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Logo Bookjed Digest No. 141

The Bookjed Digest is a service of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, Bar-Ilan University

In this issue:

| 1. Book review:
Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers
Rabbi Francis Nataf
Urim Publications 2015, 144 pages
     Reviewed by Ari Kahn

| 2. Online reviews:
Yael Ziegler's Ruth reviewed by Elli Fischer
Avi Weiss' Open Up The Iron Door reviewed by Shmuly Yanklowitz
Akiva Aaronson's People of the Book: Five Hundreds Years of the Hebrew Book From the Beginning of Printing Until the Twentieth Century, reviewed by Gil Student

| 3. Online journal: Zehuyot – Identities – Journal for Jewish Culture and Identity

| 4. Book announcements:

Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History
by Marc B. Shapiro

Hebrew classroom magazines from Israel for Jewish Day Schools

(Back to Top)

I always enjoy a good book, and this description of Rav Yaakov Emden's Tur is surely a good story about a good book. If you enjoy good stories and good books, please spend a few minutes to read this. You might even be inspired to visit the rare book room at Columbia University -


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1. Book review:
Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers
Rabbi Francis Nataf
Urim Publications 2015, 144 pages
     Reviewed by Ari Kahn
(Back to Top)

In the third volume of his series of books on the Torah, Rabbi Francis Nataf delves into the book of Bamidbar. As the title indicates, the premise for the entire series is that the Torah has relevance for modern life - relevance that must be redeemed. The book is not a commentary, at least not in the classic sense: It contains seven chapters, leaving entire parshiot untreated. Rather than offer a running commentary or verse-by-verse elucidation of the text, Redeeming Relevance paints with broad strokes, articulating major themes in the book of Bamidbar - clearly, articulately, with elegance and wisdom.

This approach offers a unique vantage point that is often missed, particularly by those who access the text through the traditional format of weekly Torah readings. Too often, “the parashah” is seen as an independent unit, disconnected from the previous week’s Torah portion and without consideration for the book as an organic whole, as a book. Religious education, ever sensitive (even hypersensitive) to nuances of phrase, individual words, even individual letters, only exacerbates the problem with its tendency to overlook the themes conveyed by the larger context, often forgetting that the division of parshiot is not an intrinsic or organic feature.

This is why you should read this book: Rabbi Nataf successfully illuminates the larger themes contained in the book of Bamidbar, and mines these themes for their relevance to modern man. Nataf’s keen insights isolate existential issues in the book of Bamidbar that are constants in the human experience: leadership, politics, group dynamics, greed, and lust are no less pressing issues today than they were in the generation that wandered in the desert.

On the other hand, this approach has a distinct disadvantage: the tendency to make everything fit into the larger themes that the author has identified. Rabbi Nataf is guilty of this sin, but he is in good company: This same charge may be brought against the Chizkuni, whose commentary on the closing verse in Vayikra attempts to fit the entire book into one thematic topic, as well as Ramban (Nachmanides) and the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin), who both penned introductions to the book of Bamidbar that attempt to do the same.

An additional pitfall, one not shared by those illustrious classical commentaries, is Rabbi Nataf’s tendency to be swayed by postmodern sensibilities; although this tendency will be welcomed by some readers, it will give others pause. Thus, for example, in Nataf’s reading of the rebellion staged by Korah and his followers, Moshe’s leadership abilities are brought into question, even disparaged, while Korach’s motivations are given the benefit of the doubt. Rabbi Nataf offers no textual proof to support either of these suggestions other than Korah’s relative success in galvanizing support -- despite Rabbi Nataf’s admission that charismatic individuals often have a way of swaying the masses even when their motivations are quite nefarious.

The larger issue that arises throughout Redeeming Relevance is the price that is paid in exchange for the “broad strokes” approach: To what extent are the details considered? How much of the sensitivity to nuance, to individual words and the details of the narrative, are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of the larger picture of overarching themes? The example of Korah’s rebellion is a case in point: Was there really only one rebellion in the story of Korah, or did Korah, Datan and Aviram, the 250 dignitaries and the 14,000 who joined the rebellion all come with different agendas? A straightforward reading of the details, particularly the distinct punishments handed down for each group, points to a far more complex reality than is painted in Rabbi Nataf’s analysis.

Similarly, the sin of the spies is treated as a monolithic transgression, despite the fact that the Torah’s account of the episode records several distinct stages, an unfolding of events that is lost in Redeeming Relevance: First, the spies speak and Calev alone protests. Where is Yehoshua? Where do his loyalties lie? Why is he silent – or is he silent? Had Yehoshua perhaps initially aligned himself with the rebellious group? The spies then change their line of attack, and claim that the land is unconquerable; once again, Calev disagrees. What do the spies propose? Do they have an alternative plan? Do they propose that the nation remain in the desert, or perhaps propose an alternative destination, an early “Uganda Plan”? At a later stage, the spies begin to disparage the Land of Israel; only at that point do Calev and Yehoshua join together in protest and speak out in praise of the Promised Land. The spies’ words cause the masses to cry out and lament having left Egypt. In the final stage, mass hysteria takes over and the people conspire to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt. The text is clear: this final stage was a grassroots movement, and it is altogether possible that the spies had neither planned nor foreseen this devolution.

As in the rebellion of Korah, Rabbi Nataf’s broader view necessarily sacrifices the details, and “the sin of the spies” becomes far more monolithic and far less nuanced: individuals meld into a collective, stages of development are lost, variations of motivation and response are not taken into account.

Admittedly, pointing out these shortcomings is somewhat unfair: I have addressed the book Rabbi Nataf did not write, rather than the thought-provoking and enlightening book he did, in fact, write. Redeeming Relevance has much to offer; it is replete with novel insights, it is creative and thoughtful, and it brings into focus the proverbial forest that is formed by the textual trees. I recommend this book, and I encourage the reader to use it as a companion to the text: Look closely at the trees, at the richness of detail and nuance that the text of the Torah offers, and see for yourself if they do, in fact, make up the beautiful forest that Rabbi Nataf’s most recent work describes.

Rabbi Ari Kahn is a teacher author and Rabbi who lives in Givat Ze’ev. His books include “Explorations”, “Emanations”, a newly completed five volume set called “Echoes of Eden”. His latest work is “A River Flowed from Eden”.

2. Online reviews:
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Yael Ziegler's Ruth reviewed by Elli Fischer

Ziegler’s command of the body of interpretation of Ruth, from midrashic, to medieval Jewish exegetes, to contemporary scholars, is everywhere apparent, but she tends to relegate technical discussions to the notes. Nevertheless, her book is not a quick or easy read. Readers will have to work to follow her interpretive arguments, but helpful charts and diagrams abound, and the payoff is more than academic.

In Ziegler’s presentation, the book of Ruth is a contrast and corrective to the book of Judges. The opening verse sets the events of Ruth in the era of the Judges (Ziegler barely addresses when the book was composed, noting that scholarly opinion is divided while referring interested readers to the relevant studies), and indeed, the book of Ruth is placed immediately after Judges in the Christian canon. Whereas Judges describes an Israelite society plagued by anarchy, godlessness, and self-centeredness, Ruth offers a way out, a recipe for overcoming dissolution and building toward a cohesive and godly society. Ziegler supports this thesis by drawing a series of linguistic and thematic parallels between the book of Ruth and other biblical books, particularly Genesis and Judges.


Avi Weiss' Open Up The Iron Door reviewed by Shmuly Yanklowitz

In a new memoir Open Up The Iron Door (Toby Publishing), my spiritual mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss, an early leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, recalls stories from his years as an activist on the front. As one of the leading voices of the movement, Rabbi Weiss recounts the humbling highs and crushing lows on the journey to fight for freedom. This was not an easy commitment with countless nights away from family, attacks, and threats. Rav Avi even suffered a heart attack at the activist scene where he was beaten (199).

At under 300 pages, Rabbi Weiss’ memoir is filled with dynamic images from the archives, riveting tales on emotional toils and tribulations, and reflections and teachings he culled from being on the front line of one of the most vibrant social movements of the latter half of the 20th century. Still, while the historical account is interesting and a critical aspect of the book, the lessons to be applied to future Jewish movements comprise the most thought-provoking and lasting part of the experience of reading this tome.


Akiva Aaronson's People of the Book: Five Hundreds Years of the Hebrew Book From the Beginning of Printing Until the Twentieth Century, reviewed by Gil Student

The Internet is only the latest, and probably not the last, of many information upheavals due to technology. An important change began over 500 years ago with the invention of the printing press. This new method for mass-producing books quickly altered the political and religious face of Europe. Jews, traditionally devoted to literacy and study, were early adopters of printing technology and suffered less upheaval than their Christian counterparts.

In a fascinating and richly illustrated new book, People of the Book: Five Hundreds Years of the Hebrew Book From the Beginning of Printing Until the Twentieth Century, Akiva Aaronson traces important Jewish developments along the path, from Rashi’s Torah commentary, the first dated Hebrew book (Italy, 1475), through the Survivors’ Talmud published in 1948.

3. Online journal: Zehuyot – Identities – Journal for Jewish Culture and Identity (Back to Top)

I am pleased to inform you that a new issue of Zehuyot – Identities – Journal for Jewish Culture and Identity - was recently published on line and in print.

Content: Preface/Naftali Rothenberg; Gershon Greenberg / On Meta-History and the Holocaust; Orthodoxy as a Pseudo-Evolutionary Multi-System: Menachem Keren-Kratz / Extreme Orthodoxy as a Case-Study; Religion and Nationalism: Arye Edrei / The Secular Jew in the Religious Zionist Halakhic Context; We Remember Ourselves: Anat Marle-Heffetz / Place and Locale in Remembrance Day Ceremonies at Kibbutz Nirim;

Symposium: Civil Marriage in Israel, participants: Ruth Halperin-Kaddari (editor), Shirin Batshon, Mark Washofsky, David Stav, Ruth Gavison.

Book reviews: Gad Kroizer on Gideon Avital-Eppstein, The Yom Kippur War: A Battle over the Collective Memory

Yehoyada Amir on Dan Avnon, Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue

The entire journal is in Hebrew but you can read the preface in English for free as well as abstracts of a few articles. Link to the English site:


Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg
Senior Research Fellow
The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

4. Book announcements
(Back to Top)

Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History
By Marc B. Shapiro

Changing the Immutable focuses on how segments of Orthodox society have taken upon themselves to rewrite the past, by covering up and literally cutting out that which does not fit in with their contemporary world-view. For reasons ranging from theological considerations to internal religious politics to changing religious standards, such Jewish self-censorship abounds, and Marc Shapiro discusses examples from each category, In a number of cases the original text is shown alongside how it looked after it was censored, together with an explanation of what made the text problematic and how the issue was resolved.

The author considers how some Orthodox historiography sees truth as entirely instrumental. Drawing on the words of leading rabbis, particularly from the haredi world, he shows that what is important is not historical truth, but a 'truth' that leads to observance and faith in the sages. He concludes with a discussion of the concept of truth in the Jewish tradition, and when this truth can be altered.
Changing the Immutable also reflects on the paradox of a society that regards itself as traditional, but at the same time is uncomfortable with much of the inherited tradition and thus feels the need to create an idealized view of the past. It considers this practice in context, showing the precedents for this in Jewish history dating back to talmudic times.

Since the subjects of censorship have included such figures as Maimonides, Bahya ibn Pakuda, Rashi, Naphtali Herz Wessely, Moses Mendelssohn, the Hatam Sofer, Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, A. I. Kook, and J. B. Soloveitchik, as well as issues such as Zionism, biblical interpretation, and attitudes to women and gentiles, Changing the Immutable also serves as a study in Jewish intellectual history and how the ideas of one era do not always find favour with future generations.


Hebrew classroom magazines from Israel for Jewish Day Schools

Teaching Diaspora day school students spoken Hebrew, and ensuring that they leave elementary school with a deep connection to the language as well as a level of mastery, has long been a challenge for educators in day schools outside of Israel.

Current educational research often speaks to the need to make learning relevant to our students. In order to ensure that our children and students connect to the Hebrew language, and that they view its acquisition as intrinsically motivating, we must bridge the gaps that exist between instruction and motivation.

Ezbeoni Publishing, a beloved Israeli children's magazine publisher, has adapted their Israeli children's magazines to meet the needs of Diaspora students. The magazines are designed for students learning Hebrew outside of Israel, in day schools, supplemental schools, or other institutions and are designed to reach across denominations. The Diaspora Hebrew classroom magazines currently available are most suitable for kindergarten through the fifth grade.

The Hebrew classroom magazines contain content related to Israeli culture and daily life, history, famous Israeli personalities, geography and culture, current events, Israeli innovations, and so much more. Stories, articles, and activities and puzzles are contained within each edition, and each edition revolves around a specific theme.

Information on these magazines can be obtained by visiting the magazine's website, or by emailing [log in to unmask].

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