The ProsenPeople

Comments on Commentary

Friday, December 22, 2017 | Permalink

Author: David Wolpe

Jewish man studying religious text

"Jews don’t listen—they wait.” Joseph Epstein’s joke about Jews’ eagerness to talk will resonate with anyone who has spent time studying Jewish texts. Many people like to talk back to their books; they make notes in margins or highlight lines for future reference. But Jewish commentary does not merely talk back to books. It screams, sighs, argues, jokes, jibes, and rolls out endless expansions and criticisms. A book is not a dormant object in Judaism—it is a goad and a target. Unlike the marginal notes we make in our everyday books, Jewish commentary is not lost when a book is sold or given away. Instead, the comments become part of the text.

Consider the story of Moses Isserles. A Polish scholar of the sixteenth century, Isserles planned to write a definitive legal work. In the meantime, however, he discovered that the great Talmudist Joseph Caro had beaten him to the punch with the publication of his own legal code, the Shulchan Aruch. Isserles could not hope to write a competing work. He easily might have abandoned his project, but instead he took note of the instances in which Caro, a Sephardic Jew, had recorded practices that were different from his own Ashkenazic customs. In time, no one printed Caro’s code without Isserles’s glosses—the comments were incorporated into the book.

Objections are an essential part of the commentary process; it is not sweet harmony. When the greatest Jewish scholar, Maimonides, wrote his monumental code of law, a formidable sage of the time known as the RABaD (Rabbi Abraham ben David) so disapproved of Maimonides’s attitudes and conclusions that he wrote his hassagot—technically “glosses,” although in fact many are sharply worded rebukes and corrections. In our age, in which it is often difficult to know what is meant by a “Jewish book,” a slightly tautological definition presents itself: a Jewish book is a book that comments on other Jewish books.

Jewish tradition rejects the concept of solo scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). The Bible is a book of silences and spaces. It tells us not to do melachah on the Sabbath, but doesn’t say what melachah means. It tells us that Abraham and Isaac traveled three days together toward the mountain where Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his son, but doesn’t report anything about what they discussed along the way. The rabbis rush into these lacunae with comments, questions, and stories. The study of Talmud becomes a dialogue down the corridors of time.

Jewish learning is not about creating something new, but rather about finding something new. A unique interpretation of a story, an innovative twist on a law—this is the kind of originality that characterizes the Jewish scholarly quest.

Recently I sat behind a man on a plane who had a Talmud app opened on his computer. On the screen flashed the Aramaic text, the commentary, the English translation, and a note about the English translation. He was essentially reading four texts simultaneously, but all of them were comments on a fifth text (the Mishnah), which was only present as a fragment embedded in the other four. The split-screen communicative chaos of the modern world is not precisely parallel to Jewish textuality. And yet, from early days, Jews have recognized the power of layers of text. Our technological age feels familiar to the student of biblical literature. The Talmud, after all, is an historical hyperlink.

And so each generation absorbs and adds to a vast ascending web of words, seeking to capture the ineffable, vitalize tradition, and reach toward God.

This essay originally appeared in the 2018/5778 edition of Paper Brigade. David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple and the author, most recently, of  David: The Divided Heart (Yale University Press). 

Interview: David Wolpe

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff recently spoke with David Wolpe about his newest book, David: The Divided Heart, published by Yale University Press

At one point during our phone interview, I asked Rabbi David Wolpe, author of a new book on King David, about why he wrote on the famously lustful Israelite king. He replied that he told his editor not to worry about the timeliness of the book: there would be a political scandal along the lines of the David and Bathsheba story at some point when his book was coming out. In fact, he was so confident of it, he would write the editorial now! The timelessness of human foibles when power is gained,  coupled with the extraordinary human ability to grow and change and write about it as King David did in the Psalms, personal poetry and prayer traditionally attributed to him, is the subject of Wolpe’s latest book, David: The Divided Heart, the newest volume in the Jewish Lives series by Yale University Press.

Wolpe is the author of seven previous books, all like this one, in which he attempts to engage with serious Jewish ideas for a general audience. He is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and known by many for his huge Facebook and Twitter followings, as well as holding the accolade of being many years on the influential rabbi list that had been compiled by Newsweek, hitting the top slot in 2012. In our interview, he spoke of how he brought his work as a rabbi to his telling of David’s story, relating his ability to understand people’s lives at different ages and see not only the effect of parents on children, but as they age, children on their parents. The book comes from a deeply personal place too, dedicated to his uncle David, after whom he is named, the man who raised his father (also a rabbi, Gerald Wolpe z”l) after his father’s own father passed away at a young age. When David Wolpe graduated high school, he writes in the book’s introduction, his father inscribed his yearbook with a pastiche of ideas about his Biblical namesake. He writes that although his father did not quote any particular verse he conveyed an “essential message” about the David who “sang many songs.”

It is fitting that the character of David, who encompasses both the national aspirations of the Jewish people as well as his own personal family struggles, has these different aspects, both public and private, for the writer as well. Here are some highlights of Jewish Book Council's phone conversation with this most articulate rabbi.

Beth Kissileff: You say in the book that in the rabbinic text Pesikta DeRav Kahana, the rabbis confessed, “We are unable to make sense of David’s character”. If even they are unable to, what got you to write this book?

David Wolpe: Because he was so intriguing. I was also trying to unravel the central mystery: Why does David get to be the most important character, the ancestor of the Messiah?

In one sense, the tradition is split between David and Moses. We have a good idea of the legacy of Moses, but know less about David, even though the Bible tells us more about the character. The David stories feel historical, they don’t feel like myth. So much apologizing for David only makes sense if there are people around attacking him.

For me at least, David is the most intriguing character.

BK: How did you decide to divide up the chapters and create the themes for each of them? Each chapter is a role: Fugitive, King, Sinner, Father, Caretaker, and The Once and Future King.

DW: Because as I read through it, I thought it is such a big, messy,F wonderful story that it will help the reader to have some thematic breakdown, as opposed to running through the narrative.

I thought of David the way I think of someone when I conduct a funeral. This is the same person, but with lots of different roles. You hear from the spouse, the kids, they can be a lot of different things to different people in their lives. That’s what David was.

BK: Why does David speak to modern Jews?

DW: He speaks to modern Jews about the state and all the contradictions of the state. War and savagery and plotting and manipulation and all of that. But at same time, he is a central religious figure. He is credited with writing the only personal prayers in the Bible, the Psalms. If you are looking for a book to express the individual human soul, you have only the Psalms in the Bible.

His legacy endures – Jerusalem is celebrating the 3000th year as the City of David.

And finally and most powerfully, David is a deeply flawed figure who is still a hero. That idea, that we don’t think a person can be great and flawless, is something we struggle with every single day. There will soon be a David and Bathsheba scandal – I should write the editorial now! He is an exquisitely relevant as well as fascinating character.

BK: What are the top three books to read to learn more about the David story?

DW: If they want a fuller account, read Samuel I and II. I think Jonathan Kirsch’s book King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel is fuller and easily read. Then, it depends how serious you want to be. The most comprehensive and learned book is Bible scholar Baruch Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons. He deals with the archaeology, but tells you where to skip if you don’t want all the detail. An effective case against David is Stephen Mazckenzie, King David: A Biography.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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