Illustration of an ancient copy of the Torah (Classic Image/Alamy Stock Photo)

Edward Feld is a Conservative rabbi, writer, and liturgist who has written on Jewish theology, prayer, and the Hebrew Bible. After publishing a volume on the Psalms, he recently produced The Book of Revolutions, an easy-to-read yet scholarly and deeply spiritual commentary on the Pentateuch. Whereas many popular commentaries on the Pentateuch prioritize the well-known narratives in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, this volume focuses on the legal texts predominantly in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, using an academic historical-critical analysis of the texts to trace the development of the Torah over centuries. The word Torah has too often been translated as “law,” with all the negativity implicit in the supposed Pauline dichotomy between law and freedom, letter and spirit. However, Torah means more than law; it is divine instruction intended to help humans live according to God’s will revealed in God’s word. For Christians, the Torah offers a deep insight into who Jesus is as the incarnation of the Word (John 1:14) and the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17).

Christian readers often skip over the legal texts in the Pentateuch, focusing uniquely on the narratives that tell of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. However, the legal texts are the core of the first five books of the Bible. The very heart of the Pentateuch is the book of Leviticus, in which there is very little narrative. In fact, half of the Pentateuch’s 187 chapters are focused on the Sinai revelation of the Torah (Exodus 19 to Numbers 10—fifty-eight chapters of the Pentateuch) and the giving of the Torah again forty years later in the land of Moab (Numbers 25 to Deuteronomy 34, forty chapters). The first section covers the year spent at Sinai, when the Israelites receive instructions for living as the people consecrated by God. The second section covers the last days of the wandering in the wilderness: the people reach the land of Moab and, standing on the banks of the Jordan facing Jericho, receive the Torah again (deutero-nomos in Greek meaning “the law again”). The first generation, who refused to enter the land for fear of the giants who lived there—an expression of their lack of faith—must die in the wilderness. The next generation receives the law again from Moses and enters the land, crossing the Jordan led by Joshua. In these two sections of the Pentateuch, there is little narrative and much law, as well as exhortation to observe it.

Feld focuses on four moments that are revealed when one looks closely at the legal texts, recognizing the major sources that were brought together in order to create the Pentateuch. The oldest legal code is known as the Covenant Code (Exodus 21–23), analyzed in the context of the revolution spearheaded by the prophets in the Northern Kingdom (Israel) in the first half of the eighth century BC. A second code is the one found in Deuteronomy (12–26), implemented during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the second part of the seventh century BC. A third code is the Holiness Code, promulgated by the priests and found in the second part of Leviticus (17–27), developed during and after the exile in the sixth century BC. The fourth moment, an essential one, is the bringing together of various materials to constitute a united work in five books, attributed to Moses. This editorial work was done by the priestly elite in the fifth century BC and the result is the foundation of the Bible collection. Rather than imposing coherence on the final literary product, the editors conserved the diversity and differences of the various layers of law. Feld proposes that within each of these layers a religious-spiritual revolution can be discerned that points to the contribution of the people of Israel to the religious history of all who see in the Pentateuch the foundation of biblical language, teaching, and religious life. The author believes that the insights brought to life by the revolutions “have meaning beyond their time even to our present day, for they constituted a search for a fundamental understanding of the meaning of faith in God and the way of life that faith demands.”

Feld combines a serious academic discipline, typical of the study of the Bible in the university, with a deeply spiritual approach, consonant with the rabbinic tradition.

Feld combines a serious academic discipline, typical of the study of the Bible in the university, with a deeply spiritual approach, consonant with the rabbinic tradition. The weaving together of solid academics and committed religiosity, scholarly hypothesis and lived faith, makes this book a gem among the many volumes devoted to the study of the Pentateuch. And a Christian reader has much to learn. For centuries, Christians saw Jews as little more than blind adherents of a text they did not really understand; according to the polemical expression of Saint Paul, “their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside” (2 Corinthians 3:14). Christian readers had a monopoly on understanding by means of an allegorical exegesis that found prefiguration of Christ everywhere. However, today, many Christian communities have changed their approach, realizing that Jewish understandings of the text have much to offer. For example, an important 2001 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, pointed out:

Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion. Both readings are bound up with the vision of their respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression. Consequently, both are irreducible. On the practical level of exegesis, Christians can, nonetheless, learn much from Jewish exegesis practiced for more than two thousand years, and, in fact, they have learned much in the course of history. For their part, it is to be hoped that Jews themselves can derive profit from Christian exegetical research.

Each chapter of this book uncovers yet another layer of rich meaning in the Torah as Feld explains the successive revolutions that led to Israel’s formulation of the divine teaching. He exposes the seeming contradictions among the legal codes as they develop. However, he points out repeatedly that the dynamic relationship among them at each level is deliberately preserved in the continuing work of editing the text to create a polyvalency and complexity that both challenges and inspires the reader. One luminous example concerns the laws about the Sabbath, the day of rest in biblical time. Feld shows how observation of the Sabbath developed from a singular day of rest in the week into an alternative to the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century. A holy place, the Jerusalem Temple, cedes its importance to holy time, the Sabbath. It was the priestly legislator who made the Sabbath pivotal, not only developing the legislative texts but inserting the creation narrative that underlines the centrality of the Sabbath right at the beginning of Genesis. Feld explains, “Rest, cessation from work, and contemplation can create the possibility of reaching toward the Divine. It is the breathing space that Divinity, God’s self, took after completing the work of creation, and it is our spiritual breath of life. This new understanding of religiosity is the gift of exile.” As Feld acknowledges, it was the great twentieth-century Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel who posited that the Sabbath “is the quintessential expression of Jewish religiosity.” He quotes Heschel’s magnificent description of the Sabbath in God in Search of Man: “The presence of eternity, a moment of majesty, the radiance of joy. The soul is enhanced, time is a delight, and inwardness a supreme reward.” For many Christians who have lost the sense of Sabbath, there is much to learn here.

This book does three things that are helpful and inspiring for the Christian reader. First, it deepens an understanding of an essential part of the scriptures that Jews and Christians share. Using modern academic methods and never shying away from the ongoing scholarly debate, Feld documents the development of the texts until they reach their final and stable form. Second, Feld offers Christians insights into the world of Judaism, referring throughout his book to how rabbis, ancient and modern, struggle with the meaning of a text that is central to Jewish religious identity, belief, and practice. Called as we are to dialogue with Jews, especially in our reading of shared Scripture, this book takes us into the world of Jewish exegesis, theology, and spirituality. Third, the book offers us a profound spirituality, rooted in the biblical text and in the practice and faith of its author. This spirituality radiates prayer and contemplation and brings together faith and reason. Feld concludes the book with the following lines:

The full embodiment of the Torah is always just out of reach. Always there is a new midrash, a new line of interpretation we need to write for our own time so that the paradoxes of Torah may be synthesized for us, here, and now. The spiritual life that its authors uncovered continues to speak to us, and so we implement its institutions and practices in our own time, we offer our own understandings of their meaning. And surely, our efforts, too, will be found lacking and in turn lead to a new rebirth. The life of Torah is an ongoing series of revolutions, an ongoing series of revelations.

The Book of Revolutions
The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings that Birthed the Torah

Edward Feld
Jewish Publication Society
$29.95 | 320 pp.

David Neuhaus, SJ, is the superior of the Jesuit community in the Holy Land.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.