The Heart of Torah, Vol­ume 1

  • Review
By – August 2, 2017

In The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Week­ly Torah Por­tion, Rab­bi Shai Held offers thought pieces on the parashat ha-shavua whose scope, depth, ethics, and insight will delight read­ers from all Jew­ish back­grounds, as well as any­one inter­est­ed in min­ing the Bible for its time­less wisdom.

Rab­bi Held, the pres­i­dent, dean, and chair in Jew­ish Thought at Mechon Hadar in New York, is not afraid of exam­in­ing moral­ly thorny Bib­li­cal pas­sages that don’t allow for easy inter­pre­tive solu­tions (see, for exam­ple, his wrestling with how a Torah which so strong­ly empha­sizes the con­cept of lov­ing kind­ness nonethe­less man­dates the social iso­la­tion of an indi­vid­ual afflict­ed with lep­rosy), and offers strik­ing read­ings of pre­vi­ous­ly well-exam­ined texts. An exam­ple is his analy­sis of the well-known phrase one does not live by bread alone, but by every­thing that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteron­o­my 8:3). Through cita­tions of tra­di­tion­al medieval com­men­ta­tors (Rash­bam and the Mal­bim), Jew­ish aca­d­e­mics (Pro­fes­sors Jef­frey Tigay and Moshe Wein­feld), and non-Jew­ish schol­ars (Richard Niel­son and Christo­pher Wright), Rab­bi Held offers an inter­pre­ta­tion in which the phrase every­thing that comes from the mouth of the Lord” refers to both the man­na, the mirac­u­lous food pro­vid­ed to the Israelites in the wilder­ness, as well as the words of com­mand ema­nat­ing from God. As Rab­bi Held sum­ma­rizes, Every­thing [empha­sis in the orig­i­nal] that comes from the mouth of the Lord” sure­ly includes God’s com­mand­ments, but it encom­pass­es God’s promis­es and com­mit­ments [as man­i­fest­ed in the man­na, for exam­ple] as well. As Christo­pher Wright notes, every­thing’ refers to the dec­la­ra­tion of God’s promis­es, the claim of God’s covenant, the guid­ance of God’s Torah, the artic­u­la­tion of God’s pur­pose for cre­ation and human­i­ty. Words that promis­es bread came from the same mouth that promis­es much, much more.’ ”

Striv­ing to live by the divine word while wrestling with the idea of human inde­pen­dence and auton­o­my is but one of cen­tral dialec­tics thread­ed through­out the work, a col­lec­tion which suc­ceeds in its goal of offer­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly rich and reli­gious­ly edi­fy­ing exam­i­na­tions of the heart of Torah and its abil­i­ty to res­onate so deeply with­in our own hearts.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions