Bible Dynamics

Preface to the English Edition

The Midrash notes that “every generation has its expounders,” and new commentaries to the Torah are needed in every generation. Likewise, a new approach to understanding the Torah is needed nowadays. Bible Dynamics commentary, based on the kabbalistic ideas of Rabbi Y. L. Ashkenazi (Manitou), seeks to provide that.

The need for new commentaries arises as cultures and societies constantly evolve, change and generate new problems. Naturally the previous commentaries retain their importance, but they are no longer sufficient. New approaches are paramount for preserving the relevance of the Torah for new generations.

Our generation is undergoing especially rapid and radical changes in all areas of Jewish life. The following areas deserve special attention.

  • Creation of the State of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to their land has generated a dramatic shift in their worldview. Life in exile demanded from the Jewish people and from Judaism an approach of self-preservation, striving for isolation and conservation. Contemporary Israeli life, in an independent state on equal footing with other nations, places different demands on Jewish people and orients them toward extroversion: development and advancement, universalism, shared human values, and influencing the world culture and history.
  • The interest of the peoples of the world in Judaism has increased tremendously in our time. When the Jews were in exile and subject to persecution, other nations showed little interest in Jewish culture and tradition, because “a poor man’s wisdom is scorned” (Ecclesiastes 9:16). Other nations’ interest towards Judaism is growing nowadays partially due to Israel’s significant successes and achievements. The changing circumstances require a completely new approach to interpreting the Torah.
  • Jewish psychological and cultural integration into the Western world has brought the secular Jewish reader and the non-Jewish reader closer together. A significant segment of the Jewish people is already so far removed from tradition that it views it from the outside looking in. While those Jews still feel a sentimental attachment to Judaism, overwhelmingly they are already a part of the non-Jewish world, culturally speaking, they can move closer to Judaism only as part of that larger world.

These changes create new questions and thus new aspects and meanings in the Torah are revealed.

The contemporary reader might be a free-thinking traditional Jew, a Jew entirely removed from the tradition, or not even Jewish at all, but a person who has undertaken to read the Torah simply because it is an important work belonging to humanity’s rich spiritual heritage. The key features and particular needs of contemporary readers seem to be the following:

  1. The Torah commentators of the past used to primarily address observant Jews who lived within the tradition. Contemporary readers are different and they view the Torah text differently. Many readers nowadays live in a much more open world, they have an “outside “perspective either psychologically, or quite often physically. Likewise, they view the Torah from the “outside”.
  2. The traditional Jewish reader of the past was mainly interested in observing the commandments, it was important for him to understand precisely how the commandments and their details related to the Torah text. Contemporary Torah reader may be more interested in the ideas that promote personal development. Rather than seeking laws in Torah the contemporary reader tends to seek values and ideals.
  3. For the traditional Jewish reader, the Torah was the ultimate legacy. There was never any question of which tradition he should choose; it was only a matter of deepening his knowledge of the text that he took for granted as his very own. For the modern reader, however, the Torah is only one of many spiritual sources with which it must compete. Any Torah commentary today must take this competitive challenge into account.
  4. It seems important nowadays to read the Torah as an engaging story of the characters presented as personalities having challenges and doubts, with many aspects of greatness but, to be sure, shortcomings and flaws as well. Reading of the Torah must include the dynamics of development – evolution of people, ideas, and concepts. Commentators of previous ages saw the characters of the Torah exclusively as a source for deriving lessons and teachings, not as personalities. They also typically disregarded any development of ideas and concepts in transition from one book of the Torah to another. They perceived the entire Torah narrative as a uniform instantaneous event

* * *

The modern reader’s needs are very difficult to address. One of the attempts to develop a new approach to the understanding of the Torah text was made in the middle of the 20th century by Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), prominent rabbi and Kabbalist. He revealed the ideas and concepts necessary to formulate a new way of understanding the Torah narrative

Yehuda Leon was born in 1922 into the family of the chief rabbi of Algeria, the family that had its own kabbalistic tradition. His education was both deeply religious and broadly secular.

During the Second World War Ashkenazi fought in the French resistance. He moved to France after the war and became one of the key figures in the post-war revival of French Jewry. (By this time, he was known by his cognomen “Manitou”.) Following the Six Day War of 1967 he moved to Israel, where for three decades he was one of the leaders of the yeshiva of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Merkaz Ha-Rav, and spiritual leader of French Jewry’s religious Zionist movement. He died in Jerusalem in 1996.

Teaching mainly in French throughout his life, Manitou exerted a far-reaching influence on French-speaking Jewry. He wrote very little and mostly focused on lecturing and teaching. As a result, relatively few of his teachings were translated into other languages, and only recently there appeared Hebrew publications. In the English-speaking world (not to mention other languages) Manitou’s concepts are almost virtually unknown even to this day.

The Bible Dynamics commentary is based primarily on Rabbi Uri Cherki’s lectures; it also includes a number of the author’s own ideas and additions

The school of Rabbi Uri Cherki is one of the most prominent modern Israel proponents of the ideas of Manitou. The school presented Rabbi Ashkenazi’s approach in a systematic way in a series of the Torah lectures (never published in written form, however).

The ideas that Rabbi Ashkenazi reveals allow us to see the Patriarchs as dynamic personalities who evolved and changed throughout their lives. He teaches us to ask questions: How did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses evolve in the course of the Torah’s narratives? How did their views and ideas change over time? How and why do the ideas of Leviticus and Numbers differ from those of Genesis and Exodus? And why are the commandments and the development of the Jewish nation as presented in the book of Deuteronomy different from those in the earlier books of the Torah?

Such questions were considered unacceptable in former times. Usually the questions were usually put like these: ”What is great about Abraham? What example does he set for us, and what is he trying to teach us? How can we reconcile the contradictions between the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah’s previous books?”

However there are questions that were never raised: “How did Abraham himself change in the course of the story, and how did he himself understand it?” Or: “How are we to understand that Deuteronomy has its own unique way of presenting the commandments?“  For a long time such questions, deemed unsuitable for the public consciousness and could be discussed only within a narrow coterie of kabbalistic sages.

Even today there are religious circles whose members, upon hearing that the Patriarchs developed as personalities, or that Moses sees the commandments variously in different periods of his personal development, are moved to protest, because they see this viewpoint as portraying the Patriarchs as imperfect, and not “as they must be.” After all, if a person is said to have developed, that can only mean that at first there was something he failed to understand, which he only later came to understand. How can we say such things about the Patriarchs, or about Moses? Who are we to judge them? Against their greatness we are all but insignificant; how dare we evaluate their development? Nor can the commandments, given from Heaven, develop or change!

People accustomed to that mode of thinking believe that dynamics and development testify ipso facto to imperfection; they therefore deem it unacceptable to speak of the Patriarchs and the commandments in such terms. Such view of development, however, is the vestige of a medieval mindset, in which any ideal must be completely static, and all truly great things must remain ever constant and unchanging.

To the new-age thinking, however, the value of dynamics and development is, on the contrary, quite obvious. Nowadays when a person, fails to develop or advance, it is seen as an essential shortcoming, even if it is one of the Great. Under this revised approach, the dynamics and development that a person goes through only speak in his or her favor, making that person so much greater in our eyes. We sense not only the pragmatic, but also the spiritual and religious value of such personal dynamics. As far as the commandments are concerned God naturally could reveal different facets of the commandments to the Jewish people in different times. The emphasis would be dependent on the Jewish people‘s particular stage of development

Thus the Kabbalah teaching once transmitted only to select individuals, can today finally be made public, to become a part of our general consciousness.

* * *

All of a human life is a dialogue between man and God. The participants in this dialogue are individuals, nations, and humankind as a whole. The Almighty wants every human being to become more perfect. He constantly presents us with new tasks and new problems.

As we manage to cope with each succeeding task, He gives us yet another and another, in order to advance us to the next, higher level. Sometimes it may happen that we are not able to cope with a given task. Then God gives us an easier one and after we solve it He presents us with the original, more difficult problem. As we continue solving each subsequent problem in the long series of tasks, humanity gradually improves, and man advances closer and closer to God.

Our ability to understand the Patriarchs as dynamically developing personalities is an essential part of this process. It is our hope that this book will succeed in serving that purpose.

Pinchas Polonsky

Pinchas Polonsky (Russian: Полонский Петр (Пинхас) Ефимович, born 1958) is a Russian-Israeli Jewish-religious philosopher, researcher, and educator active among the Russian-speaking Jewish community. He has written original books and a number of translations of works on Judaism. During his underground activities in Moscow (1977–1987), he taught Judaism and was one of the founders of Machanaim. He lives in Israel, is an activist in the process of the modernization of Judaism and is a researcher on the topics of the late Rav Kook. Polonsky is the author of a commentary on the Torah under the title "Biblical Dynamics". Dr. Polonsky initiated EJWiki, an academic encyclopedia on Jewish and Israeli topics.

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