Koren Publishers recently sent me a review copy of Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, one of the books in their new Maggid imprint.
This was not necessarily a book that I would have chosen to read. Essays on a close reading of Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) carry a whiff of elementary school about them, don't they?
But that's exactly the attitude that Rabbi Helfgot is trying to puncture, and he does so quite successfully. The first and longest essay in the book, "Between Heaven and Earth: Curricula, Pedagogical Choices, Methodologies, and Values in the Study and Teaching of Tanakh" is a cri de coeur, imploring us not to neglect the careful study of the Torah shebikhtav in our passion for the Torah sheb'al peh. Rabbi Helfgot demonstrates that such study can be just as gratifying as mastering a difficult sugya of gemarah.
As importantly, he establishes an approach that allows us to learn from the best of contemporary critical scholarship without being untrue to traditional religious belief. As I read this essay, I kept finding myself enthusiastically quoting passages to my wife. Rabbi Helfgot has formulated a Modern Orthodox framework which is intellectually honest, openly inquisitive, and hashkafically secure. Such a framework is essential to the future of Modern Orthodoxy.
The remaining essays in the book apply this methodology to various biblical texts. Many of these essays were eye-opening, giving insights into how God's words reveal additional layers of meaning, or how later rabbinic sources crafted subtle allusions to Tanach. I have bookmarked several for use in divrei Torah.
I have two criticisms of this book, both relatively minor.
Since this is a collection of essays that previously appeared elsewhere, there is occasional overlap where the same material is developed in the same way in multiple essays, especially in the coverage of sefer Bamidbar. While this is sometimes acknowleged in a footnote or by a brief editorial insertion, I found myself wishing that the material had been recombined and edited to form a more cohesive single text.
My other criticism relates to transliterations. I find transliterations distracting in general: first one must figure out which transliteration system (and which tradition of Hebrew pronunciation) is being used, and then convert the transliteration back to Hebrew, and finally one can process the Hebrew as words. Especially in this book, which focuses on the specific word choices and textual style, it would have been far better to present Tanach quotes (and shoreshim) in Hebrew rather than in transliteration. This is particularly disappointing, as this book is published by Koren, who excel in the typography of Tanakh texts; in the few instances where Hebrew does appear inline with the English text, it's beautiful, and it should have been done throughout.
Despite these shortcomings, though, Rabbi Helfgot and Maggid have given us a book that succeeds on three levels: First, its analyses enhance our understanding of Tanakh. Second, it presents by explanation and by example a new formulation of Torah scholarship. Third, it helps establish Maggid as a home for Modern Orthodox publishing, a much-needed counterbalance to the existing publishers of Orthodox texts.
I highly recommend this book.