Complex Torah for the Serious Student — A Review of 'Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology'
The contemporary world of Tanakh study is perhaps as diverse as it has ever been. There’s a tremendous outpour of Tanakh-related publications from every possible lens and ideology. When the contemporary Orthodox Tanakh learner encounters these publications, there can often be some confusion. For example, there is scholarship about Tanakh coming out of academic institutions that seems to be at odds with traditional Jewish approaches to Tanakh. Additionally, there are a host of issues and dilemmas that religious readers of Tanakh encounter that have little to do with academic study. How, for example, are we meant to approach incidents in Tanakh that appear to rely on superstitions? How are we supposed to relate to laws that clash with our moral compasses today? How are we meant to understand Midrashim that seem to have little in common with the p’shat of Tanakh?
These topics, and many more, are discussed in “Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology,” a quick new book from Kodesh Press by former Commentator editor Rabbi Hayyim Angel. Rabbi Angel, who serves in a number of pedagogical capacities, including teaching at YU, presents 12 compelling and insightful essays on a range of topics related to Tanakh study.
Let me state my biases clearly. I am a big fan of Rabbi Angel and his work, and am currently enrolled in three of his courses in the Isaac Breuer College (IBC). But please believe me when I say that this book deserves all the praise it will receive and I am not simply pandering for extra credit.
Of course, one needs to understand the genre of this work. The title of the book is “Cornerstones,” but the book itself is not an attempt to set forth a comprehensive methodological program of study. That being said, readers will be quick to note Rabbi Angel’s consistent methods and approaches that point towards a larger program of Tanakh study. It is one that is deeply religious, honest and respectful of both classical meforshim and the contributions of contemporary scholarship.
Some essays summarize Biblical passages and commentaries, some add new insights and analysis and some editorialize. Rabbi Angel’s sources are just as diverse as his subject matter. Everyone is fair game for Rabbi Angel. Of course, we find the classical commentaries, but Rabbi Angel is sure to also include some more obscure, lesser-known commentaries, in particular Sephardic commentaries that are underappreciated in normative Tanakh study. Rabbi Angel also draws from a well of academic knowledge and scholarship and quotes from academic Bible scholars (of various religious orientations). The classes he gives in IBC are very much in this style as well, summarizing and synthesizing a broad array of approaches to different Biblical books and passages in a clear, accessible way. Thus, within his own essays, Rabbi Angel is practicing what he preaches in articles such as “Tanakh and Sephardic Inclusion in the Yeshiva High School Curriculum” and “Traditional and Academic Tanakh Study.”
The articles are written in the clear and accessible English that has come to define Rabbi Angel’s style. Rabbi Angel is not one to go on irrelevant tangents or obscure his insights in unnecessarily flowery or impenetrable language. With a few exceptions, he presents the ideas clearly and simply, while still maintaining the complexity of the topics at hand. But there were a few times when I thought a conversation could have been taken further or explored a bit more in-depth.
Each of these essays, besides one, has been published elsewhere before the publication of this volume, in journals or other books. Only the first essay, “The Land of Israel in the Bible,” which is the longest in the book, has not been published in print form elsewhere, but was given as a four-part series of shiurim for the Institute of Ideas and Ideals, for which Rabbi Angel serves as National Scholar. While this means that none of the content is new, it does not take away from the wonderfully illuminating content of the essays.
The essays themselves do not relate to or reference each other in any way. The result is that the same ideas are in a few instances repeated in different articles. For example, the machloket between Rambam and Abarbanel regarding monarchy (whether it is the preferred government structure, or simply a tolerated one) is discussed in both “Ideal and Evolutionary Morality in the Torah” and “Where the Rules of Peshat and Pesak Collide.” And we find the same exact quotation from Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosafot Yom Tov on Mishnah Nazir 5:5) about interpreting p’sukim differently than the Gemara does, in two consecutive essays.
But this is really only an issue for someone who is reading the book straight through (which is fairly doable — the book runs a little over 200 pages, and the font size is rather large). If one is taking breaks between essays, then the repeated content is helpful. Further, individual essays can be revisited or shared independently, without a need to reread earlier parts of the work for context. In short, the format is appropriate for the book's purpose. And regardless, the repeated ideas are interesting and bear repeating.
Rabbi Angel has once again produced a collection of essays that is relevant, engaging and accessible. The reader is left wanting more, not because the essays are unsatisfying, rather because of just how satisfying they are.
Photo Credit: “Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology” book cover
Photo Caption: Kodesh Press