean of the Israel programs at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem, and was a founding director of the Institute of Jewish Studies (now known as the Schechter Institute).
Hammer’s approach can clearly be seen in the first Torah portion, Bereshit (Genesis). The passage chosen focuses on Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. The rabbinic passage quoted comes from Avot de-Rabbi Natan, which speaks to a barrier created by Adam – one that led Eve to sin. Hammer notes what he feels is the sages’ conclusion about Adam’s speech: “We must be careful about adding too many prohibitions, because if there are too many, in the end none will be observed. Piling restrictions may lead to contempt for what is truly important.” This leads to a personal reflection about a problem that occurred when he was the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel. Hammer writes of the difficulties Israelis face when they adopt non-Jewish children from other countries. The Chief Rabbinate told the parents that it would not convert their children unless they promised to raise them Orthodox, something these more secular Israelis refused to do. The Masorti Rabbinical Court ruled that there is nothing in Jewish law that requires this and converted the children. Perhaps most telling of Hammer’s theology is his statement concerning what is permitted and what is forbidden: “A very learned expert in Jewish law once told me that when asked if something is permissible or forbidden in Judaism, the easiest response is to say, ‘It’s forbidden.’ The greater challenge is to prove it is permitted.”
An example of the sages’ interesting approach to interpreting the text can be found in Tetsaveh (from Exodus), where Hammer looks at the oil lamp placed outside the tent of meeting. He quotes a discussion from the Talmud about whether or not God needs the light. In fact, the sages decided that God had no need of a lamp or the table of food left in the tabernacle, even though the strict meaning of the text suggests otherwise. The ancient rabbis felt free to interpret the text so it fit their understanding of God: a Deity who does not have physical needs. Hammer notes that “when the Sages came upon a text that they felt might contradict their beliefs..., they interpreted it in a way that brought it in line with what they believed to be true. This flexibility of interpretation has served Judaism well, enabling us to liberate the text from the strictures of literalism and broaden the scope of our beliefs to keep them in accord with the times.”
In his discussion of Shemini (from Leviticus), Hammer speaks about the “alien fire” offered by Aaron’s sons at the tabernacle. After the offering, a fire from God appeared – one that killed Aaron’s sons. The exposition from the sages shows how the ancient rabbis differed on what occurred. Some said the two young men had not committed a grave sin and that God was troubled by the fact they had to be punished. Others felt their sins were so great they deserved to die. Hammer notes that the sins suggested tell more about the rabbis’ time period than that of Aaron’s sons. He sees their comments as aimed at their own students, with the rabbis using the text as a teaching moment. In his personal reflections, Hammer ties this to the problem of agunot, women who cannot obtain a divorce because Orthodox practice says that only a man may legally offer a divorce. He writes about the changes that have been made to the Conservative ketubah (the wedding document that is signed before a marriage) that prevents this from happening.
A particularly interesting section focuses on the holiday of Purim and the reading of Megillot Esther (the Book of Esther). Hammer writes of a very different Purim celebration that took place in 1956 – one that did not include costumes, noisemakers or a carnival-like atmosphere. The reading took place at Congregation Anshei Shushan (the People of Sushan), and its members treated the story as part of their personal history. The congregation consisted of Persian Jews who had once lived in Iran. Their reading of the story was a very serious one because it spoke to their own salvation. Hammer notes that “the rule was that no noise at all could be made during the reading. Every word was sacred and was to be heard, even the accursed name of Haman.” The reading was so dramatic, Hammer found himself sitting on the edge of his seat waiting to learn what would happen, even though he already knew how the story would end.
Hammer does an excellent job offering insights on each parasha. “A Year with the Sages” would work well for a discussion group on the Torah text, or for individuals looking for additional commentary for their own weekly Torah study.