Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible
Volume One: Genesis
by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Maggid, 356 pages, $24.95
Jews recite the Torah, the five books of Moses, in an annual cycle, and they often identify a biblical passage by the week (parasha) in which it’s read rather than by chapter and verse. Nowadays, books on the parasha abound, and, broadly speaking, they take one of two general approaches. The first analyzes the text through the critical examination of a variety of commentators, with the exemplary work of the past half-century in this genre being Nechama Leibovits’ Studies.
Lord Sacks, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, takes the second approach in his new book on Genesis. The first in a series, it is intended as more a collection of sermons than an analytical work. Indeed, his use of the word conversation in the title offers a key to his intention. Older rabbinical texts often describe the characteristic prayer of each of the three patriarchs in Genesis: Abraham stands before God, initiating prayer for the people of Sodom; Jacob encounters God in a dream, reflecting the element in religious life that is beyond conscious control; and Isaac engages in siha, a word meaning “meditation” or “conversation.” Sacks writes that “in true conversation, I open myself up to the reality of another person,” and he notes that Isaac’s paradigmatic siha occurs as he awaits the woman who will become his wife in Genesis 24.
Like most pulpit sermons, Sacks’ conversations offer a taste of Judaism for the marginal listener and something of enduring value for the more knowing audience. Throughout the book, the general presentation of Judaism vies with careful reading of the biblical text. Even after millennia, the individual personalities portrayed in Genesis remain enigmatic—and Sacks’ best pages demonstrate the freshness of these personalities. Thus, for example, the rejection of Cain’s offering is one of the most puzzling features of the story of the first murder. Classical exegetes, Jewish and Christian alike, have ingeniously found reason for God to discriminate between Cain’s vegetables and Abel’s fatted lamb, although their arguments seem to read more into the text than is manifestly there.
As a result, many modern readers have realized that Cain’s response to God’s rejection matters more than the perfection of the sacrifice. I don’t think anyone has expressed this better than Sacks. He looks at the offering as a gift. When a gift is rejected, there are two possible reactions: If you, the giver, ask what went wrong and try to do better, “you were genuinely trying to please the other person.” If you become angry with the recipient, “it becomes retrospectively clear that your concern was not with the other but with yourself.” This combines a profoundly satisfactory reading of the text with a powerful moral lesson.
There is a strand in Jewish Bible study going back to classic midrash that calls attention to Jacob’s awkwardness and guilt after having appropriated Isaac’s blessing. This theme is traditionally thought to echo in Genesis 32–33, in which Jacob fearfully anticipates meeting his brother after twenty years of separation. Jacob, the old rabbis taught, prepared in three different ways: by praying, by sending Esau gifts, and by making plans for battle. In the midst of these preoccupations, Jacob confronts a mysterious man at a ford—a man by whom Jacob is both wounded and blessed. The rabbis identified this man as the “angel of Esau.”
When the estranged brothers finally meet, the cordial atmosphere contrasts dramatically with Jacob’s initial fears. The twelfth-century French exegete Rashbam went so far as to label Jacob’s fears exaggerated. In Rashbam’s view, Jacob had been tempted to flee, and the incident at the ford compelled him to stand his ground. In Sacks’ interpretation, however, Jacob’s fears were not illusory. He had every reason to expect a bellicose and resentful Esau. The transformation of Esau into a benign figure is a mirror of Jacob’s confrontation at the ford the previous night. Jacob had conquered his fear; Esau sensed this change, and his own aggressiveness was tempered by it.
Commenting on Jacob’s treatment of his sons, the rabbis counseled against the favoritism that led to the sale of Joseph. Sacks pursues this theme throughout the second half of Genesis, beginning with Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah. He ties the rabbis’ criticism of Jacob to what he regards as the Jewish rejection of love as an all-sufficient criterion of ethical life, with the consequent devaluation of impartiality.
Occasionally, Sacks’ presentation falls short. Some errors are due to careless fact checking. He states, for instance, that Nietzsche published the madman’s vision shortly before he went mad himself, when, in fact, The Gay Science preceded its author’s collapse by seven years. Sacks also asserts that Robert Filmer, who died in 1653, was writing in 1680, and he ascribes to the twelfth-century Ibn Ezra a philological insight discovered in the nineteenth century.
Sacks frequently insists that Judaism is distinguished by its commitment to the idea of free will. From a sermonic point of view, he conveniently identifies three great rejections of free will with three lapsed Jews: Marx taught that all is determined by economic forces; therefore Abraham is told to leave his land, the source of wealth. Freud held that we are imprisoned by the traumas of our early years; therefore Abraham is told to leave his father’s house. Spinoza taught that we are products of biological drives and genetic determinism; therefore Abraham was to abandon the circumstances of his birth.
But there is a fly in this homiletic ointment: Spinoza’s determinism was metaphysical, not biological. Sacks goes on to allege that “most theories of human behavior are simply false. They claim that we are either free or not; either we have choice or our behavior is causally determined.” Surely the metaphysical and existential problems connected with human freedom are extraordinarily thorny, and many theories on the subject are confused, unreal, and unconvincing. We may deplore their failure, but we cannot deny their awareness of the problem. What, then, does Sacks mean?
His essay called “Hearing the Torah” begins with the claim that reading—prior to the invention of printing in the fifteenth century—was primarily auditory rather than visual.
This introduces an interesting idea about Jacob’s preferential love. The verse “he also loved Rachel” would lead us to expect that Jacob loved both Rachel and Leah. But the verse continues “more than Leah,” which brings our hope for equality “crashing to the ground.” Sacks concludes: “Judaism is supremely a religion of the ear, unlike all other ancient civilizations, which were cultures of the eye. . . . In Judaism, the highest spiritual gift is the ability to listen—not only to the voice of God, but also to the cry of other people, the sigh of the poor . . . and, yes, sometimes the un- or less-loved.”
This particular insight does not require the theorizing about orality and writing. Yet it is disconcerting that Sacks starts out attributing the priority of hearing to technological circumstances common to all ancient civilizations, only to adopt, later, a metaphysical-moral doctrine about the essence of Judaism that opposes it to those civilizations. Perhaps one could maintain both explanations, but this would require further elucidation.
Another essay, “The Objectivity of Morality,” argues that altruism has been demonstrated scientifically by iterations of what is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which seems to show that, in the long run, tit-for-tat leads to cooperation. Sacks enthuses: “The extraordinary fact is that the first moral principle set out in the Torah [retributive justice for murder in Genesis 9] is also the first moral principle to be scientifically demonstrated.” The Torah itself justifies the law, not in terms of enlightened communal, evolutionary self-interest, but by reference to the fact that He made human beings in the image of God.
Even the best essays occasionally strain to make a sermonic point. The memorable discussion of Cain arrives at a timely moral about religion and violence: “Violence is the attempt to impose one’s will by force.
There are only two ways of living with the guilt this involves: either, like Nietzsche, by denying God, or, like Cain, by telling oneself that one is doing the will of God.” And yet, unlike the terrorists at whom Sacks presumably aims his rebuke, Cain does not claim that the murder of his brother is God’s will. To the contrary, when God confronts him, Cain tries to change the subject. That Cain believes he deserves divine favor, and that he is jealous of his brother, in no way implies that he is obedient.
These and other instances of rhetorical overkill seem to occur when Rabbi Sacks chooses to stop conversing and, instead, starts arguing toward a triumphant conclusion. In most of these instances the message has something to do with the uniqueness of Judaism or the Jewish people, showing them in a light that would ingratiate them with a secular audience. At other times the goal is to deliver a punch line immediately applicable to contemporary circumstances.
Covenant and Conversation should not be regarded as an ordinary volume of occasional discourses. Its author is one of the most prominent teachers of Judaism active today, and the best of his insights and formulations claim a place on the permanent bookshelf. If some of the essays appear to fall short, it is because Rabbi Sacks himself sets a high standard.
Shalom Carmy is chair of Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.