Why Rain Comes from Above: Explo­rations in Reli­gious Imagination

  • Review
By – April 8, 2024

We are often quick to label bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives as either lit­er­al or alle­gor­i­cal — to be tak­en seri­ous­ly or not to be tak­en seri­ous­ly. After all, these texts rarely fit into the four cubits of halacha,” the legal frame­work of Jew­ish tra­di­tion, which is often eas­i­er to define, describe, clas­si­fy, and quan­ti­fy. In her new book, Why Rain Comes from Above, Devo­ra Stein­metz encour­ages read­ers to enter into the world of aggadic sto­ries and bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives, and to employ our reli­gious imaginations.

Stein­metz argues in her intro­duc­tion that it is easy for us to immerse our­selves in the lat­est nov­els, films, and TV series sim­ply because they are fic­tion­al and not to be tak­en at face val­ue. But many of us strug­gle to let our imag­i­na­tions guide us through sacred, canon­i­cal texts that come with claims to truth, authen­tic­i­ty, and author­i­ty. If we dare to enter, how­ev­er, we can fos­ter a height­ened aware­ness of both the sacred and the pro­fane, and find new ways of think­ing and feeling.

In Why Rain Comes from Above, Stein­metz explores the imag­i­na­tive space cre­at­ed by deep engage­ment with close read­ings of Jew­ish texts. She does this in sev­er­al essays that cov­er a wide range of themes and Jew­ish texts: she begins with the epony­mous ques­tion of where rain comes from, first allud­ed to in the first chap­ter of Gen­e­sis, and then steers read­ers through bib­li­cal and rab­binic texts dis­cussing Adam’s first win­ter. Stein­metz also writes about the found­ing of the Jew­ish nation in Egypt and explains rab­binic dis­course about the nature of Amalek.

At first glance, the main themes and texts of Steinmetz’s essays do not appear to break new ground; they present top­ics and ques­tions that have been wide­ly con­sid­ered by past and present schol­ars of Jew­ish texts. To each of her sub­jects, how­ev­er, Stein­metz adds sur­pris­ing and deeply mean­ing­ful inter­tex­tu­al con­nec­tions, par­al­lels, and con­tra­dic­tions. Her expla­na­tions give read­ers new insights into com­plex themes and issues with­in the Jew­ish tradition.

On every page of her book, Stein­metz dis­plays a deep knowl­edge of bib­li­cal and rab­binic lit­er­a­ture and an excel­lent abil­i­ty to weave togeth­er sources, nar­ra­tives, and themes. She does this with a focus not only on lan­guage and struc­ture, but also on the con­tent of her cho­sen texts. She care­ful­ly guides us through her analy­sis of plots, char­ac­ters, key­words, and the val­ues con­veyed by the texts, allow­ing us to access a deep­er under­stand­ing of how bib­li­cal and rab­binic nar­ra­tives can be imag­ined and expe­ri­enced spiritually.

This insight­ful and com­pelling book is for any­one inter­est­ed in expe­ri­enc­ing tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish texts in a new way. Read­ers with lit­tle or no knowl­edge of Hebrew will appre­ci­ate Stein­met­z’s accu­rate and detailed ren­der­ings of Hebrew texts and her expla­na­tions about the quirks of rab­binic phrase­ol­o­gy. Read­ers who are more famil­iar with tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish learn­ing should be advised to have a Hebrew Bible at hand (and ide­al­ly the rab­binic texts Stein­metz cites) in order to ful­ly appre­ci­ate her eru­dite analysis.

Discussion Questions