Viewing scripture through the ‘prism’ of rabbinic tradition

Through the Prism is a work in which personal response and creativity express themselves

 'Abraham Serving the Three Angels' by Rembrandt (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Abraham Serving the Three Angels' by Rembrandt
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A prism is a transparent object whose surfaces are angled so that a beam of white light refracted through it is broken into several wavelengths, yielding the colors of the rainbow.

In Esther Shkop’s book Through the Prism: Refractions and Reflections on Bereishit, various figures in Genesis are viewed through the “prism” of a rabbinic tradition that shows them in a multiplicity of different lights.

Dr. Shkop is a Torah educator of long experience, who served as dean of the Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College for 32 years and now heads the Wisdom of Torah Institute. She also serves on the board of Shalva, a community organization supporting women experiencing domestic violence.

Undoubtedly one of the “angles” of Shkop’s prism is feminist. However, the feminist emphasis is never heavy-handed. It does not interfere with Shkop’s reverence for the tradition of rabbinic commentary, rather attunes her ear to what’s within it that otherwise might not be picked up.

 'Isaac Blessing Jacob' by Nicolas-Guy Brenet (Paris, 1728-1792) (credit: Wikimedia Commons) 'Isaac Blessing Jacob' by Nicolas-Guy Brenet (Paris, 1728-1792) (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the first chapter, “Implications of Feminine Imagery in the Bible,” Shkop assembles texts from the prophets and Psalms that depict God as acting in ways that seem distinctly maternal. Each of the Matriarchs receives a chapter, as does Dinah.

Yet the feminine angle is not allowed to dominate the discussion: in the chapter “Sarah Laughed,” the focus narrows in not so much on Sarah’s character and destiny as on the meaning of “laughter” and what it foretells for her descendants. Chapters are also devoted to the concept of the Divine image; to the themes of exile, aging, and blessing; and to the figures of Yaakov, Esau, and Yosef.

This reader was particularly fascinated by the treatment of “Rivkah: The Enigma behind the Veil.” In this chapter, Shkop assembles a formidable cast of traditional commentators (Rashi, Or Hachaim, Ha’amek Davar, Radak, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Midrash Tanhuma, Malbim, Bereishit Rabbah, Sefat Emet, the Netziv, Yalkut Shimoni, as well as Nechama Leibowitz, Adin Steinsaltz, and other modern interpreters) to create a composite portrait of the second Matriarch.

It is, one must say, a somewhat “cubistic” portrait, in which different perspectives are not resolved but exist simultaneously. The crux of the analysis is the episode in which Rivkah (Rebecca) persuades Yaakov (Isaac) to trick his father into giving him the blessing he had intended for Esau. What was the reason for her action? What does the fateful transaction show about the relationship between Yitzhak and Rivkah? Was her action laudable or reprehensible? What exactly was Esau tricked out of (comparing the language of the various blessings, including Yitzhak’s blessing to Yaakov on his departure to Haran)? If one thing becomes clear, it is that there is nothing straightforward about this transaction.

According to Rabbi Hirsch, among others, it was Yitzhak who staged a deceptive ruse, hoping to lure Esau into a path of repentance by proffering a “blessing” of unknown nature, having already decided to safeguard the spiritual legacy of the Patriarch Avraham with his twin, Yaakov. 

Rivkah, who was not aware of her husband’s secret plan, countered with a deception of her own, presuming that Yitzhak had been too blind to see his firstborn son’s immorality. The resulting drama is reduced to a tragicomedy of errors.

And this is only one of the possible ways of viewing this episode that Shkop offers!

Curiously, this multiplicity of perspectives does not result in a blurring of the image. The story of the redirected blessing, with all the questions, conjectures, and judgments that have occurred to commentators on the passage throughout the ages, comes to resemble one’s own soul-searching about some fateful past decision: did we do the right thing? What were our real motives? What might have happened had we decided differently? We’ll never know.

In addition to Shkop’s erudition in rabbinic literature, her literary background (B.A. in English literature and philosophy) makes itself felt throughout the book. She not only gives interpretations of each moment of Rivkah’s story, but shows the entire curve of her life as mirrored in Scripture: from her glowing introduction as a figure comparable to Avraham in her chesed (lovingkindness) and willing to leave everything behind, to her death that is shrouded in obscurity, not even mentioned in the Torah text. She is last referred to (in Genesis 28:5) as “the mother of Yaakov and Esau.” Shkop writes, “Thus, the last resonance of this remarkable and complex woman is her conflicted and tragic destiny to be the mother of two irreconcilable sons – and by extension, two cultures/nations doomed to perpetual battle.” Beyond the multiplicity of interpretations, Rivkah emerges from the chapter as a tragic figure. At one point, having noted that Christian commentators often treat Rivkah more harshly than the classic Jewish commentaries, Shkop writes:

“If classic Jewish commentaries are less inclined to critique Rivkah, it is not a mere function of favorable predisposition to the champion of Rosh Shivtei Yisrael. The Midrashic sages, as well as the medieval commentaries, repeatedly demonstrate bold intellectual honesty and do not spare even the Avot and Imahot from moral judgment – however, they do so within the bounds set by the text itself. It is their faithfulness to the peshat that is superordinate to any “national” loyalties, and it is on the basis of the Writ itself that one must evaluate the charge of moral ambiguity regarding Rivkah and her actions.”

This characterization of the sages could also characterize Shkop’s approach. Through the Prism is a work in which personal response and creativity express themselves without overshadowing fidelity to the text and to the lineage of those who have wrestled throughout the ages with its multifarious implications.