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Book Review: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Brilliant Torah Commentary on Genesis

 

Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik - Sefer Bereishis by Dr. Arnold Lustiger: OU Press and Ohr Publishing; First edition (2013) ISBN-10: 0989124606. Price: $38.24 Rating: 5*

As one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of his time, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (a.k.a. the “Rav”) frequently combined classical Talmudic concepts with insights drawn from the great secular thinkers of Western Tradition.  The ensuing synthesis of his thought makes his theological worldview existential and challenging to Jews of all denominations.

Unfortunately, in his lifetime, the Rav never wrote a systematical commentary on the Torah. However, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, surveyed the vast corpus of the Rav’s writings and put together one of the most remarkable Pentateuch commentaries I have ever read. The name of his magnum opus is entitled, Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis.

This volume speaks in a single voice—a rarity when one considers how committees of scholars typically write most of  today’s contemporary expositions on the Torah.

Here are a few examples of how the Rav creates a timeless ethical lesson from the familiar stories of the Torah. A reader of a the Torah might wonder: Why does Noah later curse Ham so severely? R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains:

  • Ham wanted to find deficiencies and defects in his father, to reveal his nakedness to the entire world. According to Ham, it was incumbent to show the world that Noah was in fact not as righteous as his reputation might have suggested. Despite the fact that the Torah itself testifies that Noah walked with God (6:9), Ham was nevertheless interested in demonstrating that this was not the case, that Noah was hypocritical. . . [as if to say] ‘Look at Noah, the vaunted savior of the world as he wallows in a drunken stupor . . .’ One must remember that Noah had experienced an extraordinarily difficult time, responsible for the tempest-tossed ark and all its inhabitants while the outside world was being destroyed. After his travail, he drank a little too much wine. It was in Noah’s interest that this incident be forgotten, that his shame not be publicized. The Torah attests that Shem and Japhet did not see their father’s nakedness. Why didn’t they see what Ham saw? Because they, in contrast to Ham, did not want to reveal Noah’s impetuous mistake.”[1]

In another well-known passage in the story of the Fall, God informs Eve that her husband shall exert authority over her (Gen. 3:16).

  • The wondrous personal confrontation of Adam and Eve is turned into an ugly attempt at depersonalization. Adam of today wants to appear as master-hero and to subject Eve to his rule and dominion, be it ideological, religious, economic, or political. The Divine curse addressed to Eve after she sinned, and he shall rule over you, has found fulfillment in our modern society. The warm personal relationship between two individuals has been supplanted by a formal subject-object relationship, which manifests itself in a quest for power and supremacy. [2]

I would add that the subjection of women described by the Rav is not necessarily a new phenomenon as the Rav thought it was. Men have been using the biblical text to justify the institution of patriarchy for thousands of years. The exploitation of women in much of the Islamic and Ultra-Orthodox world today reflects a social reality that derives its inspiration from Genesis.

While most married Orthodox women cover their hair, the Rav’s wife did not. The Rav respected his wife’s choice to embrace a post-Genesis social reality where women would never have to show their inferior social status ever again.

After Abram’s debacle in Egypt, the Rav explains why Abram returned to the place where he had dedicated his original altar (Gen. 13:4).  The Rav explains:

  • The disappointing experience in Egypt did not discourage Abraham from pursuing his original goal: the total redemption and conversion of mankind. He returned to the site where he had built the altar before his journey to Egypt and there he called on the name of God. The universal ideal was Abraham’s loadstar. Persecution, ridicule, indifference, opposition, loneliness—none of these experiences discouraged him.[3]

Dr. Lustiger’s book has hundreds of profound existential and ethical teachings that will never exhaust the imagination of the reader. Our generation owes Dr. Lustiger a debt of gratitude for organizing the Rav’s writings in a manner that will inspire a lively reading of the weekly Torah portion for families and communities alike.



[1] Arnold Lustiger, Chumash Mesoras HaRav (Sefer Bereshis): With Commentary based upon the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New York; OU Press, 2013), 61-63.

[2] Ibid. 32-33.

[3] Ibid. p. 81



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  January 22, 2014

    It sounds almost as good as your commentary.

    (reply)

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