NCSY Director of Education Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin speaks with one of the most innovative and dynamic personalities in the world of Tanach study. An internationally renowned lecturer on Biblical themes and the principal educator at Aleph Beta—an initiative to bring Torah to life through engaging videos—Rabbi David Fohrman has served as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, and as a lead writer and editor for ArtScroll’s Talmud translation project. Rabbi Fohrman has also served as
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin: Can you describe your approach to Tanach?
Rabbi David Fohrman: Contemporary Biblical commentary comes in three different varieties, and while my approach doesn’t fit neatly into any of them, it does include elements of all three.
The first type of Biblical commentary is “critical academic scholarship.” My approach wouldn’t be considered academic for two reasons. First, I write for a lay audience as much as for a scholarly one. Second, I seek to explore how we’re meant to relate to these texts, how they should inform our lives, and what spiritual meaning the Torah wants us to derive from them. Academic writing is typically silent on those questions.
At the other end of the spectrum lies English-language commentary that focuses more directly on questions related to inspiration and meaning. That kind of Biblical commentary tends to offer nuggets of inspiration for the benefit of the reader but does not rigorously examine the Biblical text.
None of these approaches fully describes my methodology. I would explain my approach as an attempt to understand the depth of
RDB: How would you respond to those who might criticize you and say, “Why don’t you just build off the edifices that have already been constructed by Rashi, the Ramban, the Seforno and all the other Rishonim in the standard Mikraot Gedolot?”
RDF: We have conditioned ourselves to believe that to learn
When it comes to Chumash, we are not used to thinking deeply about the language of the text itself. Imagine if a young yeshivah student said, “I’m not going to try to learn the
When learning Gemara, we require students to engage in some kind of critical reading; there’s a certain paradigm of how to approach the Gemara. With
There’s a responsibility for every generation to struggle with the text and learn its truths. And all of the Rishonim understood that.
RDB: Is this kind of learning considered revolutionary?
RDF: The kind of learning I’m doing is not really new. It’s actually very close to the underlying methodology of Midrash. If you use the tools that I use, such as inter-textual relationships—seeing how one text seems to relate to another text somewhere else in Tanach—you will often arrive at the same conclusions as Midrash. And you can start either way. Sometimes I start with the text and struggle with it; then I open up a Midrash Rabbah and feel like laughing—the answers are right there in the Midrash. Other times I do the inverse—I start with the Midrash and it seems odd, but when I review the text, it suddenly becomes clear.
RDB: Can you explain how you arrived at this kind of unique strategy in approaching
RDF: Back in our small shul in Berkeley, California, Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz used elements of this methodology. As an eleven-year-old kid, I was mesmerized when I listened to his sermons.
When I moved to the East Coast, I attended Yeshivas Ner Yisroel for high
Over time, however, I slowly began to assemble an arsenal of tools, and that made all the difference in the world. I took bits and pieces from different people. For example, I was in Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz’s shiur in Ner Yisroel. He would argue that there are themes that make their way through a
I applied this approach to Chumash. For example, you can take fourteen stories in Chumash, the Eitz Hada’at, the Eigel, the Brit bein Habesarim—events that seem disparate. But if you read patiently and carefully, attuned to the story beneath the surface, you will discover that they all have similar underlying themes.
Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg,
There seems to be an assumption in the Midrash that the Torah has a certain interconnectivity: “Hafoch bah
How could a finite text offer infinite wisdom? We live in an era where we actually know the answer to that question. When the Internet first came about, it was referred to as the “information superhighway.” Nobody calls it that anymore, because it’s too linear a term; instead, the Internet became known as the “World Wide Web.” You can start anywhere, and in a web-like
Thousands of years before the Internet—before electricity even existed—there was something much more sophisticated than the Internet. The Torah is an interconnected web of text with nearly infinite information potential that creates startling three-dimensional renditions of ideas. Midrash does exactly this. But over time, somehow the methodology behind it was lost. When Chazal wrote the Midrash, they were not overt about the methodology, but it’s important to know that there was a methodology there.
RDB: Were any of your influences from non-Jewish books or authors?
RDF: While going for my master’s degree in history, I was exposed to
But the type of methodology that the Torah uses is particular to the Torah. In other words, it doesn’t exist in any other text. It’s not like you can open up Mark Twain or Shakespeare and find inter-textuality, at least not the way the Torah uses it. For example, the Atbash structure [a device whereby the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are substituted with their counterparts from the opposite end of the alphabet—alef = tav and
RDB: Are there any Rishonim or Acharonim that you are reluctant to argue with?
RDF: There is an accepted understanding in Gemara, a
When it comes to Chumash, we are not used to thinking deeply about the language of the text itself.
RDB: Why is the paradigm for Chumash so different from the paradigm for Gemara?
RDF: I suspect that the difference in
When it comes to Chumash, we are not seeking to derive
Whenever you read a book, you have to understand the genre. If you are reading a chemistry textbook but think you’re reading a poetry textbook, you’re going to ask the wrong questions about it. What genre is the Torah? Is it a history book? It has too many
The Book actually comes from its name: Torah. It’s a book of
RDF: Instead of writing 1,000 pages of War and Peace, Tolstoy could have summarized his life philosophy in a couple of paragraphs. He could have said, “Here are the ethical truths that I believe one should live by . . .” Why didn’t he do that? Because no one would listen! You have to grapple with a story and struggle with it in order to internalize it. When you identify with the characters and what they go through, those ethical truths become a part of you. That’s what great literature is—learning ethical truths through stories.
Torah contains an element of literature. There’s a responsibility for every generation to struggle with the text and learn its truths. And all of the Rishonim understood that. So it’s not about whether or not we may argue with a commentator from an earlier generation. It’s about understanding how Chazal interpreted the text, but also about struggling to understand the basic text on our own.
RDB: What questions should we be teaching our children to ask when they study Chumash?
RDF: A good rule of thumb when it comes to questions is that you should be asking more “internal” questions and less “external” questions. An external question is one that comes from outside the text. An example would be if you’re teaching Sefer Yonah and a student raises his hand and says, “I don’t understand how Yonah was able to survive in a fish for three days; that’s impossible . . . ” That’s not a very interesting question; it’s an external question.
I’m not saying it’s not important to address the question. The student might be asking because he’s skeptical about miracles. While a discussion about miracles could be great, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a discussion about Sefer Yonah. On the other hand, if you’re reading that God came to Yonah and told him to go down to Nineveh, and in the next
Such questions are gold because one of the most empowering ideas we can tell a skeptical child is that not only are questions okay but questions are the only way you learn Torah! The Torah is actually counting on you to question in order to explore the deeper meaning of the text.
RDB: How would you advise someone who wants to connect to Chumash; where should he or she start?
RDF: Since the Torah is a web, you can start anywhere—start with whatever fascinates you and move from there. Having said that, I would suggest starting at the beginning with the very first two
If the Torah is a guidebook, then the reason it’s recounting the story of Creation is not to explain the science behind it but rather to tell us what happened during Creation, from the perspective of what we need to know to guide our lives. You would expect the beginning of such a guidebook to touch upon some of the existential questions that are at the very center of what it means to be a human being: How do I orient myself in the universe? How do I develop a relationship with God and with other humans? What does it mean to be a human being? There is a real opportunity to touch on these fundamental issues right there at the very beginning.
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin is the NCSY director of education and a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Board. Photo: Amir Levy/Mishpacha Magazine.