A ‘tent’ of Jewish thinkers

‘Mitokh Ha-Ohel’ provides a variety of outlooks on examining the parasha in its 56 essays by Yeshiva University affiliates.

Rembrant's 'Abraham and Isaac' 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rembrant's 'Abraham and Isaac' 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Published essays on the weekly Torah portion usually showcase a single commentator or teacher. Mitokh Ha-Ohel: Essays on the Weekly Parashah from the Rabbis and Professors of Yeshiva University (“from within the tent”) showcases 56 scholars, united not by style or approach but by their mutual position within the “tent” of Yeshiva University.
Contributors include rabbis, professors and administrators of each YU school: Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women, the Mazer Yeshiva Program, the Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program, the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies, the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies, the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, the Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Studies, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, the Center for the Jewish Future and the Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute of RIETS in Jerusalem.
This long list helps explain how all the contributors represent centrist or modern Orthodoxy’s flagship American institution, yet their approaches are anything but cookie- cutter. Within the broad confines of Orthodox parshanut (commentary), the book provides a variety of flavors to please individual palates: textual analysis, homiletic exposition, legal analysis, academic investigation and so on. Quite a few of the contributors are familiar names in the general Orthodox world (to name just two, rabbis Moshe D. Tendler and Mordechai Willig), while others are not as well known outside their communities or fields of expertise. Each brings his or her particular outlook to the task; as a result, each reader will want to dog-ear different essays.
Rabbi Aaron Levine’s unusual treatment of Parashat Toldot is titled “The Sale of the Birthright and the Bilateral Monopoly Model.”
Levine, author of five books including the just-released Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics, sets out to understand how the sages could have attributed the trait of emet, truth, to the biblical Jacob in light of the fast one he pulls on his twin brother.
“Given Esau’s exhausted and famished state when he sold the birthright, the transaction should be regarded as a coercive one from the standpoint of Esau. How can conducting a transaction of coercion be reconciled with the attribute of emet?” Levine asks. His ensuing analysis demonstrates an equal facility with talmudic, halachic and market concepts. He concludes that Jacob had engaged in a wellintentioned “distracting conduct” rather than an underhanded “strategic conduct” to acquire a commodity that was, after all, held valueless by its owner.
Dr. Shira Weiss employs Maimonidean concepts to answer the difficult philosophical questions raised by the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. Her start point is Maimonides’s statement that “there are certain situations in which God makes it impossible for a sinner to escape his well-deserved punishment for a heinous sin that he committed freely.”
Taking the folksy tone that has gained him a solid place among popular authors of Jewish thought (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism and If God is Good, Why Is the World So Bad?, among other titles), Rabbi Benjamin Blech begins his essay on Parashat Yitro with a teaser: “Would you be shocked if I told you that for Jews there is no such thing as the Ten Commandments?” Rabbi Edward Reichman, a Jewish medical ethicist and associate professor of emergency medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, examines medicine in rabbinic literature in his essay “Parashat Tazria and Childbirth: An Open and Shut Case.” We learn that although the anatomical understanding of some early commentators was, not surprisingly, quite off the mark (such as a description of a seven-chambered uterus), others were, surprisingly, quite accurate before their time. The key difference appears to be that some based their comments on contemporaneous medical information, while others drew on timeless ideas passed down through the chain of revealed knowledge.
Especially after examining the latter, Reichman proposes that it is just as mistaken to dismiss all rabbinic medical literature as to accept it all.
It can be assumed that raw essays by 56 writers – one for each Torah portion, plus an introduction by Rabbi Norman Lamm and a conclusion by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag – probably encompassed a host of spelling and translation/transliteration conventions.
Though an occasional mistake creeps in – perhaps the most egregious being the difference in the spelling of one essayist’s name on his piece and in his bio at the end – Feldman and Halpern made a generally successful effort at consistency, in keeping with the book’s aim of providing a common “tent” for disparate thinkers.
Above all, this project – the first of many planned publications in partnership between Yeshiva University and Koren Publishers Jerusalem – is a fine reflection on the caliber of talents coexisting under the university’s “big tent.”