Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has just completed a five-volume series on the Torah under the heading Covenant and Conversation. The blurb from the first volume, on Genesis, comments:
In this first volume of a five-volume collection of parashat hashavua commentaries, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks explores these intersections as they relate to universal concerns of freedom, love, responsibility, identity, and destiny. He fuses Jewish tradition, Western philosophy, and literature to present a highly developed understanding of the human condition under Gods sovereignty. Erudite and eloquent, Covenant & Conversation allows us to experience Chief Rabbi Sacks’ sophisticated approach to life lived in an ongoing dialogue with the Torah.
Philip Seddon offers this review of the first volume.
What makes this book so wonderful and stimulating, so astonishing and humbling, even given Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ 30 previous books, including, most recently, Morality. Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times? Here are five areas that struck me (‘five’ for the Torah…)
1. His articulate, thoughtful, deeply educated writing. To my shame, I was completely unaware of these commentaries on the Pentateuch/Torah, published from 2009-2019, and concluding with Deuteronomy last year. But I found Genesis moving and revelatory—not cerebral and intellectual, but conceptually rich, coupled with an artistic precision in choice of words, tone and style. He quotes Shakespeare as easily as Rashi or Maimonides. It is simply beautiful writing, spiritually profound, and theologically and philosophically gripping.
2. His scriptural study ‘from the inside’, from within. He writes as a believing Jew, with his mind in his heart (as in Eastern Orthodoxy!). He does not defend this or that theory, or engage with any ‘documentary hypothesis’ of four (or dozens of) sources; he reads texts ‘in their literary wholeness’ (as Richard Hays has expressed it recently). He writes with a sense of Scripture, not about texts or history somewhere else ‘out there’; rather, he inhabits the text he is studying. He practices Cranmer’s prayer to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’.
The Torah is not just a book to read; it is a book to live by (229).
He exemplifies the fundamental Jewish commitment to study. His introduction to the new Jewish (Koren Sacks) Siddur (Prayer Book) powerfully demonstrates Judaism’s indivisible unity of study and prayer.
The history of Judaism is a story of the love of a people for the Book of Boοks, the Torah…In prayer we speak to God. Through Torah, God speaks to us. Praying we speak, studying we listen…For Judaism, theology becomes real when it becomes prayer. We do not talk about God, we talk to God.
There is no artificial split between theology and spirituality.
3. His meticulous examination of the text. The text cries out, “Expound me!” as the rabbis said (338). So words not only have meaning, but multiple meanings; brevity and delicacy in one place is balanced by ambiguity and complexity elsewhere. Excavation always yields fresh finds, whether at the personal or the universal and moral level, for ‘multiple ambiguities are not accidental, but integral to the text’ (156, 280). The meaning of passages ‘does not lie on the surface of the text, but discloses itself only to those who listen to what is going on beneath the worlds’ (209–210).
4. The unbroken line of rabbinic tradition of what we could call ‘Rabbinic scriptural reasoning’, the single story of interpretation, by contrast with the divided and hardened competing histories of interpretation in Eastern Orthodoxy, Western Catholicism and Western Reformation Christianity. Unlike a former generation’s mockery of endless conflicting rabbinic authorities, there is deep respect for the prayer and thought of generations of ’the wise’. In a Christian context, this would be the approach of a Christopher Seitz, Brevard Childs, Ephraim Radner or Hans Boersma, of Ressourcement—returning to the original sources and foundations with a grasp of the full tradition.
5. Study of the biblical text turns into personal testimony. He describes most movingly, for instance, ‘walking into the presence of God’.
[W]hen we are alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair …we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone … Jacob, in flight, trips and falls—and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of God. No one who has had this experience ever forgets it (183).
This is perhaps the most moving element. He is reading the same texts that are our inheritance, but that so many Christians now ignore, dismiss or arrogantly discard—to our loss, in such precision and breadth that his expositions never fail to be life-breathing.
So much for the overview. What of the detail? The book is arranged in twelve sections (sing. Parasha, plural Parashot), one for each of the weekly portions of the Torah read by Jews. Under each Hebrew heading, he tells you where he is going to go in that section; but while there is forward movement through Genesis, there is plenty of revisitation of previous sections to draw out greater subtlety, clarity and ambiguity, respectively. Again I pick out five areas of fascination.
Right at the start, Sacks sets out his critical thesis:
Genesis … is philosophy written in a deliberately non-philosophical way … [P]hilosophy is truth as system. Genesis is truth as story, … philosophy in the narrative mode…
enabling complex philosophical propositions to emerge in the art of story-telling (6, 282). This is a vital corrective to the banal view that because the Bible tells stories, we should tell stories, too. But, as Ken Bailey used to say, parables are not stories but time-bombs; and while stories are universal, and the style may seem naive, the message is deep, because ‘Torah is an answer to the question: how shall we live?’ (16).
Genesis is Judaism’s foundational work, a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God (6)…God … created the universe in freedom, and … by making man in His image, He endowed him with freedom too (346).
Like Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism takes a more generous and non-judgemental reading of ‘the Fall’, and Sacks repeatedly takes the opportunity to speak about the freedom, and the freedom of choice, that God freely bestowed on his creation.
Tragedy gives rise to pessimism. Cyclical time leads to acceptance. Linear time begets optimism. Covenantal time gives birth to hope (353).
Rather than explaining modulations of language in terms of the J, P or E documentary strands, he highlights the different theological functions of the different words for (e.g.) God: Elohim (in Jewish tradition, Elokim; or sometimes G-d) and YHWH (in Jewish tradition, Hashem, ‘the name’). He says, ‘Elokim refers to divine justice, Hashem to divine compassion’; ‘the difference between Elokim and Hashem is the difference between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham’ (38-39). Hashem is God as ‘person’, the ‘Thou’ who speaks to us and to whom we speak. Unlike the god of the philosophers, the God of Abraham is a personal God’ (9).
Elokim is God as we encounter him in nature. Hashem is God as we encounter him in personal relationships…Elokim is the aspect of God to be found in creation. Hashem is the aspect of God disclosed in revelation’ (288).
And then in the next sentence he pulls back the curtains to show that while the encounter with God in creation is universal, ‘God as we hear him in revelation is particular.’ He has an enviable knack for moving from exegesis to metaphysics in a single swoop.
In another context, speaking about divine and human wisdom, he also offers some typically fine pithy sayings:
Hokhma (wisdom) is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit … Hokhma discloses God in creation. Torah is the word of God in revelation. Hokhma is ontological truth (how things are); Torah is covenantal truth (how things ought to be) (290).
This is all extremely helpful.
His study of the tower of Babel is brilliant. He notes the word-plays of l-v-n (brick) and n-v-l (confuse); the phrase ‘the whole earth’ which frames the narrative; the plays on sh-m (sham: there, or shem, name, and shamayim, heaven), making it a story about the proper relationship between heaven and earth, with glances back to Genesis 1. The builders of Babel, he notes, wanted to make a name for themselves, ‘to build an abode in heaven … a mistake many civilisations have made, and the result is catastrophe’ (49–55).
Picking up George Steiner’s comment on the short journey from Nietzsche to the Holocaust, he observes that:
Only when God is God can man be man … Babel was the first civilisation, but sadly not the last to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell…Those who cross those boundaries and transgress these limits make a name for themselves, but the name they make is Babel, meaning chaos, confusion and the loss of that order which is a precondition of both nature—the world God creates—and culture—the world we create (53, 55).
The book of Genesis is … a set of variations on the theme of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The book begins with fratricide and ends with reconciliation (326).
I use bullet points to illustrate Sacks’ lovely grasp of the Genesis story.
- In the sectional heading Lekh Lekha (lit. ‘Go … to yourself’; 65-80) Sacks offers a wonderful exploration of the ‘prepositional theology’ that John Stott would have approved of (!) to mean, ‘Go for yourself, Go with yourself, Go to yourself, Go by yourself’—in short, ‘Leave behind you all that makes human beings predictable, unfree, delimited’ (79). This is ‘chewing’ on Scripture.
- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I discovered, delightfully shape the cycle of Jewish daily prayer on the basis of Gen 19:27 (‘Abraham got up early in the morning’), Gen 24:63 (‘Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening’), and Gen 28:11 ‘(Jacob encountered a place’) (‘Prayer and Conversation’, 129–134; ‘Encountering God’, 179–183). So Abraham is morning, Isaac is afternoon, and Jacob is night, representing morning, afternoon and night prayer. But at once he widens out. ‘[T]here are three modes of spirituality and we experience each in the course of a single day. There is the human quest (Abraham, morning prayer), the divine encounter (Jacob, evening prayer), and the dialogue (Isaac, afternoon prayer) (134).
- From Jacob’s refusal to be comforted on hearing of the reported death of Joseph (Gen 37:34-35), itself picked up in Jeremiah 31:15 and Psalm 137, Sacks comments immediately, ‘Jews are the people who refused to be comforted because they never gave up hope’ (256), a lesson for those Christians who think 2,000 years is a long time.
- On Jacob’s vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending, Sacks not only sees that ‘Prayer is a ladder stretching from earth to heaven,’ but he extends the point with a vision of a ‘deep grammar’ of prayer, where we ‘leave earth’s gravitational field to ascend’, then ‘stand in the Presence’, then ‘bring[…] a fragment of heaven down to earth’ (185-9).
- ‘Jacob loved, passionately and deeply. That was his strength, but also his weakness’ (251).
- ‘In Wrestling Face to Face’ (219–228) Sacks examines vocabulary in detail in the context of the meeting of Jacob and Esau: Jacob bows down to the ground seven times (33:6-7); three times Leah and her children, and then Joseph and Rachel bow down; five times Jacob calls Esau ‘my lord’, and twice calls himself Esau’s slave; then (32:21) the word panim (face) appears four times. This is allowing the surface of the text to lead you deeper inside itself; and it is so fruitful.
But I close with two fine contrasting expositions. Firstly, the story of Judah & Tamar (Gen 37), which holds much more significance than usually recognised. In ‘Flames and Words’ (259–263), and ‘A Tale of Two Women’ (265–269), Sacks highlights three mesmerising points:
- Genesis’ repeated theme of disguise (260, 297);
- Tamar’s refusal to shame Judah in public; instead, ‘Tamar took her sense of shame and used it to sensitive herself to avoid shaming others’ (263); and consequently,
- Judah’s admission of his wrongdoing: ’Judah is the first penitent … in the Torah … This is the first time in the Torah someone acknowledges their own guilt. It was also the turning point in Judah’s life’.
As a result, Judah is the one ‘from whom the messiah will be born’ (312-3), this incident re-appearing towards the end of Ruth (4:11-12; cf. Matt 2:6!).
Secondly, the book of Genesis concludes redemptively with Joseph’s unbounded forgiveness of his brothers, and their true reconciliation. There is ambiguity in the narrative (280), but it is Joseph’s own huge ‘turn and test’ that the text emphasises, in a triple repetition of his turning aside to weep (Gn 42:24, 43:30, 45:1–2), that draws his brothers also to repentance (306–7).
In great detail and with amazing skill Sacks shines the spotlight on these twists and turns, but always so as to highlight the humanity and optimism of Genesis and of the Judaism that Sacks represents. In its own way, however, it is also a warning to today’s revolutionary politics:
Atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expression of human freedom – the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past, and the freedom not to be trapped in a cycle of vengeance and retaliation. Only those who can forgive can be free. Only a civilisation based on forgiveness can construct a future that is not an endless repetition of the past’(352; cf. 327).
I dare to suggest that this series is an important gift for the church. But this is all a mere amuse-bouche to whet your appetite for reading the whole book.
(See Rabbi Sacks’ web-site for pod-casts on the Parashot in parallel to this commentary on Genesis, and much else.)
Philip Seddon studied classics and theology at Cambridge. He has taught in Nigeria, Cambridge, Nottingham, Birmingham and most recently in Salisbury on the staff of STETS which became Sarum College, combining the twin threads of Biblical Studies and Christian Spirituality He continues to teach and write in retirement, which has been tougher than expected for unexpected reasons. He was a founding member of the Grove Spirituality group, and has written booklets on Darkness, the New Age movement, evangelical spirituality, the spirituality of the Song of Songs, and the hymns of John Newton and William Cowper, and co-edited The Lord of the Journey: A Reader in Christian Spirituality.