Out-of-the-box Orthodox Bible study

By Tzvee Zahavy | Published 04/12/2007 | Arts & Leisure |

The Two Wives Club; Job Requirements for Israelite Kings; David’s Delivery Service; Dressed to Kill; Private Affair; Nepotism and Regret; Up on the Roof; Woolly Parable — are these the titles of this year’s fiction best-sellers or Oscar-nominated films?

No, they are a sample of the section titles that the reader will find in a locally published, exciting new volume of studies on the biblical book of Samuel published by the Ben Yehuda Press.

“Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Tanakh Companion to the Book of Samuel: Bible Study in the Spirit of Open and Modern Orthodoxy,” Ben Yehuda Press (2006), Teaneck, $19.95, 284 pages.

Teaneck has become a vibrant locale for Jewish publishing thanks to Larry and Eve Yudelson. The works coming out of their press provide traditional Jewish learning informed by what they call "the spirit of open and modern Orthodoxy."

The volume on the biblical book of Samuel brilliantly captures oral presentations on the text and translates them into print. As you work your way through this "companion" you do feel as if you are accompanied on your journey of study by rabbis associated with the relatively new Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, who are among the leading lights of modern Orthodox Bible scholarship.

This well-edited and professionally produced book presents a series of discrete and sometimes overlapping discourses.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the Tanakh and Jewish Thought departments at YCT, says in the introduction that the contributors adhere to a common "literary-theological method." But in fact they employ a potpourri of approaches, which is a shortcoming. Most of the authors do not seem to be aware of the individuality of their respective methods. Indeed, they do not show much interest in academic journals.

Helfgot has taught at the nearby Maayanot and Frisch Schools as well as at the Drisha Institute. He’s also edited a book containing selected letters of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and provides two chapters for this book. The first, "Amalek: Ethics, Values and Halakhic Development," treats mostly moral issues. The second, "David and Saul: A Comparison," engages in fascinating and close literary readings.

In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that in high school I was a classmate and chavrusa of David Silber, who has since become dean of New York’s Drisha Institute and a moving force for women’s advanced study of rabbinic texts. In this book he takes up "The Birth of Samuel and the Birth of Kingship," a major theme of the text.

Silber contributes further two chapters that examine other subjects of this biblical book, including "Anarchy and Monarchy." He addresses there texts from both Samuel I and II.

Next, Dr. Yehuda Felix, the Jewish Agency’s educational director for North America, treats the subject of "Hannah, the Mother of Prayer," reminding us how davening, the central act of our Judaic piety, was once considered a great innovation and was instantiated by a woman.

Hebrew University instructor Leeor Gottlieb then analyzes "The Nachash Story and the Dead Sea Scrolls," taking the reader into new and rarely charted territories of comparative study.

In one chapter Rabbi Hayyim Angel of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York confronts the mystery of "The Theological Significance of the Urim Ve-Tummim." In a second excurses he asks and answers, "Why David did not kill Saul: Insights from Psalms."

Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder and dean of YCT, religious leader of the Hebrew Institue of Riverdale, and noted author and activist, explores the role of "Avigayil: Savior of David."

And finally Rabbi Jack Bieler of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Md., decodes the puzzling chapter on "Uzzah and the Ark."

These authors convince you that they really do find their texts exciting, that they do believe the words of the book are sacred and inspired, and that ordinary householders can and should come along with them to discover the deeper and more spiritual meanings of Tanakh.

But, you ask, who really will read and benefit from this work? To that I’d give one illustration and some speculation. My wife is member of a women’s Tanakh study group in our area. The group of about 15 mainly Orthodox women meets on Shabbat afternoon every other week. The members are professionally accomplished women, who for the most part also are educated in Jewish texts and learning. My wife and other women in the group found this volume highly useful in preparing for their group discussions.

Also, this work indeed does succeed at being both modern and open. Hence, I speculate that many individual readers across the spectrum from Reconstructionist to haredi will discover this book and will use it as a worthy study resource. For more information, go to www.benyehudapress.com