Category Archives: Book Review

Review of Destiny’s Call, by Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

Destiny’s Call: Book One – Genesis

By Ben-Tzion Spitz

Valiant Publishing, 2011

Reviewed by Rabbi Yaakov Beasley, Editor, Torah Mietzion: New Readings in Tanakh: Bereshit, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Maggid Books, 2011

RESTORING IMAGINATION

In 1956, based on years of conferences and discussions between teachers and academics on the subject of what schools should teach, Benjamin Bloom published his groundbreaking Taxonomy of Learning Objectives and introduced the concept of higher-order thinking skills into the educational agenda. Instead of the simple and passive recall of facts, students were encouraged to actively analyze, evaluate and apply the information learned. While the particulars of Bloom’s taxonomy have been debated, the adoption of the principles has been near universal. For Jewish educators, however – special challenges emerge: how does one balance between the desire to encourage critical thinking on one hand and maintain a sense of reverence towards sacred texts on the other? An additional factor must also be considered – how to develop innovation and original thinking while maintaining the boundaries of centuries of commentaries and interpretations. Is there room for imagination in interpretation? These questions have been answered in one form or another by various authors and schools of thought during the past several decades. One very interesting response, however, comes from a brand new volume of Biblical fiction titled Destiny’s Call by Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz.

For several years, Rabbi Spitz has sent out a weekly email to hundreds of subscribers consisting of a short Dvar Torah and a short story on the parasha. From these archives, he has collected thirteen outstanding short gems, each one illustrating and expanding upon a particular story from Genesis, but in creative and often surprising ways. His stories manage to convey a sense of fresh and innovative thinking, while navigating the contours of traditional thought. The book also comes with a plethora of illustrations. There are hand-drawn maps of the Biblical landscape, a useful timeline of when within the biblical narrative his stories take place and genealogical charts showing the relationships of the various protagonists in his collection. In addition, each story is introduced with a reproduction of artwork from some of the great masters who illustrated the same scenes, including the famed Gustave Doré. Spitz has also included a list of discussion questions for each vignette that can be of great value to parents, teachers or book clubs, as well as a short essay outlining the process that led to the book’s creation. The end of each story leads the reader to the sources that were used to compile each story, whether it is the basic Biblical text, or more fascinating, the Midrashim, some of them rarely referenced. In the back of the book is a thorough glossary and index of Biblical references, rare for a work of fiction.

The use of Biblical characters in fiction is not new, as anyone who has ever read Thomas Mann (or more recently, Anita Diament) will attest. Indeed, the nature of the Bible as a text begs for this treatment. Unlike other literary works, the Biblical texts do not provide much detail or characterization, and only rarely are readers allowed access into the inner thought process of the personalities that inhabit them. There are, in Erich Auerbach’s formulation, texts “fraught with background”. In Jewish tradition, the Midrash was the first attempt to fill in these holes. Meir Sternberg’s theory of narrative centers around how “the biblical narrator navigates ‘between the truth and the whole truth’ by carefully managing narrative “gaps” or ambiguities by withholding information from the reader.” As such, many writers find it easy and convenient to use the sketchy outlines of the Biblical story as a springboard for their own creativity.

What separates Spitz from the above writers is that he is able to create tales that feel organically connected to the text and its message. He does this not by adding extraneous details to the plot of the story, or layering interpretation and commentary to the text, but by exploring the thought processes of the characters within them. Many of the stories deal with secondary and tertiary characters as they react to the momentous events around them. What motivated Lot’s wife to turn around to glance one last time at Sodom, despite the clear danger in doing so? How did Rachel feel upon seeing Jacob for the first time? What did the people building the Tower of Babel think? Like the Midrashic attempts to ascertain what Abraham thought during his three day journey to sacrifice Isaac,

Spitz is sensitive to the very human nature of the characters as they steer their way through events that ultimately become larger than life.

In summary, Destiny’s Call is an engaging read, and is strongly recommended both for the Shabbat table and the classroom. However, this work also accomplishes a much greater and more important task. Rabbi Spitz, through his vibrant stories, reminds us what it means to truly interact with a sacred text, and how reverence and the creative imagination can work together in our religious development while opening up new vistas in our understanding of the Biblical narrative.

[Special discount for schools and bulk orders. Visit http://valiantpublishing.com for more information.]

Book Review: Jacob’s Family Dynamics

Jacob's Family Dynamics (book cover)Jacob’s Family Dynamics: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder

Gad Dishi

Devora Publishing, 2009

Reviewed by Ben-Tzion Spitz

If you have any interest in the Bible, Rabbi Gad Dishi’s new book, “Jacob’s Family Dynamics” is a must-read. A warning is in order though. Dishi rips apart many long-held stereotypical images of the Patriarch Jacob and his relationships. He then puts them back together in often innovative, insightful and even brilliant ways.

What is beautiful and inspiring about Dishi’s work is the weaving of a mostly fragmented narrative of the stories of Jacob into a fluid, consistent and comprehensive picture. Many students of the classical commentaries will want to jump down Dishi’s throat as he repeatedly negates or contradicts centuries-old interpretations. However, they will find it a challenging battle. The strength of Dishi’s book is his extreme adherence to the text.

Dishi makes Jacob very human, contrary to the often superhuman depiction that classical commentaries portrayed him as. Dishi justifies the dichotomy in his introduction:

“The human element brings readers back to the Bible repeatedly to experience the characters’ dramatic, real-life choices, while the superhuman approach draws readers to the text to be inspired once more by the perfection of the characters’ personal attributes. Thus, from a religious perspective, both approaches have validity and can operate in parallel, each appealing to a different audience.”

The analysis is based on a laser-like focus on each phrase, word and language nuance. He builds the personas and action of the stories based on these careful readings. At the same time he keeps an eye on the big picture and the continuum of Jacob’s life, actions, fears, insecurities, needs and driving forces. The scenes that are covered in detail include (but are not limited to):

–          Jacob’s impersonation of Esau to obtain Isaac’s blessing;

–          Jacob’s arrival at Haran and his meeting of Rachel;

–          The switch of Leah for Rachel on the wedding night and Jacob’s response;

–          The competition of Leah and Rachel for Jacob’s affection;

–          Laban’s confrontation with Jacob at Gilead;

–          Jacob’s reunion/confrontation with Esau;

–          Jacob’s reaction to the rape of Dinah;

–          The burial of Rachel.

What emerges is a very human, and perhaps because of that, a very heroic (and also tragic) figure of Jacob. Dishi also presents Jacob’s family members (parents, brother, father-in-law, wives and sons) as characters that seem truer to the biblical text than what many other commentaries paint.

Just one example of Dishi’s original interpretations can be found in his analysis of Jacob’s stimulus in stealing Esau’s blessing. Dishi explains that Jacob was the initiator of the deception conspiracy as opposed to his mother, Rebecca. Furthermore, he argues that Jacob’s motivation had less to do with achieving some still unknown blessing from his father, but rather to be the recipient of fatherly love and attention via this blessing before Isaac’s death.

Dishi consistently uses a plethora of commentators both classical and modern to support his points. The pure erudition required to create this masterpiece is impressive, besides the excellence of his theories themselves.

Dishi successfully pulls off another feat. That of writing a scholarly work that will be accessible to the layman. The language is never too heavy or difficult. The prose is clear and flows. Even the extensive footnotes are fun and enlightening. It is as if one was sitting next to Dishi while he is typing and he shares yet another brilliant and related nugget of information or insight.

There is a special treat in Chapter 7 of a pair of color maps and pictures that delightfully illustrate Dishi’s explanation of what really happened in the preparation and encounter of Jacob and Esau after their twenty year separation.

There are two minor flaws in this diamond of a book. Both can be attributed to the Herculean task of attempting to write for the two very different worlds of the layman and the biblical scholar in one volume. Dishi explains in a footnote of the first chapter that he uses the translation of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses. He then repeatedly cites him in much of the subsequent translation in the footnotes, which is presumably the scholarly thing to do. However, it is a minor annoyance in the otherwise entertaining footnotes.

The second and perhaps more significant flaw for biblical scholars (but one that they may enjoy finding and pouncing on), are the cases where Dishi continues his theories with limited substantiation or support. From a layman’s point-of-view the theories still hold. They are compelling – even convincing at points. An analogy that comes to mind is a skater approaching a patch of thin ice. The skater takes advantage of the solid ice to forcefully propel himself as quickly as possible over the thinner section.

Because Dishi has done such a superb and persuasive job in the highly detailed and corroborated sections, one is more willing to go along for the ride and follow where Dishi leads.

It is hard to believe that there could be surprises left in a biblical narrative that is so well known to many. Dishi however keeps the suspense and the original interpretations flowing, from the first to the last chapter.

Jacob’s Family Dynamics should be part of the library of every Jewish home. It should also become required reading for any Bible/Genesis course from high school level to post-graduate degrees.

In Jacob’s Family Dynamics Dishi has set a new standard for reading of biblical text. A student of the Bible will not be able to look at Jacob or at the text the same way again.

Dishi hopes in his introduction “that Jacob’s Family Dynamics will lift the habitual blinders that have subdued the full power of the text.” In this he has succeeded admirably.

The book can be ordered directly from the publisher (discounted) at http://www.urimpublications.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=UP&Product_Code=Jacob

Ben-Tzion Spitz is an engineer, Bible studies writer and lecturer. He has started a series of Biblical Fiction short stories which can be viewed at http://torah.works/category/fiction/