Jewish Press Review of Unlocking the Torah Text

24 Mar 2010
OU Press

From The Jewish Press, March 19, 2010:

Title: Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha – Vayikra
Author: Rabbi Shmuel Goldin
Publisher: Gefen-OU Press, 2010
Reviewed by Rabbi Hayyim Angel

There are many books being written today on the Torah. A smaller number display a commitment to the basic straightforward messages of peshat – the plain sense ofthe text – and how the voice of the Torah, as elucidated by our classical commentaries, has much to teach a contemporary audience.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin encapsulates the overall purpose of his book in a discussion of the “sent goat” in Vayikra 16: “Even the most difficult, esoteric concepts within our tradition can, upon diligent study, yield extraordinary lessons of immediate relevance to our lives.The treasures of meaning are there for the taking. All that is required is the will and the energy.”

A veteran rabbi and faculty member at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Goldin is about to publish his. Third volume in a series of studies on parashat hashavua. Drawing from a wide array of traditional commentators throughout the ages, he surveys interpretations of broad topics such as korbanot (offerings) and the skin affliction tzara’at; as well as elucidations of individual verses. Rabbi Goldin also quotes from rabbinic sources to derive lessons beyond the realm of peshat.

Even in the challenging book of Vayikra, Rabbi Goldin focuses on relevant and practical religious themes. The narrative about the deaths of Nadav and Avihu inspires a discussion of the balance between spontaneity and regulation within religious experience. The study of the priesthood raises the specter of genetically transmitted spiritual status versus meritocracy.

Unlocking the Torah Text bears resemblance to the studies of the late Professor Nehama Leibowitz and Rabbi Yehudah Nahshoni. Careful consideration and categorization of the views of the traditional commentators as they relate back to the text are standard features of the essays.

A “points to ponder” sectibn at the end of every chapter brings the more theoretical discussions into our practical lives. For example, the aforementioned study of the priesthood evolves into a consideration of gender roles. The analysis of ritual purity and impurity (taharah-tumah) is a catalyst to an. exploration of taharat hacmishpahah (family purity) and its central relevance to family life. The widespread understanding of tzara’at as a divine punishment serves as a springboard to an examination of the subject of God’s supervision: must we always view maladies as punishments or do other options exist within our tradition?

Torah is intended to guide us from our earliest childhood through our mature and sophisticcated adulthood. Rabbi Goldin bases his study on the physical disqualifications of the priest on a question he had when he learned Parashat Emor for his own bar mitzvah. After his analysis, he draws attention to his personal growth as a model to his readers: “Obviously, I’ve come a long way since my bar mitzvah. Nonetheless, I find that the questions that I raised then, as a naive thirteen year-old, still carry weight these many years later… I have a feeling.that my relationship with this passage will continue to evolve. Isn’t that the way it should be with every passage of Torah text throughout our lives?”

Unlocking the Torah Text is worthwhile for laypeople interested in lucid surveys ofthe classical, commentators as applied to central text issues in Vayikra and who seek simple straightforward lessons from the Torah to day-to-day religious experience. Rabbis and educators may find in this book a useful resource as a means of summarizing a diversity of viewpoints in an effective and engaging manner.

Hayyim Angel is Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York (the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, founded in 1654), and teaches advanced undergraduate Tanakh courses at Yeshiva University. He has published two collections of studies in Tanakh, “Through an Opaque Lens” and “Revealed Texts: Hidden Meanings.”