Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Revealed Methodologies, Hidden Approaches

I first heard the name Hayyim Angel early in my undergraduate career at Yeshiva College. I must have been a freshman or sophomore when I saw an article of his in Hamevaser, the Jewish studies periodical, that struck me. He wrote about women studying Talmud. He informed readers that, despite their potential surprise, there are still people who object to women studying Talmud and he proceeded to explain why they held that view and where he disagrees with it. I was surprised by two things. First, that there are Orthodox Jews who do not know that other Orthodox Jews object to women studying Talmud. I thought this was obvious but learned that Angel was correct. And second, the respect which he gave to the opinion he was opposing. To me, that showed fine character and a remarkable moderation.

The author of that article is now known as Rabbi Hayyim Angel, an extremely popular Bible professor and the rabbi of a large and storied synagogue in Manhattan. He recently published his second book -- Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings: Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh -- and I would like to take this opportunity to offer some general thoughts on his approach and challenge a reader to compose a more detailed analysis, which is beyond my abilities.

Click here for moreRabbi Angel's first book was Through an Opaque Lens. It, and the most recent book, contain collected essays by R. Angel about the Bible, some previously published in various journals but many new. Both books have two general types of essays -- methodological studies and textual studies.

My initial instinct is to suggest that the methodological studies are the most important but I've come to believe that this isn't the case. However, I still think that they are the most interesting essays. Over the two books, R. Angel reviews the works of major Bible scholars in what has been called "The New School" of Orthodox Bible study -- including Dr. Nehama Leibowitz, R. Yoel Bin-Nun, R. Mordechai Breuer and R. Elhanan Samet. He also critiques a study by R. Mosheh Lichtenstein -- a prominent critic of "The New School" and discusses major themes in Maimonides' approach to the Bible that are relevant to "The New School".

These essays alone are worth the price of the books. They introduce readers to these innovative scholars and describe in detail their approaches, offering multiple examples. I see too many people focusing on R. Mordechai Breuer and painting the entire "New School" with his somewhat extreme and idiosyncratic ideas. R. Angel's essays do much to alleviate this misunderstanding.

R. Angel's textual studies span the entire Bible, from Genesis to Chronicles. He addresses books in the Pentateuch, Early Prophets, Later Prophets and Writings, often comparing different books and finding important ideas exposed by these comparisons. Particularly interesting is his multiple studies of the scrolls Jonah, Ruth and Esther.

R. Angel is primarily a teacher (and from what I've been told, one of the best). As pointed out by R. Shalom Carmy in his preface to the second volume, R. Angel's textual studies are not just commentaries but detailed explanations of how he thinks about the texts. He shows readers how to go about studying the Bible -- what questions to ask and how to go about resolving them. The studies in these books tie back to the methodological studies, in that R. Angel reveals his own unique approach to the texts.

What is his methodology? This is where I have to leave off. I lack the tools to effectively study his approach. In a public eulogy for R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his son Dr. Haym Soloveitchik pointed out that the only person qualified to eulogize R. Soloveitchik was R. Soloveitchik. Similarly, jJust like R. Angel writes in such an informative way about the methodology of other scholars, we need someone to read these essays carefully and extract his methodology. There is plenty of material from which to conduct such a study.

One thing I can say, though, is that the character traits I detected in the first of article of his that I read many years ago as an undergraduate are a significant element of his methodology. R. Angel is cautious and moderate -- in his soft use of language, the respect he shows to people with whom he disagrees, his careful study of the texts, and the care with which he discusses the potential flaws of biblical characters. While he sometimes uses non-traditional approaches, the care he takes to be respectful and his considered avoidance of unnecessary controversy give his studies a sense of unfettered honest and make them always very informative.

I was once riding the subway, reading the YCT Tanakh Companion to the Book of Samuel. I was going through R. Angel's article, published in his first book, titled "Why Didn't He Do It? An Analysis of Why David Did Not Kill Shaul". The yarmulka-wearing guy sitting next to me looked over my shoulder and asked what the article concludes -- why didn't he do it? I gave him a brief summary of the article, at which point he started yelling at me that David and Shaul were both righteous and no one can criticize them. This taught me a few lessons, one of which is that my summary did not do R. Angel justice. He is so cautious and respectful that had he explained his position in his calm and studied voice to my subway neighbor, this gentleman would not have been able to object.

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