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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Reviewing: Keys to the Palace” by Rabbi Hayyim Angel. Kodesh Press, 308 pages. 2017. ISBN-10: 1947857029.

In my youth, I was greatly influenced by the Daat Mikra edition of Tanach, published by Mossad HaRav Kook. One of its main contributions was to take the best of modern scholarship and incorporate it into a framework consistent with the Orthodox Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hayyim Angel fits squarely into this mold. By reading his works, you are getting a traditional Orthodox approach to Tanach combined with the best insights of modern scholarship. (I have suggested to him that he should write his own commentary on Tanach. I have a name for it already: “Daat Hayyim.”)

Rabbi Angel has now come out with his 13th book: “Keys to the Palace: Exploring the Religious Value of Reading Tanakh.”

A little background on Rabbi Angel: He is the national scholar of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He has taught advanced Bible courses at Yeshiva University since 1996. He is the Tanakh education scholar at Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School in Paramus. He lectures widely throughout the U.S. on Tanach-related topics. He has authored 13 books, edited three more and published over 130 articles. (A list of all the articles is found at his Wikipedia entry. By the time you read this, the list is probably up to 140!)

The new book is a collection of 20 of his articles, on a wide range of Tanach-related topics.

One article deals with the alleged conflict between Torah and science. For example, R. Angel writes: “Science states that the world is billions of years old; there was a process of evolution, and it is unlikely in the extreme that all humans biologically descend from the same couple that lived only 6,000 years ago.”

In response, R. Angel quotes a variety of sources. He points out that both R. Saadia Gaon and Rambam maintain that whenever the literal reading of the Torah contradicts empirical evidence, the Torah should not be taken literally. R. Angel also cites Rav S. R. Hirsch who wrote: “Judaism is not frightened even by the hundreds of thousands and millions of years that the geological theory of the earth’s development bandies about so freely…The rabbis have never made the acceptance or rejection of this and similar possibilities an article of faith binding on all Jews. They were willing to live with any theory that did not reject the basic truth that “every beginning is from God.” (“Collected Writings,” vol. VII, p. 265.) R. Angel also quotes the following from R. Hirsch: “For it is not the aim of the Holy Scriptures to teach us astronomy, cosmogony or physics, but only to guide man to the fulfillment of his life’s task…” (Comm. to Ps. 19:6-7)

  1. Angel then quotes R. Abraham Isaac Kook about the theory of Evolution: “Even if it were to become clear to us that the world came into being by way of the evolution of the species, still there would be no contradiction…Without question, the Torah concealed much about Creation, speaking in allusion and parables…The main thing is what arises from the entire story—knowing God and [living] a truly moral life.” R. Angel also quotes S.D. Luzzatto (19th-century Italy, Orthodox Bible scholar): “Intelligent people understand that the goal of the Torah is not to inform us about natural sciences; rather it was given in order to create a straight path for people in the way of righteousness and law, to sustain in their minds the belief in the Unity of God and His Providence.”
  2. Angel concludes: “There is ample room within tradition to avoid faith-science conflicts. One may reinterpret passages in the Torah, or one may study the Torah for its religious messages while accepting science as science… [T]he Torah states that God created the world in seven days, thereby teaching that God created the world, and that Shabbat is of vital importance in the God-Israel relationship. If the world is billions of years old, this scientific reality in no way detracts from the religious values of God as Creator above nature or in the importance of Shabbat. The Torah teaches that all of humanity is descended from one couple, and therefore there is no room for bigotry (San. 37a). If geneticists demonstrate the extreme unlikelihood of all people descending from one couple that lived 6,000 years ago, this would in no way diminish God’s message in the Torah against bigotry.”

Another very valuable article is “Afterlife in Jewish Thought.” Here R. Angel has done us a tremendous service and summarized voluminous scholarship. As is well-known, the classical rabbinic position believes in a resurrection. Yet there is a paucity of explicit references to afterlife in Tanach. The Torah promises this-worldly rewards and punishments. The prophetic ideal is the messianic era in this world.

The first explicit reference to a bodily resurrection in Tanach is in the book of Daniel. But R. Angel shows that the ideas underlying the resurrection do trace back to the earliest texts in Tanach. Then he addresses the questions of why the Tanach gave the afterlife such little overt attention, and what motivated rabbinic Judaism to emphasize it. Finally, he explains how a better understanding of Judaism’s view of the afterlife is in fact very relevant today and has tremendous implications for our actions.

In another article, he tries to understand the fundamental message of the story of the Binding of Isaac. He quotes from a variety of sources, ancient, medieval and modern: The book of Jubilees, Rambam, Kant, Kierkegaard, S.D. Luzzatto, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Moshe Halbertal, David Shatz and Shalom Carmy.

My favorite article is about the “Ashrei” prayer. One section of this article focuses on the issue of the missing “nun” verse. He points out that Radak and Meiri state that the explanation of the Talmud (Ber. 4b) for the lack of a “nun” verse is a midrashic one, and that we do not know the true reason for the lack. He points out that the Dead Sea Scroll text of Psalm 145 has a “nun” verse: “ne’eman Elokim bi-devarav ve-chasid be-chol ma’asav,” and that the Septuagint text also has this verse (in Greek). Then he discusses the core issue: Should we view this “ne’eman” verse as having been there originally or was it just an addition by a scribe or editor bothered by the omission?

He first gives two arguments in favor of this “nun” verse as having been there originally. But he then gives four arguments against it. First, other acrostics in Tanach are also incomplete: Pss. 9-10, 25, 34 and 37. (The fact that verses seem to be missing in these other chapters is not well-known among us because there are no passages in the Talmud about these missing verses.)

Second, the added “nun” verse sounds suspiciously similar to the second half of the “tzade” verse: “ve-chasid be-chol ma’asav.” Perhaps a later scribe or author copied part of this nearby verse in his effort to create a “nun” verse. (But R. Angel points out that there are other such repetitions within chapters. The repetitions serve as a kind of chorus. He cites Ps. 24:7,9 and 67:4,6.)

Third, R. Angel argues that it is more likely that a later writer or translator smoothed out a difficulty than that a scribe accidentally omitted a verse. Fourth, if Psalm 145 was part of the liturgy in an early stage, it is hardly likely that a verse would have been lost. He concludes that “it appears more likely that the MT contains the original text whereas the LXX and DSS reflect a later addition.”

(P.S. I have discussed the missing “nun” verse in Ps. 145 in my own book, “Esther Unmasked.” I think that the missing verses in the acrostics of Psalms 9-10, 25 and 37 indicate that verses were lost. But I agree that Ps. 145 was likely composed without a “nun” verse. I also think that Pss. 25 and 34 were composed without a “vav” verse.)

The introductory section of the book cites the following from the Malbim: “Peshat interpretation is the beginning of knowledge; it is the key to open the gates, before we can enter the sacred inner chamber of the King.” In this spirit, all of R. Angel’s books stress a search for “peshat,” using a wide variety of sources, traditional and non-traditional, ancient and modern. Moreover, the ultimate goal of Tanach study, as R. Angel explains, is to deepen our religious commitments and inspire us to greater ethical behavior.

All of R. Angel’s books fulfill these goals. There is much in this book for anyone who studies Tanach seriously. Hopefully that means all of you!

By Mitchell First