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Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha
By Shmuel Goldin
OU Press/Gefen Publishing
Reviewed by Shalom Z. Berger
I was once talking with a professor of Jewish Studies at a large university who was complaining to me about the lack of knowledge that he found among his graduate students. In one class, no one could tell him what Leviticus was, until one brave soul ventured “was he a Roman general?”
Sefer Vayikra is something of an enigma to academic and religious student alike. With much of it focusing on the Temple service and issues of ritual defilement such as tzara’at (biblical leprosy) or tum’at yoledet (ritual defilement following childbirth), it is far from the mainstream concerns of students of religion. While traditional educational curricula recommended that beginning students start with Sefer Vayikra, given its esoteric subject matter, it is often given the short-shrift in day school education.
The weekly Torah reading, of course, is different. When following the annual cycle, Sefer Vayikra cannot be skipped, which gives Shmuel Goldin an opportunity to discuss some of the basic questions that an intelligent Jew living in the 21st century will need to grapple with when reviewing the parasha. Perhaps the discussions that he engages in will convince Jewish educators that Sefer Vayika should be included as part of a day school curriculum, as well.
Rabbi Goldin’s approach is to raise difficult questions and to offer a collection of responses. Among the issues that he tackles are: How we are to understand the need for animal sacrifice Why, in the context of a leader’s sin-offering, the Torah makes it clear that we assume that leaders will sins Why the role of religious leadership is inherited and not “earned” How the se’ir ha-mishtale’ah – the goat that is tossed from the cliff on Yom Kippur – can serve as the centerpiece of the Yom Kippur ceremony.
In these and other questions an array of sources are offered, usually three or four approaches to each question, making use of sources in the Talmud, rishonim, aharonim and contemporary scholars.
Rabbi Goldin’s style is folksy at times. In a chapter on Parashat Emor entitled “A Decades Old Bar Mitzvah Challenge” he opens by discussing his feelings about the parasha as a Bar Mitzvah boy, leading to the question of why kohanim who have “blemishes” are rejected from Godly service. Over years of searching, Rabbi Goldin discovered that this question, which should be disturbing to any Bar Mitzvah boy, is given scant attention by the classical commentaries. Nevertheless he discovered that it is discussed by the Keli Yakar, by Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein in his Tosefet Berakhah, by the Ketav Sofer, by Rav Shlomo Aviner, and by … his wife, Barbara.
This volume does succeed in raising many of the basic – and difficult – questions that arise in Sefer Vayikra, and offering responses to them, all in a straightforward and approachable manner.
Leviticus (which, by the way, means “Relating to the Levites”) is the book less taught in day schools than the others. At least one of the reasons offered is the difficulty that students have relating to the arcane topics that it contains. Perhaps Unlocking the Torah Text can play a role in convincing educators that the ideas and messages in this book are no less relevant to our students’ understanding of Jewish life and values than the other books of the Torah.