By: Rabbi Shnayor Z. Burton (New York, NY, 2020)
Reviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Although I usually only review books written in English, I could not resist writing about Rabbi Burton’s tour de force. This original, yet well-sourced book, is actually written in Hebrew and comprises twelve essays, most of which are related to the holidays and other important days on the Jewish Calendar. Rabbi Burton draws on his mastery of the Bible and the vast corpus of rabbinic literature to offer the reader sophisticated, more nuanced, takes on the deeper meanings of these holidays. The flowery rabbinic prose that Rabbi Burton employs shows that his work is primarily intended for the Torah Scholar, but the layman can nonetheless also appreciate some of the big ideas which he presents us. I personally enjoyed his use of the Hebrew language for this monumental work, but I also hope that it will be translated into English to make it more accessible to a wider audience.
Rabbi Burton’s opening essay is one of the longest in the book and discusses something that has baffled Bible scholars for a very long time: Why does the Torah (Pentateuch) place such an emphasis on the laws governing ritual sacrifices, while the Prophets seem to eschew sacrifices as a way of serving God altogether? It seems almost as if the Prophets were speaking about a different religion than the Torah spoke about. Some Bible Critics have even used this question to audaciously posit that the Torah was written after the Prophets! Rabbi Burton masterfully reconciles these two perspectives by showing how they reflect two different ways to approach God.
The Prophets approached Him from the perspective of those to whom He has revealed Himself. They conceive God as immanent and understandable, as they have received His word through prophecy. For this reason, the Prophets constantly exhort the Jewish People to “know God” while the Torah offers no such exhortation. Under such conditions, the prophets felt it was inappropriate to focus on ritual sacrifices, which present God as a far-off Deity who must be worshipped (or even appeased) through tributes. The Torah, on the other hand, reflects Moses’ perspective of a totally transcendent God whom we cannot understand at all. Moses asked God to behold God, but God refused his request, famously saying, “… for no man can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
If we cannot understand Him, then our only way of relating to Him is through rituals like sacrifice. Hence, the Torah makes that aspect into a “big deal.” While Rabbi Burton only alludes to this, the dichotomy of God’s immanence versus His transcendence is really the center-piece of many discussions, such as how to understand the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum and the related debate over whether Judaism ought to be classified as classical monotheism or monist/pantheist.
The next two essays tackle the age-old theodicy that struggles to understand the existence of evil. These essays develop the ideas behind the Sabbath, as Rabbi Burton beautifully demonstrates that evil is merely illusory and stems from an incorrect/incomplete perception of reality. When one looks at God’s creation in a limited way that is constrained by personal opinions or biases, then some parts of that world will appear to be “evil.” But, when everything is put in proper perspective and one can see the big picture, one will realize that God only provides the world with good.
Rabbi Burton shows how Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge muddied the waters and disallowed them from “seeing” the world as it truly was. It was that sin that introduced the misperception of evil to man. Rabbi Burton explains that the Sabbath is the day that represents our faith that God is totally good and only provides the world with good.
The motif of “seeing” comes up again in Rabbi Burton’s essay for Passover, where he contrasts the underlying concept of bread—representative of the self-reliant societies of Sodom/Egypt, who do not require rainfall from Above to thrive—with the more demanding model represented by Matzah (unleavened bread), by which one must appeal to God in order for his needs to be met. Our patriarch Abraham typifies this latter approach, while his nephew Lot was caught in the crossfires where these two approaches meet.
In his essay on Sefiras HaOmer and Shavuos, Rabbi Burton teaches how the simple act of “counting” helps a person escape the hustle and bustle of life and appreciate the importance of every passing day. In his essay on Purim, the author contrasts Ezra’s efforts to preserve Lashon HaKodesh (which represents a sort of particularistic perspective that only recognizes the sublimity of one, divine language) with Mordechai’s attempts to expand the Jews’ linguistic horizons to include all seventy languages (a more universalistic perspective). Ezra thus minimized one’s options for prayer, while Mordechai attempted to maximize the forms of human expression before God.
All in all, every one of the essays in Rabbi Burton’s new work is chockfull of original insights and mature takes on the issues he discusses. Rabbi Burton offers careful readings of the sources to find meaning and depth in seemingly indecipherable or unremarkable passages of the Bible and Midrashim. He has a knack for connecting ideas that one would have never considered related, and showing how those connections penetrate the very essence of the concepts he discusses.
I hope my fawning sampling of Rabbi Burton’s ideas will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of his Sefer. Rabbi Shnayor Burton is a Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshiva Beis Hillel in Flatbush, a popular podcaster (check out “The Great Sources with Rabbi Shnayor Burton” and “The Depths of Chumash with Rabbi Shnayor Burton”), and a third-place winner in the 2019 International Bible Contest. He is the acclaimed author of Oros Yaakov, a similarly dazzling work of essays on the patriarchal narratives in Genesis. He is renowned for proffering well-articulated arguments and producing work that is just utterly fascinating. His newest work is truly one of the greatest contemporary contributions to Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Thought