“The Heart of Torah”, 2 Volumes by Rabbi Shai Held— Understanding the Torah

Held, Shai. “The Heart of Torah”, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus” Jewish Publication Society, 2017.

Understanding the Torah

Amos Lassen

In the two volume “The Heart of Torah”, Rabbi Shai Held’s collection of Torah essays, there are two discussions for each weekly portion that make the Five Books of Moses relevant to today’s life. These discussions lead us to look at the Torah with new ideas. Rabbi Held also looked at the Talmud and midrashim, great writers of world literature, and astute commentators of other religious backgrounds as a way to think about fundamental questions about God, human nature, and what it means to be a religious person in the modern world. “Along the way, he illuminates the centrality of empathy in Jewish ethics, the predominance of divine love in Jewish theology, the primacy of gratitude and generosity, and God’s summoning of each of us—with all our limitations—into the dignity of a covenantal relationship.”

This is a special blessing for me in that each week I study the Torah and try to find new ways to make it relevant and these discussions help me to do just that. I usually read the portion of the week before going to various commentaries and that practice continues here. Looking at Held’s commentaries, I gain a profound sense of why the Torah is still relevant and I love that there are always ideas that I had never considered before (but then I am no Torah scholar).

While this is a book about the interpretation of Jewish scripture, it can also be enjoyed by Christians who will discover that there is indeed common ground between the two religions. In fact , I am using it with a course that I am teaching on stories that are related in the Qur’an, the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Bible. The human condition is just that, human and we find much about it in the holy writings. Perhaps if more of read books like this it would be that much easier to see what in means for all of us to live together in God’s world.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has written a brilliant foreword to each of the volumes. Also included is a note on translations and two indexes (one by subject, the other by classical sources) and a note on bible commentaries. I do not usually publish the table of contents to books I review but here I feel it is necessary so that you can get an idea as to how the Torah portions are dealt with here.

Rabbi Held approaches with no fear and gives us new readings of tests that have been examined over hundreds of years. My father would say to me that to understand Torah one must wrestle with it and the ideas of human independence and autonomy and we certainly see Rabbi Held doing just that here.

Volume 1:


Bere’shit No. 1. What Can Human Beings Do, and What Can’t They? Or, Does the Torah Believe in Progress?

Bere’shit No. 2. Created in God’s Image: Ruling for God

Noah No. 1. Before and After the Flood: Or, It All Depends on How You Look

Noah No. 2. People Have Names: The Torah’s Takedown of Totalitarianism

Lekh Lekha No. 1. Are Jews Always the Victims?

Lekh Lekha No. 2. Between Abram and Lot: Wealth and Family Strife

Va-yera’ No. 1. The Face of Guests as the Face of God: Abraham’s Radical and Traditional Theology

Va-yera’ No. 2. In Praise of Protest: Or, Who’s Teaching Whom?

Ḥayyei Sarah No. 1. Isaac’s Search: On the Akedah and Its Aftermath

Ḥayyei Sarah No. 2. People Are Complicated: Or, Sensitivity Is a Dangerous Thing

Toledot No. 1. In Praise of Isaac: The Bible’s Paragon of Marital Empathy

Toledot No. 2. Between God and Torah: Judaism’s Gamble

Va-yetse’ No. 1. Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time? Or, What Leah Learned

Va-yetse’ No. 2. No Excuses: Jacob’s Sin and Its Consequences

Va-yishlaḥ No. 1. The Fear of Killing: Jacob’s Ethical Legacy

Va-yishlaḥ No. 2. The Power of Compassion: Or, Why Rachel’s Cries Pierce the Heavens

Va-yeshev No. 1. Against Halfheartedness

Va-yeshev No. 2. Election and Service: What Joseph Learned

Mikkets No. 1. His Brother’s Brother: Judah’s Journey

Mikkets No. 2. Reuben’s Recklessness: What Disqualifies a Leader?

Va-yiggash No. 1. Humiliation: Judaism’s Fourth Cardinal Sin?

Va-yiggash No. 2. Saving and Enslaving: The Complexity of Joseph

Va-yeḥi No. 1. The Majesty of Restraint: Or, Joseph’s Shining Moment

Va-yeḥi No. 2. Underreacting and Overreacting: Dinah’s Family in Crisis



Shemot No. 1. Why Moses? Or, What Makes a Leader?

Shemot No. 2. Gratitude and Liberation

Va-’era’ No. 1. The Journey and the (Elusive) Destination

Va-’era’ No. 2. Cultivating Freedom: When Is Character (Not) Destiny?

Bo’ No. 1. Pharaoh: Consumed by the Chaos He Sows

Bo’ No. 2. Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians

Be-shallaḥ No. 1. Leaving Slavery Behind: On Taking the First Step

Be-shallaḥ No. 2. Bread from the Sky: Learning to Trust

Yitro No. 1. Does Everyone Hate the Jews? And, Is There Wisdom Outside of Torah?

Yitro No. 2. Honoring Parents: (Sometimes) the Hardest Mitzvah of All

Mishpatim No. 1. Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge

Mishpatim No. 2. Hearing the Cries of the Defenseless: Or, We Are All Responsible

Terumah No. 1. Being Present While Making Space: Or, Two Meanings of Tzimtzum

Terumah No. 2. Returning to Eden? An Island of Wholeness in a Fractured World

Tetsavveh No. 1. God in the Mishkan: Present but Not Domesticated

Tetsavveh No. 2. Between Ecstasy and Constancy: The Dynamics of Covenantal Commitment

Ki Tissa’ No. 1. The Importance of Character: Or, Why Stubbornness Is Worse Than Idolatry

Ki Tissa’ No. 2. God’s Expansive Mercy: Moses’s Praise and Jonah’s Fury

Va-yak’hel No. 1. Whom Do We Serve? The Exodus toward Dignified Work

Va-yak’hel No. 2, Pekudei No. 1. (A) Building with Heart

Pekudei No. 2. Building a Home for God


Notes on Genesis

Notes on Exodus

A Note on Bible Commentaries


Subject Index

Classical Sources Index

“The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy”  Volume 2


Va-yikra’ No. 1. Order amid Chaos: Connecting to Leviticus

Va-yikra’ No. 2. The Fall and Rise of Great Leaders: Or, What Kind of Leaders Do We Need?

Tsav No. 1. No Leftovers: The Meaning of the Thanksgiving Offering

Tsav No. 2. Buying God Off: Jeremiah and the Problem of Religious Hypocrisy

Shemini No. 1. Is Vegetarianism a Biblical Ideal?

Shemini No. 2. Of Grief Public and Private: Moses and Aaron Face the Unimaginable

Tazria’ No. 1. Living on the Boundary: The Complexity and Anxiety of Childbirth

Tazria’ No. 2, Metsora’ No. 1. Struggling with Stigma: Making Sense of the Metzora

Metsora’ No. 2. Life-Giving, Death-Dealing Words

‘Aḥarei Mot No. 1. Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves

‘Aḥarei Mot No. 2, Kedoshim No. 1. The Holiness of Israel and the Dignity of the Disabled

Kedoshim No. 2. Loving Our Neighbor: A Call to Emotion and Action

‘Emor No. 1. Covenantal Joy: What Sukkot Can Teach Us

‘Emor No. 2. Between Grief and Anticipation: Counting the Omer

Be-har No. 1. Another World to Live In: The Meaning of Shabbat

Be-har No. 2, Be-ḥukkotai No. 1. God’s Unfathomable Love

Be-ḥukkotai No. 2. Standing Tall: Serving God with Dignity



Be-midbar No. 1. Divine Love and Human Uniqueness

Be-midbar No. 2. A Torah for All? Universalism and Its Dangers

Naso’ No. 1. On Channeling and Receiving Blessing

Naso’ No. 2. The Risk of Relationality: Or, Why Confession Matters

Be-ha’alotekha No. 1. It’s Not about You: Or, What Moses Knew

Be-ha’alotekha No. 2. After Pain, Prayer: What Moses (and Job) Can Teach Us

Shelaḥ No. 1. The Tragedy (and Hope) of the Book of Numbers

Shelaḥ No. 2. (Don’t) Follow Your Heart and Your Eyes: Between Numbers and Ecclesiastes

Koraḥ No. 1. Every Jew a High Priest? The Meaning of Tzitzit and the Sin of Korah

Koraḥ No. 2. Giving, Taking, and the Temptations of Leadership

Ḥukkat No. 1. When Everything Starts to Look the Same: Moses’s Failure

Ḥukkat No. 2. Putting Down Ancient Grudges (and Learning Kindness): Between Israel and Edom

Balak No. 1. The Lampooned Prophet: On Learning From (and With) Balaam

Balak No. 2. Not There Yet

Pinḥas No. 1. When Zealotry Metastasizes: The Passionate Self-Regard of Pinhas

Pinḥas No. 2. Between Zealotry and Self-Righteousness: Or, Was Elijah the Prophet Fired?

Mattot No. 1. Cattle, Cattle Everywhere: The Failure of Reuben and Gad

Mattot No. 2, Mase’ei No. 1. Serving God in All We Do: Israel’s Journeys and Resting Places

Mase’ei No. 2. Do Not Murder! Shedding Innocent Blood and Polluting the Land



Devarim No. 1. “Do Not Be Afraid of Anyone”: On Courage and Leadership

Devarim No. 2. A Bolt from the Blue: Or, When God Falls in Love

Va-etḥannan No. 1. Coveting, Craving . . . and Being Free

Va-etḥannan No. 2. A God So Close, and Laws So Righteous: Moses’s Challenge (and Promise)

‘Ekev No. 1. Will and Grace: Or, Who Will Circumcise Our Hearts?

‘Ekev No. 2. Always Looking Heavenward: Learning Dependence

Re’eh No. 1. Opening Our Hearts and Our Hands: Deuteronomy and the Poor

Re’eh No. 2. Women in Deuteronomy—and Beyond

Shofetim No. 1. The Future Is Wide Open: Or, What Prophets Can and Cannot Do

Shofetim No. 2. Give the People (Only Some of) What They Want: Deuteronomy and the King

Ki Tetse’ No. 1. Let Him Live Wherever He Chooses: Or, Why Runaway Slaves Are Like God

Ki Tetse’ No. 2. Combating Cruelty: Amalek Within and Without

Ki Tavo’ No. 1. Against Entitlement: Why Blessings Can Be Dangerous

Ki Tavo’ No. 2. Between Fear and Awe: Forgetting the Self

Nitsavim No. 1. Going in Deep: What It Takes to Really Change

Nitsavim No. 2, Va-yelekh No. 1. Returning to Sinai Every Seventh Year: Equality, Vulnerability, and the Making of Community

Va-yelekh No. 2. Why Joshua? Or, In (Ambivalent) Praise of Hesitancy

Ha’azinu No. 1. “I May Not Get There with You”: The Death of Moses and the Meaning of Covenantal Living

Ha’azinu No. 2. Hearing the Whisper: God and the Limits of Language

Ve-zo’t ha-berakhah No. 1. The Beginning and End of Torah


Notes on Leviticus

Notes on Numbers

Notes on Deuteronomy

A Note on Bible Commentaries


Subject Index

Classical Sources Index



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