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