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Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks: Radical Revisions

‘Subversive Sequels in the Bible,’ by Judy Klitsner

David Wolpe
April 11, 2014

Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.

Much as it is unwise to judge a person after only one meeting, it’s best not to draw conclusions about a book after only having read it quickly. Even when it comes to Torah, students will at times draw unwarranted conclusions based on an isolated story. In the Torah, each story interweaves with and comments on the other. As the scholar Michael Fishbane has taught us, the entire Tanakh is full of elaborations on and appraisals of itself.

Judy Klitsner’s Subversive Sequels in the Bible combines Fishbane’s teaching with the spirit of Nechama Leibowitz. In a series of extended essays, Klitsner shows how later stories can modify and even undermine earlier ones. In one essay, drawing on the many parallels and significant differences between Noah and Jonah, Klitsner notes that Jonah’s reluctant prophecy to Nineveh, which saves the city, uses the same word, hfk, ‘overturn,’ that is used to describe the destruction of Sodom. In the first case, it destroys; in the second, it saves. It reinforces the messages of nhm, ‘regret;’ in Genesis 6:7, God regrets having created human beings. In Jonah 3:10, God regrets planning the destruction of a city and instead saves its inhabitants.

Klitsner’s book, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is full of such suggestive connections and reversals, highlighting the midrashic method in the way that Nechama Leibowitz (Klitsner’s teacher) enabled a generation to see how much was missed without an in depth study of Torah.

Klitsner uses this extension of the rabbinic method to particularly good effect when commenting on the status of women in the Torah. Early on, Adam is rebuked for listening to Eve. But that Divine admonition is modified many times—by God’s instructing Abraham to listen to Sarah, by the active roles assigned to such figures as Deborah and Yael, and by verbal clues that signal to careful readers that the status of women is not what they first assumed. When Abraham twice passes Sarah off as his sister, Klitsner astutely comments:

Although Abraham leaves his father’s home, he never achieves the ideal of Genesis 2: ‘Therefore a man leave his father and mother and they shall be as one flesh.’ In fact, instead of leaving his original family in order to cling to a wife in creating a new family, Abraham does the opposite. Twice, he relinquishes Sara, claiming that she is his sister, thereby symbolically leaving his wife in order to return to his birth family.

Our judgments are deepened by constantly returning to the text. Abraham is called to sh-m-r derekh, to guard the path (Genesis 18:19) the same word combination used for the swords that block the way to Eden. Klitsner’s points this out, leading the reader to remember that the swords guard the way to the tree of life, and Abraham is instrumental in bequeathing to Israel the Torah, called our Etz Chaim, our tree of life.

Through these and other connections, brilliantly teased out, suggestive and profound, Klitsner becomes part of a generation of teachers, many of them women, who return us to our text, so we come away with renewed appreciation for its wonders.

Check out the rest of Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks here.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe