Complex Torah for the Serious Student – A Review of ‘Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology’

The contemporary world of Tanakh study is perhaps as diverse as it has ever been. There is a huge outpouring of Tanakh-related publications from every possible perspective and ideology. When the contemporary Orthodox learner of the Tanakh encounters these publications, there can often be some confusion. For example, there are studies of the Tanakh from academic institutions that appear to be at odds with traditional Jewish approaches to the Tanakh. Moreover, religious readers of the Tanakh encounter a host of problems and dilemmas that have little to do with academic studies. How, for example, are we supposed to approach incidents in the Tanakh that seem to be based on superstitions? How are we supposed to relate to laws that conflict with our moral compasses today? How are we supposed to understand the Midrashim which seem to have little in common with the shit of the Tanakh?

These topics, and more, are covered in “Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology,” a quick new book from Kodesh Press by former commentator editor Rabbi Hayyim Angel. Rabbi Angel, who holds a number of teaching roles including teaching at YU, presents 12 compelling and insightful essays on a range of topics related to the study of the Tanakh.

Let me state my biases clearly. I am a huge fan of Rabbi Angel and his work, and am currently enrolled in three of his classes at Isaac Breuer College (IBC). But please believe me when I say that this book deserves all the praise it will receive and that I am not just asking for extra credit.

Of course, you have to understand the genre of this work. The title of the book is “Cornerstones”, but the book itself is not an attempt to present a complete methodological study program. That being said, readers will quickly notice Rabbi Angel’s consistent methods and approaches that point to a larger program of Tanakh study. He is one who is deeply religious, honest and respectful at the same time of the classic meforshim and the contributions of contemporary scholarship.

Some essays summarize biblical passages and commentaries, some add new ideas and analysis, and some editorialize. Rabbi Angel’s sources are just as diverse as his subject matter. Everyone is fair game for Rabbi Angel. Of course, there are the classic commentaries, but Rabbi Angel is sure to also include more obscure, lesser-known commentaries, especially Sephardi commentaries that are underestimated in normative study of the Tanakh. Rabbi Angel also draws from a well of academic knowledge and scholarship and cites academic Bible scholars (of various religious orientations). The courses he teaches at IBC are also in this style, summarizing and synthesizing a wide range of approaches from different books and biblical passages in a clear and accessible way. Thus, in his own essays, Rabbi Angel practices what he preaches in articles such as “Tanakh and Sephardic Inclusion in the Yeshiva High School Curriculum” and “Traditional and Academic Tanakh Study.”

The articles are written in clear and accessible English which defines Rabbi Angel’s style. Rabbi Angel is not one to take irrelevant tangents or obscure his ideas in unnecessarily flowery or inscrutable language. With a few exceptions, it presents ideas clearly and simply, while maintaining the complexity of the topics covered. But there were a few times when I thought a conversation could have been pushed further or explored a little deeper.

Each of these essays, except one, has been published elsewhere before the publication of this volume, in journals or other books. Only the first essay, “The Land of Israel in the Bible”, which is the longest in the book, has not been published elsewhere in print, but has been presented as a four-part series chiurim for the Institute of Ideas and Ideals, for which Rabbi Angel is a National Scholar. While that means none of the content is new, that doesn’t take away from the wonderfully illuminating content of the essays.

The essays themselves do not relate or reference in any way. The result is that the same ideas are sometimes repeated in different articles. For example, the machloket between Rambam and Abarbanel regarding monarchy (whether it is the preferred or merely tolerated governmental structure) is discussed in both “Ideal and Evolutionary Morality in the Torah” and “Where the Rules of Peshat and Pesak meet collide”. And we find the exact same quote from Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosafot Yom Tov on Mishna Nazir 5:5) about the interpretation psukim differently from the Gemara, in two consecutive trials.

But that’s really only a problem for someone reading the book cover to cover (which is pretty doable – the book is just over 200 pages and the font size is quite large ). If taking breaks between trials, repeated content is helpful. Additionally, individual essays can be revisited or shared independently, without the need to re-read previous parts of the work for context. In short, the format is adapted to the purpose of the book. And regardless, repeated ideas are interesting and worth repeating.

Rabbi Angel has once again produced a relevant, engaging and accessible collection of essays. The reader wants more, not because the essays are unsatisfactory, but rather because of their satisfaction.

Photo credit: cover of the book “Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology”
Photo caption: Kodesh Press

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