If the medium is the message, then next to the stark, calligraphic beauty of the Torah scroll itself is the beauty of Genesis: A Parsha Companion (Maggid, 2019), projected as the first of five volumes on the Torah. Book designers are not typically mentioned, but alongside author David Fohrman, designer Cory Rockliff plays a significant role in making available a new approach to listening to the Torah.
Author David Fohrman comes across as folksy, very folksy. Is this tone at odds with the seriousness of Genesis? The Matriarchs and Patriarchs are the foundation of the Jewish people. Lessons from their lives have guided us for millennia. Scholars, poets, exegetes and pedagogues have pored over the stories of Genesis. It is the last book, one would think, for a folksy approach.
Then again, one view in the Talmud is that “the Torah speaks the language of human beings.” The Torah would be worthless if it could not communicate, and communication is not necessarily assured. Have we not all heard someone who comes off as a genius, but we have no idea what he is saying? To communicate what the Torah says is, in fact, the whole point. Fohrman is on solid ground if his folksy style and tone work.
They work wonderfully, and much more than as a strategy or a tactic. The reader gets the idea that Fohrman is not just trying to be an effective teacher, or, to put it the context of this book, not just trying to sell books. One gets the idea that Fohrman writes the way he does because the stories in Genesis have so thoroughly permeated his mind and soul that he can only teach them in his own idiom, rooted deeply in his being. His idiom is the way it is not because it is manufactured, but because it is natural.
This is more than a book of fine instruction; it is a book of profound encounter with the Torah. Even if readers may differ with Fohrman’s particular way of absorbing and teaching the Torah, he remains the poster child for the critical importance of a personal encounter with the Torah.
For Fohrman and for any student moved existentially by the Torah, the Torah is not a “text.” The reader’s job is not explication de texte. The tools at the reader’s disposal are not commentary and philology. The Torah is not history’s bestseller that one is advised to look at lest one miss the roots of Western civilization. The Torah is not a “canon.” What, then, is the Torah? How is one to approach it? Fohrman models the approach.
Fohrman wears his learning lightly as he summons the tools of Biblical interpretation, but he goes so much deeper. The result is paradox and irony. For example, Fohrman’s explication du texte may be more subtle and profound than that of those interpreters who are detached or dispassionate.
One of Fohrman’s favored techniques for digging into the Torah is to notice the solecisms — the often unnoticed tics and subtleties — not just of chapters or verses, but of single words; specifically, how they appear in apparently unrelated contexts. Fohrman asks whether a very rare word in two dramatically different contexts might signal underlying connections between them.
Take, for example, the confrontation of Jacob with Esau, and the relationship of Mordechai with his royal relative Queen Esther. Here, it would seem, are two stories, two contexts, that have nothing to do with each other. Fohrman, by focusing on a single word in each story — a word that appears only twice in all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible — initiates a deep and repercussive connection between the stories.
If I stopped here, I would be doing a grave injustice to Fohrman. I would be leaving the impression that he is a technical virtuoso, an author with, perhaps, a mastery of the text, and an innovative one at that. I would be leaving the impression that if one enjoys the endlessly layered Biblical text and how the blunt, apparently bald character of the Biblical Hebrew masks subtlety and allusion, then Fohrman’s book is the one for you.
This would be a grave injustice, since the end point of Fohrman’s textual explorations ascends from the literary to the ethical. Fohrman leaves the reader not merely with a clever yet plausible connection between Jacob and Esau, on the one hand, and between Mordechai and Esther, on the other. Fohrman shows how the connection between these Biblical characters conveys a critical lesson in reconciliation between enemies, and how long genuine reconciliation might take.
Fohrman’s ultimate agenda is the full range of issues raised in Genesis. For example: sibling rivalry (Jacob and Esau), the meaning of life (Sarah), the search for the ethical when it seems out of reach (Rebeccah), the difference between the contemporary idiom and certain Biblical terms (Adam’s “acquisition” of Eve).
Fohrman, as a teacher of the text per se and of its human profundities, shows that any faithful approach to Genesis, even a relaxed, folksy, alluring one, can work. The medium may not be the message, but it can convey it.
In preparation for this review, I first opened to the eighth portion (parsha) in Genesis (Vayishlach). I sat down to read on a busy day. When I finished, how surprised I was to sense that the busyness in my day had disappeared. Here is a book on the Bible that is a page turner!
The reading of Genesis is now upon us each week in the synagogue. Try Genesis: A Parsha Companion. It’s quite a companion.
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