Books: Quest for truth

Abba Engelberg provides questions and answers on the biblical conundrums in Exodus.

'Crossing of the Red Sea,’ a painting by Nicolas Poussin, 1634 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Crossing of the Red Sea,’ a painting by Nicolas Poussin, 1634
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Ethics of Exodus enables readers to review a variety of commentators’ approaches to biblical conundrums in the second book of the Pentateuch, with no need to pull multiple books off the shelf or even to know Hebrew.
In this well-organized sequel to The Ethics of Genesis, Abba Engelberg offers answers to 15 questions arising from the 11 portions that make up the Book of Exodus, such as “Was the wife of Moses spiritually on the level of the matriarchs? Why was Pharaoh punished if it was G-d who hardened his heart? How could Aaron the High Priest have participated and accelerated the construction of the golden calf?”
Additionally, he presents logical and ethical dilemmas apparent in Exodus, such as “What is the underlying cause of antisemitism? What is the Jewish attitude to carnal love? Do women outshine men with regard to certain attributes?”
The various perspectives presented from 55 source works and 67 individual commentators ranging from medieval (Rashi) to modern (Rabbi Haim Sabato) may not be accessible to English-speakers in their original form, and certainly not in one volume.
It is a testament to our long and beautiful tradition of biblical exegesis that despite the breadth of viewpoints included in The Ethics of Exodus, Engelberg could have chosen from among countless others as well. One could think of this book as a sort of springboard to further study. If the answers he offers to a particular question aren’t satisfying to an individual reader, they can serve as a solid basis for deeper exploration.
One of the aspects I appreciated were the conclusions and summaries provided at the end of each section. For example, the discussion surrounding the question of why Miriam’s name does not appear in the genealogy of Amram gives rise to 10 ethical insights, each summarized in bullet points. Among these: Leaders should not be made into gods, but should be highly talented individuals (S.R. Hirsch); when selecting a leader, one should be considerate of the feelings of those not chosen (Ramban); he who takes a wife should inquire about the character of her brothers (Talmud).
Always fascinating in a work like this is discovering the degree to which radically opposing points of view are all countenanced in Torah study so long as they come from a sincere and respectful quest for truth. Definitive answers really don’t exist. It is up to each seeker to decide which approaches speak to him or her.
For instance, in a discussion of the form of the cherubim on top of the ark in the Holy of Holies, Engelberg brings classic opinions that they had the faces of babies, or of a boy and a girl, or an adult and a child, or large birds, or man-birds.
And what about the role played by the cherubim? Here we have no smaller a range of opinions: they serve as a sign of the existence of angels working as intermediaries between human and Creator; they illustrate the importance of a well-rounded Torah education from childhood; they facilitate prophecy; they are a visual symbol of the intimate relationship between the Almighty and the Children of Israel.
Following his treatment of the chosen questions and ethical dilemmas, Engelberg presents two overviews (“The Intellectual Development of the Jewish Nation” and “The Tabernacle-Oriented Portions”) as well as six appendices containing a more detailed discussion of certain philosophical, ethical and halachic issues in Exodus.
It is difficult to find any fault in this book, though I would have preferred if the author had used transliterations of names from the Hebrew (e.g., Moshe) rather than transliterations from the Greek (Moses).
Engelberg, an American-born Jerusalem resident with a doctorate from New York University and a long history of teaching at the Jerusalem College of Technology (he also founded and headed JCT’s women’s division, Machon Tal, until his retirement), has appropriate credentials for an undertaking of this magnitude. He is a graduate of the Telshe Yeshiva and Yeshiva University and earned ordination at Yeshiva’s rabbinical seminary.
In addition to this series, which one hopes eventually will encompass the remaining three parts of the Pentateuch, Engelberg has written several works on science and faith and has translated The Ethics of Genesis into Hebrew.
The Ethics of Exodus
By Rabbi Dr. Abba Engelberg
Kodesh Press
406 pages; $23.95