Beginning last year, Sir Jonathan Sacks — Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a well-known and remarkably prolific author — began a Torah commentary project that's shaping up to be a significant event in the Jewish world. Published by Maggid Books and the Orthodox Union, Exodus: The Book of Redemption has just appeared, having followed Genesis: The Book of Beginnings by about 12 months. The overall title for the series is Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible. Both books thus far have sported lovingly reproduced Rembrandt biblical paintings on their covers.
Rabbi Sacks has accomplished all of this during the same period that he's produced the English translation and commentary for the Koren Sacks Siddur, the first new Orthodox siddur in a generation. (Intrepid writer that he is, Sacks, who is a Lord as well — in the strictly British sense, of course — has also managed to write a faith-based book about Israel's current struggles in the world, which I will discuss in this space next week.)
Though the volume on Exodus continues the level of excellence begun last year, Genesis seems more to the point, as those of us so inclined begin to feel the sense of rebirth and renewal that comes with each High Holiday season.
In his brief prefatory remarks on the nature of the parshah, or weekly Torah portion, Sacks explains why he gave the series the overall title of Covenant and Conversation. He considers the phrase to be "the essence of what Torah learning is," whether we are speaking of ancient times or the present. The actual text, he says, is our covenant with God, "our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty." Our interpretation of any particular portion, he argues, has been like an ongoing conversation for as long as Jews have studied these sacred words, "a conversation that began at Sinai 33 centuries ago and has not ceased since."
"Every age," the rabbi continues, "has added its commentaries, and so must ours. Participating in the conversation is a major part of what it is to be a Jew. For we are the people who never stopped learning the Book of Life, our most precious gift from the God of life."
Each of Sacks' two volumes has an introduction explaining the meaning and purpose of the particular biblical book under discussion. The one Sacks has written for Genesis is, in itself, a piece of religious philosophy of great beauty and resonance.
This first book of the Hebrew Bible is, of course, about beginnings, but if we think that that is all it is about, says the rabbi, we will miss its full significance. It was Maimonides who made the important point that the Hebrew word Reshit (as in Bereshit, the Hebrew title for Genesis) doesn't mean "beginning" in the sense of "first of a chronological sequence." Other words fill that purpose.
"Reshit implies the most significant element, the part that stands for the whole, the foundation, the principle. Genesis is Judaism's foundational work, a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God."
Sacks states that this is a difficult point to comprehend because there is no other book quite like Genesis. It's not myth, nor is it history in any conventional sense. And it is not theology either. "Genesis," the rabbi writes, "is less about God than about human beings and their relationship with God. The theology is almost always implicit rather then explicit. What Genesis is, in fact, is philosophy written in a deliberately non-philosophical way. It deals with all the central questions of philosophy: what exists (ontology), what can we know (epistemology), are we free (philosophical psychology), and how we should behave (ethics). But it does so in a way quite unlike the philosophical classics from Plato to Wittgenstein. To put it at its simplest: philosophy is truth as system. Genesis is truth as story. It is a unique work, philosophy in the narrative mode."