Book Review: Ethics, in the beginning

Abba Engelberg takes on some thorny issues in Genesis.

‘Abraham and Isaac’ painting, Rembrandt, 1634. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Abraham and Isaac’ painting, Rembrandt, 1634.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Did innocent people drown in the great flood? How could Abraham agree to slaughter his own son? Was Jacob devious with Esau and his father, Isaac? Why did Joseph not initiate contact with his family, and especially his father, the moment his position in Egypt allowed him to do so? In this well-organized work, Abba Engelberg tackles these and many other ethical puzzles in the Book of Genesis. The various perspectives he presents from a wide variety of traditional and modern commentaries may not be accessible to a casual reader in their original form, and certainly not in one volume – making The Ethics of Genesis a valuable addition to the library of biblical exegesis for English speakers.
I use the word “perspectives” rather than “answers” because, as any student of Jewish biblical commentary knows, no single interpretation of a topic is definitively authoritative. The tradition of “70 faces of the Torah” leaves legitimate room for Nahmanides to disagree with Rashi, for the Abarbanel to express a different opinion than the Ibn Ezra, and for a fresh take on the text from rabbis such as Samson Raphael Hirsch, Yehuda Amital and Gedalia Schorr.
Keeping to a brief, readable format, Engelberg manages to summarize an array of learned opinions – from more than 80 scholars, each described briefly in the back of the book – to provide perspective and food for thought regarding thorny ethical questions. He often wraps up with his own conclusions.
For instance, in the section exploring the Flood, Engelberg relates that classical commentators suggest there were no innocent people aside from Noah and his family.
“Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that all of mankind had sinned to the extent they all deserved to die. Certainly the young children and many of the women, if involved at all, were more likely to be victims than violators. The rule of justice requires that innocent people should not suffer, and also that the punishment of the guilty should be in proportion to their offense. Exceptions do occur, and apparently the case of the deluge is one of them.”
He then goes on to “examine the rule as well as the exceptions, and how the Talmud distinguishes between man’s decisions and divine behavior.”
The Akeda or the binding of Isaac, a perennially perplexing account, is presented from the perspective of two opposing approaches: “First, the Rambam [Maimonides] says that, as primal and central as moral values are to Judaism, there is only one time that a Jew is expected to disregard them, and that is when he experiences a divine command as part of an epiphany – as occurred not only at the binding of Isaac, but after the defeat of Midian and during the conquest of the land of Canaan, when Israel was commanded to slaughter ostensibly innocent children… “A second approach is to look at the story of the binding of Isaac in an unconventional manner. The verse states that God tested Abraham, but nowhere does it say whether Abraham passed or failed the test. Is it not possible that God was expecting Abraham to put up an argument, just as he did regarding Sodom? … According to this approach, Abraham would pass God’s test by not being willing to sacrifice his son.”
Identifying ethical issues, then culling, translating, organizing and explaining possible responses, was surely a mammoth undertaking. Engelberg has previously written on the tension between science and religion, and he blogs on the Times of Israel.
He may be best known to Jerusalemites as the founder and recently retired director of Machon Tal, the women’s division of the Jerusalem College of Technology, and as a professor there for 40 years.
The author’s bio reveals that he was the valedictorian of his class at the Telshe Yeshiva, and went on to receive his undergraduate degree and rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University and a doctorate from New York University in operations research. He served as a reserve chaplain in the US Air Force, achieving the rank of colonel.
After his analysis of each portion of Genesis, Engelberg offers an overview of intellectual development in Genesis, drawing on the writings of modern luminaries such as rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Joseph B.
Soloveitchik and Eliezer Berkovits.
The Ethics of Genesis ends with brief appendices on “Understanding Darchei Shalom [Ways of Peace]” (“As the overall principle of the Torah system is to generate peace and harmony among all mankind”); “Hesed [Benevolence]” (“The first stage is to develop a merciful and considerate personality. The second stage is to perform acts of loving-kindness on a steady basis”); “The Jewish Attitude Toward Hunting”; “The Jewish Work Ethic” (“What is the optimal relationship between Torah study and work?”); “Is There a Commandment to Live in the Land of Israel?” (“In spite of its centrality, we must realize that the requirement to obey some laws varies with the circumstances”); “The Jewish Attitude Toward Beauty”; “Repentance in Judaism”; and “Honesty and Lying in Judaism.”