Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus: Explorations in Text and Meaning

By Wexler, Aharon E. | Jewish Bible Quarterly, October-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus: Explorations in Text and Meaning


Wexler, Aharon E., Jewish Bible Quarterly


Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus: Explorations in Text and Meaning, Rabbi Francis Nataf; Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2010. Reviewed by Aharon E. Wexler.

The second volume of Rabbi Francis Natafs exploration of the Bible is filled with insights and is a fresh take on an ancient text. Perhaps more than any other text, the reader approaches the Bible with preconceived notions and assumptions carried from childhood, forcing us to read the Bible with decades of baggage. Nataf, on the other hand, does a commendable job of looking at the text anew and reads the text like the Commentators did, without commentaries, a strategy Nataf calls 'an invitation for a very personal involvement' (p. 14).

Rabbi Nataf begins by noting the difficulty of God revealing Himself to man, and does not shy away from the questions raised by modern scholarship. While Nataf doesn't deal with biblical criticism directly, he is aware of the issues raised by the traditional claim of Divine authorship. He puts a new spin on the ancient rabbinic aphorism that 'the Torah speaks in the language of man' and points out that if in fact the text is written in the language of man, then we can not expect it to always be logical, rational, or systematic. Nataf invites us to examine the twentieth century literary device "stream of consciousness," made famous by James Joyce, in which the thought process of the protagonist is revealed to the reader. This makes for a difficult read, as any reader of Joyce would acknowledge, but it also provides an "unusually accurate portrayal of human thought" (p. 18). To Nataf, "Torah study is the art of listening to God's conversation."

Referencing Joyce and other writers as diverse as Bertolt Brecht and Mitch Albom, Nataf proves to his readers that he possesses a vast field of knowledge and that there is value to the secular world outside of Torah. Nataf freely uses his broad approach in his study of Torah yielding a rich and diverse take on the text. An anecdote regarding his decision to ban a book from the kindergarten library because of its unflattering depiction of Gentiles amplifies this message of openness directed at his orthodox audience.

This wide approach allows for unique insights into the Bible. While most scholars concentrate on the Exodus from Egypt, Nataf examines the love/hate relationship between Israel and Egypt and its importance in the development of the Jewish people. Israel's time in Egypt helped shape it to become God's people. The Bible's first mention of Egypt in Genesis describes the country as God's garden. In Exodus, we are told that even slaves had pots full of meat. This wealth and bounty, according to Nataf, prevented the Egyptians from establishing a rich spiritual life. Israel, however, needed "to be impressed by [Egypt's] temptations of prosperity. Were they to be divorced from any material ambitions they would never fully know the important human tension between spirituality and physicality" (p. 29).

From Egypt on, Nataf shows a keen understanding of Jewish history and explores the motif of the Jewish people arriving in a host country as honored guests only to become enslaved, persecuted, and/or expelled. This is to be the lot of the Jews in every generation and Nataf does an excellent job in showing the germination of this theme in Exodus.

Rabbi Nataf also writes about the connection between Jacob and Moses. …

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