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By George Robinson
Throughout the ages, generations of rabbis, scholars, philosophers and other commentators have analyzed and scrutinized the Bible.
They have explored and examined the Five Books of Moses as a literary document, as history, as the word of God and as a legal code. Their earliest debates and disagreements are preserved in the Talmud but the discussion continues in the vast responsa literature that keeps burgeoning.
To help escort Jews through this ocean of material, George Robinson has written an excellent manual, Essential Torah, matching his 2001 guide, Essential Judaism. The earlier book was put together when Robinson began to attend Reform services after a long absence and found that he needed help in understanding the rituals and the practices. Since he could not find a printed primer, he wrote one himself.
The book he produced was well received since it contained information not only about the prayer service but also about the Jewish holidays, the Jewish calendar, the Jewish life cycle and other Jewish traditions. References to the Torah and Talmud were included but Robinson saved his extended treatment of that subject for this new book.
A former sports columnist and now a film critic for New York's Jewish Week, Robinson uses his journalistic skills to produce an accessible, well-written handbook to Jewish belief as set forth in the Torah. Most laudably, he tackles some of the tough issues posed by the ambiguities, inconsistencies, anachronisms, repetitions and contradictions in the text.
Also, he does not shy away from confronting the absence (not entirely) of women's voices; the biblical treatment of homosexuality; the authorship of the Torah; and perhaps most troubling of all, Abraham's readiness to follow God's order to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Robinson refers to these problems as "texts that set our teeth on edge."
He begins his presentation by meticulously looking at the Torah scroll itself and how it is made, even offering a recipe for kosher ink. The service for reading the Torah is described, including its origins. Next, the involved themes and intricate meanings of the stories in the sacred text are explored, starting with an informative discussion as to what the Torah teaches about God and the Covenant between God and the Israelites.
A fascinating chapter is devoted to the question of who wrote the Torah. Orthodox Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. However, as discussed in the Talmud, this belief defies the fact that the Torah includes the story of Moses's death on Mount Nebo. It also flies in the face of the biblical assertion that Moses was more humble than anyone else. Robinson quotes Richard Elliott Friedman, writer and Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, who pointed out the inconsistency of having the humblest man singing his own praises as the humblest man.
Robinson explores the theories of multiple authorship and brings the discussion up to date with reference to the evidence provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The troubling story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac is carefully reviewed with numerous authorities cited. Robinson joins legions of others who also could not find an acceptable way of coping with this perturbing story. He calls for further study and offers an entire chapter recommending various approaches to studying the Torah.
The second half of the book summarizes each of the 54 Torah portions and the section to be read in the synagogue as each person is called. Based on his own informed perceptions, Robinson offers useful commentaries on the text and on the haftara (biblical portion recited weekly after the Torah portion).
Robinson's success with Essential Judaism is now matched by this superb manual that effectively guides readers to the ultimate source for Jewish belief and behavior.
The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University.