Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler. MeOtzar HoRav Series. Hoboken: Ktav, 2008. xv + 224 pp. 25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60280-004-5.
Reviewed by B. Barry Levy
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2008)
Biblical Interpretation in the Writings of Joseph B. Soloveitchik
This is the ninth volume in a series that contains more than one hundred talks and essays by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav). Published since 2000 by the Toras HoRav Foundation, each text has been reconstructed from the author's manuscripts or from a recording made at the time of an original lecture. The editors negotiated differences between the oral and written versions (where both exist), added titles and subtitles, transliterated and translated Hebrew passages, eliminated duplications, rearranged some parts, and made other changes. Even so, Rabbi Soloveitchik's thought and voice are apparent in every paragraph, and the brilliance of his vision, the deftness of his interpretations, the clarity of his presentations (and let us not forget that he wrote in English), the innovations in his thinking, and the contemporary relevance of the contents make this entire series a most welcome contribution to the expanding library of his writings.
Abraham's Journey contains thirteen essays on prominent passages and issues in Genesis 12-22. Most of the present collection dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s, and originated in classes on Abraham taught in 1968-9. At least three additional treatments of Abraham already have appeared in this series, and readers familiar with other works by the Rav will recognize common motifs throughout.
The only essay that approaches being a programmatic statement on how to interpret the biblical texts about Abraham is the first, which is required reading for anyone interested in the Rav's hermeneutics and overall contribution to Bible interpretation. He began by admitting that we lack all archaeological evidence for Abraham's existence but quickly moved to treat the patriarch's life by using alternative sources and approaches that have a remarkable ability to engage readers many decades later, even those who may have failed to move beyond that archaeological reality. To be sure, the Rav was convinced of Abraham's historicity and took pleasure in the fact that even scholars of the ancient Near East seemed to be growing increasingly supportive of it. (During the 1960s, William F. Albright, Ephraim Speiser, Cyrus Gordon, Nahum Sarna, and others were actively exploring ancient Near Eastern discoveries to great advantage; that trend was seriously challenged in the mid-1970s and subsequently.)
This essay reveals both Rabbi Soloveitchik's interests and his intellectual independence. Though by our standards he may have gone out on a limb by insisting that so much depends on the fact of Abraham's existence (in the 1960s and for most of the preceding millennia that seemed assured), his approach to the narratives dealt more with the subsequent significance of the patriarch's life than its ancient reality. This presentation, somewhat reminiscent of Ahad HaAm's essay on Moses, which saw the "real" Moses as that manifested in later Jewish memory, not the man who lived in Egypt in the thirteenth century BCE, shows us the contemporary importance of Abraham's experiences and beliefs, and actually depends very little on the reconstruction of the archaeological reality behind them. The concluding pages of this book, which deal with covenant, are similar. According to the Rav, biblical covenant is more about the future than the past, in his words, not the starting point of the voyage but the destination; the ancient historical reality is in many ways less important than its later realizations.
All of the essays reveal Rabbi Soloveitchik's mastery of the Jewish interpretative literature and his ability to move effortlessly from Bible and early rabbinic texts (Talmud, Midrash, and Targum) through medieval and postmedieval ones. Without surrendering the right to develop his distinctive brand of homiletical exegesis, he adroitly avoided forcing one text into another; he linked, melded, and sometimes prodded them, but he did not coerce the rabbinic texts to deliver his message.
Among the post-Talmudic writers he treated, Rashi, Maimonides, and Nahmanides take center stage, and, in the case of Maimonides, that includes both the Mishneh Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed. Rabbinic writers after Nahmanides were mentioned far less frequently, and one is as likely to find a reference to Ludwig von Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Frances Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kirkegaard, Martin Buber, or Peter Pan as Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ba`al Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin. If memory serves me, the former group is much better represented, quantitatively and qualitatively. Rabbi Soloveitchik read very widely, and, whether he chose to promote specific notions or to refute them, he took these writers and their thinking seriously.
Various Latin terms are scattered throughout the book, as well as words like kerygma, whose use I find limited largely to Christian theologians. This suggests even broader interests and poses a serious challenge for those of his followers who believe he really preferred to avoid such material. In addition to the lives of the characters in Genesis and the implications of their acts for the future of the Jewish people, broader topics that seem to have engaged the Rav are "genius" (though I do not recall his using that particular word here) and "loneliness," which appears frequently. Other topics referenced extensively in the excellent index are community, covenant, creation, faith, freedom, halakhah, history, justice, morality, prayer, and suffering, more than a few of which have been the subjects of entire volumes in this series.
Among the contributions of the editors is the transliteration of all Hebrew in Sefaradi pronunciation. While pleasing to the eye and the ear, there can be little doubt that this imposes a foreign practice on Rabbi Soloveitchik's Ashkenazi pronunciation. Similarly, the introduction of translations of verses and other Hebrew citations would appear to be the contributions of the editors, but here one must wonder about some of their choices and whether they have handled them as the Rav would have. Qoneh shamayim va-aretz (Genesis 14:22) means not the "possessor of heaven and earth" but their creator (p. 135). Semol le-Dameseq (Genesis 14:15) is not "on the left hand of Damascus" but north of it (Onkelos), i.e., the left when facing east (p. 137). The similar references in Genesis 13:9 probably suggest that Abraham offered Lot the opportunity to choose from the north or south (Onkelos, Radak, etc.), not the left or the right, though this example is less certain. Nefesh, always tricky to translate, particularly in the Bible, has been rendered "people" in Genesis 14:21; that might be preferable elsewhere, as well (p. 131).
Despite these minor considerations, the volume is truly fascinating. Those concerned by the focus on the patriarch will appreciate the numerous creative, positive ways the matriarchs have been treated, and that practice extended to other women. In turn, Ruth, Deborah (Rebecca's nurse), and even Lot's daughters have received high praise. We look forward to the appearance of additional volumes that undoubtedly will continue to educate, fascinate, and inspire their readers, as the original lectures did their audiences.
. The reviewer was asked to comment specifically on Soloveitchik's role as biblical exegete.
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B. Barry Levy. Review of Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph B., Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch.
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