When Israel Divided
I Kings: Torn in Two
The Bible’s familiarity often confounds its readers. We already know words, sentences, and isolated events, but the problem of building enduring understandings across paragraphs, pages, and whole groups of chapters often eludes us. If asked, “What is the book of Kings about?,” we might offer several inchoate answers, none of them satisfying.
Attempts to understand the Bible in a systematic fashion have presented themselves as paradigms of thought and inquiry. Classical Jewish study has been heavily dependent on the literary constructions of Talmudic Rabbis and Medieval Rabbinic commentaries. Academic Bible study, since the 19th Century and onward, has sought to anchor understanding of the text in a wide variety of historical, archaeological, and literary evidence. However, a third methodology, developed by Dr. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, selectively combines these two approaches.
This genre of Biblical interpretation defines itself as “peshat,” and relies only on details written in the text, ignoring connections enshrined in classical Rabbinic interpretation, unless some supporting detail of the text itself can be identified. For example, despite the well-known, and contextually justified Rabbinic identification of Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24 as Eliezer, this school of Biblical interpretation always refers to this character as “the servant,” since from the text itself, not enough proof can be marshalled to establish this character’s precise identity. The text of the bible is read Bible as literature, and like the New Critics, students of Breuer’s methodology attempt to to show how the Bible functions as a successfully executed aesthetic or rhetorical document. In religious and literary terms, while Academic Bible freely engages in both Historicism and Deconstructionism, this third approach emphasizes reading towards meaning.
Students of Breuer - such as Rabbi Ya’aqov Medan or Rabbi Yoel bin Nun - often hold teaching positions in yeshivot, educational institutions dedicated to the study of Jewish texts. The intellectual firepower poured into a Talmudic discourse often finds equal engagement when challenged to read the Bible, in Hebrew, carefully, closely, and analytically. The understandings built on a rigorous contextualization and analysis of a sentence, chapter, or entire book of the Bible generate new significance and meaning for both students and teachers, who share the goal of understanding Tanakh (Bible), and in the process better understanding their own religion, culture, and history.
I was privileged to spend two years at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, where I learned Bible from Rabbi Tzvi Grumet and Rabbi Alex Israel. I experienced the excitement of building and identifying literary paradigms and features of the text - both on a micro and macro scale. We might consider a single chapter one day, and the next connect several books. “Shavarti roshi al zeh” - “I broke my head on this,” said Rabbi Ya’aqov Medan at least once, describing the process by which he struggled to find a rigorous explanation of a text. Yet, the possibility of successfully creating original and compelling understandings of Tanakh that deepen reader’s intellectual and emotional connection to the text continues to inspire teachers and students to pursue this unique method of Biblical interpretation, melding aspects of the traditional and modern.Modern Orthodox Jews, who raise the twin banners of modernity and tradition, they may find themselves reflected in the discourse and conclusions of biblical interpretation written in this style.
Rabbi Alex Israel’s I Kings: Torn in Two succeeds both in authentically expressing the depth of literary and psychological sensitivity captured by this modern mode of interpretation, but also blending in classical Rabbinic commentaries, ranging from Rashi to Malbim, when they connect and expand upon themes present in the text themselves. Occasionally, a Talmudic midrashic will be presented, along with the textual details that motivated such an expansion - details that an audience unfamiliar with Hebrew would be unable to perceive.
The polish and fullness evident in Kings impresses the reader both in the depth of the interpretation and context provided, and also the scope of the work. Kings successfully covers through the entire first book of Kings, never skipping or showing weak spots, compellingly arguing that innocent details signify sinister or significant developments in the larger narrative. Furthermore, the diagrams and graphs make the literary evidence decipherable to more visual learners, while never overwhelming the text itself.
Beyond a “really good shiur” on each chapter, Kings seeks to create an integrated, continuous understanding of the text informed by a wide variety of perspectives, lenses, and sources. Although the text itself consists mostly of close readings and classical Rabbinic commentaries that engage with the themes so developed, the footnotes contain extensive references to Da’at Mikra and Megadim, sophisticated Hebrew-language works dealing with archaeological, literary, historical, and geographical features of the Bible. These publications served as incubators for the ideas and discourse of Breuer’s school of thought, and reflecting their influence on Kings, they far outweigh references to books published in America.
Kings attacks the most confusing parts of its subject matter, clarifying the political and religious messages by filling in the culture and geography of ancient Israel. The political machinations within the House of David and the Kings of Israel enhance the readers’ understanding of the text, which would ordinarily miss the subtle interplay of key details. However, one is never oppressed by a single viewpoint or grand narrative. The plurality of possibilities developed in Kings, which compliment, contradict, and enliven each other, point towards the fluidity and multiplicity of meanings that may emerge from reading the Bible carefully and analytically.
Rabbi Israel should not be thought of as above the fray. He is unafraid to confidently prefer one interpretation over the other, frequently demonstrating his mastery of the material by marshalling his own evidence, in addition to controlling the entire narrative context of his commentary. His predecessors fit into his exploration of a continuous understanding of Kings, and he judiciously cites them when necessary and effective.
The text lives in a world dominated by Hebrew, yet Rabbi Israel ably carries into lucid English the richness and intertextuality possible when studying the Bible in its original Hebrew, without sacrificing either. To follow Rabbi Israel’s footnotes into the milieu of Hebrew language Bible scholars and religious educators requires a command of the Hebrew language. Yet, the English text body and footnotes stand alone, providing excellent translations of Bazak, Samet, and Simon when exploring their shifting, dueling ideas, and perhaps stands as the single most approachable and informative book in the English language about any book of the Bible. Those eager to see a well-developed and rich methodology may find that the exemplary treatment that Rabbi Israel has accorded the first book of Kings may inspire them to seek and apply similar lenses and interpretive strategies more broadly in their text study and lives.