Essen­tial Torah: A Com­plete Guide to the Five Books of Moses

George Robin­son
  • Review
By – May 14, 2012

Essen­tial Torah is real­ly two books in one. The sec­ond half, in which the author sum­ma­rizes and com­ments on the week­ly Torah and Haf­tara por­tions, is a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion for those begin­ning their own odyssey with the Torah. Robinson’s view­point is decid­ed­ly egal­i­tar­i­an yet in addi­tion to many pro­gres­sive com­men­taries, he also cites many tra­di­tion­al sources. His eclec­ti­cism is mar­velous, and had he just writ­ten this sec­tion of the book, dayyenu, it would have been suf­fi­cient. How­ev­er, in the first half of this vol­ume, near­ly 300 pages, he sum­ma­rizes all of Bib­li­cal his­to­ry, the­ol­o­gy, rab­binics, Bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship, con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish thought, phi­los­o­phy, hermeneu­tics, midrash, mys­ti­cism, and theod­i­cy. As a layman’s intro­duc­tion to Bib­li­cal intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, it too stands alone as a vol­ume unto itself. 

Robin­son, a jour­nal­ist who has read wide­ly and become an expert in many areas of Torah study, has excel­lent instincts. His treat­ment of a num­ber of themes and pat­terns in the Torah text (e.g., sin, exile and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with God, the ratio­nale for mitzvot, con­trastive dia­logue) is worth con­tem­plat­ing. He rais­es seri­ous issues con­cern­ing dif­fi­cult or uncom­fort­able pas­sages and grap­ples with the Torah as being andro­cen­tric ver­sus patriarchal. 

There is much to com­mend this book to a wide read­er­ship. How­ev­er, as with any author, Robinson’s bias­es do come through, and read­ers ought to beware of some of them. The most jar­ring affec­ta­tion is Robinson’s hodge­podge translit­er­a­tions from Hebrew to Eng­lish, which pro­duced a num­ber of anom­alies, for exam­ple Khu­mash, Khafetz Khaim, Khayei Sarah, Noakh, Rakhel, minkha. This is in con­trast to his oth­er­wise beau­ti­ful prose and most­ly felic­i­tous usage of English. 

The dis­cus­sion on the Dead Sea Scrolls should have includ­ed the work of NYU pro­fes­sor Lawrence Schiff­man, and not enough empha­sis is placed on the con­nec­tion between the Writ­ten Torah and the Oral Torah to explain dis­crep­an­cies and oth­er dif­fi­cult pas­sages. Robin­son is clear­ly moti­vat­ed to study and under­stand Torah. It is there­fore baf­fling why he so blithe­ly dis­miss­es the need to under­stand the text in the orig­i­nal Hebrew. Grant­ed, so much is avail­able in trans­la­tion. But until one can appre­ci­ate the text in the orig­i­nal, one remains, to use Leon Weiseltier’s phrase, a tourist in one’s own culture.” 

There are some fac­tu­al errors and omis­sions. For exam­ple, the Prayer for the Wel­fare of the State of Israel is print­ed in most Ortho­dox prayer books; the Torah text is often judg­men­tal; civ­il and crim­i­nal laws are equal­ly empha­sized along­side rit­u­al laws; and the writ­ings of Nechama Lei­bowitz are not for begin­ners, even in English. 

Robin­son includes a wealth of cita­tions from clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary writ­ers. The bib­li­og­ra­phy is thor­ough and impres­sive, if some­what eclec­tic. The glos­sary, time­line, and thumb­nail biogra­phies are very use­ful. Although this vol­ume is not meant for schol­ars, foot­notes would also have been helpful. 

Robin­son para­phras­es the midrash: when God spoke at Sinai, every­one present heard a dif­fer­ent voice. When we study Torah we add our voic­es to the dia­logue. This book is a valu­able addi­tion to the conversation.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions