Explorations: In-depth analysis of the weekly parasha
through the prism of rabbinic perspective
By Ari D. Kahn
$25.95, Published by Targum Press, Distributed by Feldheim, 2001
or contact the author at email@example.com
Reviewed by David M. Weinberg
Yet another laborious volume of old-world homiletics on the weekly Torah readings? No, not at all. Ari Kahns intellectually-exhilarating voyages into the depths of midrash (rabbinic parables) and sod (mystical traditions) are a feast for the modern mind.
While anchoring himself in the classical (mostly medieval) rabbinic commentaries and in major Chassidic commentaries, Kahn is not afraid of chiddush, innovation or novel interpretation. His conclusions and insights, which often reference modern psychology, Western schools of philosophy and the Zohar simultaneously, depart from the standard-fare sermons and ethical exhortations one has come to expect from this genre.
A 41-year-old American-born and educated teacher who studied with the late, great Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University in New York, Rabbi Kahn is deeply reflective beyond his age. He is best when probing the psychological underpinnings that motivate the characters of the Bible, drawing upon midrash to weave a new understanding of Jacobs psyche, or that of Moses.
Jacobs struggle with Esaus angel in Parashat Vayishlach, Kahn writes, is really Jacob wrestling with his own conscience and identity; a battle with the superficiality that enwrapped Jacob while in exile. Quoting the Zohar which dates this enigmatic nighttime battle to Yom Kippur, Kahn creates an arch-type Jacob who is torn between his material success and his spiritual self. Jacob emerges from the self-confrontation limping, Kahn writes, physically weaker but spiritually transformed and empowered.
Similarly, Kahns description of Moses odyssey from heir to the Egyptian throne to vanquisher of the Egyptian empire, prophetic leader of the Jews and transmitter of the Torah is masterfully profound. Moses entire early life, Kahn explains, was designed to place him solidly within the pantheon of Egyptian gods. He was drawn from the waters of the Nile -- which was worshipped as an Egyptian god -- by Batya (literally, the daughter of god, Pharaohs daughter), and was given a name steeped in idolatrous connotations. The subsequent flight of Moses from Egypt, and his return in the name of the God of Abraham, then, stands as a powerful polemic against the greatest civilization in the world at that time.
In this exciting (although sometimes uneven) collection, Kahn also bravely tackles issues of belief and Jewish dogma, along with classical problems of Bible exegesis and criticism, such as the biblical status of Deuteronomy, the authorship of the last eight verses in the Bible, the nature of revelation, the authority of commandments given at Sinai, the metaphysics of knowing God, the mystics of tzimtzum or Divine contraction, and the blasphemy inherent in the placement of cherubim (idols) in the Holy of Holies.
How bold: Kahn turns the angel-faced, naked cherubim into symbols of man and woman at their apex before the sin of Eden in a state of total innocence before God. Imagine, he writes, the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, seeing before him this perpetual image of innocence, purity and holiness: the cherubim, symbolizing Adam and Eve as they were meant to be. Standing before God, the high Priest prayed for mans return to himself, to his primordial state of uninhibited closeness to God, freed from the embarrassment and the robing of sin.
Kahns sophisticated essays originally were delivered as lectures to students at Bar-Ilan University and at Aish Hatorah, and they were serialized by Aish Hatorah on email before being edited into this volume. Since Kahn continues to broadcast new essays weekly (there are reportedly over 6,000 subscribers to his email list!), one can certainly look forward to his next edited volume, on Jewish holidays, expected this summer.
David Weinberg specializes in persuasion publications, media and government relations.