The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion
Rabbi Shai Held
Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney
I remember two decades ago when William Morrow announced they were publishing a book of sermons by the chaplain at Harvard. I knew the chaplain, Peter J. Gomes, had published a New York Times bestseller (The Good Book), but that was no excuse for a book of sermons. “No one reads books of sermons,” I said to friends, in all my wisdom. On top of this, the publisher actually titled the book, Sermons. The book was a hit. I remembered those feelings when I received this 2-volume collection of sermons by Rabbi Shai Held. You wouldn’t think reading these sermon-essays would appeal as much as hearing them might. But they’re insightful and inspiring in printed form. I hope they reach a wide audience of not just Jews. Christians need this, too.
My wife is a rabbi. I’m a Catholic. We both love Torah and often study together. We once had a routine on Friday afternoons in which I’d go to noon mass and she’d join me afterwards for Friday fish at a local restaurant. Over lunch, we’d read aloud Shai Held’s weekly parashah (“portion” in Hebrew – see below for more on this). Held is a particularly astute and warm-hearted commentator. He grew up in the US, spent a year on the West Bank between high school and college, graduated Harvard, then Jewish Theological Seminary for rabbinic ordination, and back to Harvard for a PhD in religion. His dissertation was on Abraham Joshua Heschel.
I’ve used the words “sermon,” “essay,” and “commentary” so far to describe what one finds in these books, and each word fits. You see, in synagogue the Five Books of Moses are divided into what Jews call the “weekly Torah portions” or parashiyot. A Jewish bible will sometimes divide the scriptures this way, even though most are also divided and subdivided with chapters and verses similar to those in Christian bibles. Fifty-four parashiyot mean roughly one for each Shabbat of the year.
The first portion of Torah is always Bere’shit, or “In the beginning.” But, as transcriptions from Hebrew, the rendering of Bere’shit can differ. Jewish Publication Society’s popular Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, for instance, has it as B’reishit. Always, this parashah covers Genesis 1:1 – 6:8. It’s the first Torah reading each year, after the High Holy Days, when Jews roll the scroll back to the beginning and start again. None of this is described by Held in his brilliant Introduction; he assumes his readers will already know the architecture.
Held has written two essays concerning Bere’shit. He doesn’t provide the scripture references, again demonstrating that this isn’t intended as a book for non-Jews. That’s okay. We can still find our way in it, and profit from it. Held’s essay for what he calls “Bere’shit No. 1” is “What Can Human Beings Do, and What Can’t They? Or, Does the Torah Believe in Progress?” Bere’shit No. 2’s is “Created in God’s Image: Ruling for God.” The essays are never meant to be commentaries on scripture in the sense that Christians use the term. They don’t touch on every verse or even every passage. They are instead a rabbi focusing his readers on what he feels is most important to learn from that portion of Torah.
Much of what is covered will be new to Christians, Christian seminary graduates, even to those who are conversant with biblical Hebrew and commentaries on the first five books of the Old Testament. This is because Held draws often on differences of interpretation between biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, and even a Christian seminary grad is unlikely to know the latter. For instance, in biblical Hebrew, the word nefesh means “throat” or “life,” but in rabbinic Hebrew interpretation, from roughly the first to fourth centuries CE, the word was often spiritualized to mean “soul.” This is a matter of great importance when one interprets Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the [nefesh] heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (NRSV) – which then uses “heart”!
I’ll offer just two simple examples of what I find important in Held’s volumes. Each is also a sample of what I value in Judaism and a topic on which I think Christians have something to learn from Jews and their interpretations of the Bible.
First, love never refers in biblical texts to something simply emotional. The Torah does not allow for love that is anything but manifested in real ways. Torah love is never simply a feeling, as in “I feel for them.” This is a teaching that Held makes clear often in his work, and it impacts his first essay on Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18), which begins: “One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility.” This passage, and Held’s commentary, are especially important today since there are Christians who feel there is no obligation – biblical, moral, or human – to care for refugees. The Hebrew word for “stranger” in Ex. 23:9 is ger, which Held explains means “one who is an alien in the place where he lives.” The Torah is insisting that empathy move us to act. We are presented with a challenge, according to Held: “If you want to love God, love those whom God loves. Love the fatherless, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”
My second example is taken from Held’s second volume and deals also with love. Christians often assume that what Jesus refers to in the gospels as the greatest commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself,” is a Christian innovation. Of course, it’s not. Held begins his essay on “Kedoshim No. 2” saying, “No words in the Torah are better known than ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), and no words are generally seen as more significant.” This is a commandment, what Judaism calls a mitzvah. There’s a common misunderstanding today that mitzvah means “good deed.” It doesn’t. It means “commandment.” Here again, Held is teaching what the Bible – rather than the culture or psychology – says about love. He begins with a logical question: “Can we really be commanded to love – or to feel anything at all, for that matter?” Held says yes, and explains why and how with a quick Hebrew lesson:
The Hebrew does not say ve-ahavta et rei’akha, as we might expect, but rather ve-ahavta le-rei’akha. Ahav here surprisingly takes an indirect object rather than the usual accusative. We might capture this – crudely – in English as follows: The text seems to say not “love your neighbor” but “love to your neighbor.”
The meaning of love is concrete and pragmatic, not abstract. Once again, we’d do well (for ourselves, for God, and the world) to realize that love, which we know to be central to faith, doesn’t take place in our minds, but in our relationships.
Jon M. Sweeney writes for America magazine in the US and The Tablet in the UK, and is the author of a new series of young readers illustrated by Roy DeLeon, The Pope’s Cat. He lives in Milwaukee.
Editor’s Note: A couple minor details that were wrong in the original review, have been corrected.