Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: "Echoes of Eden" by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

In many ways, the book of Genesis is one of the most esoteric books of the Bible. On the surface, Genesis appears to be a simple narrative of the origins of the Jewish people, beginning with the creation of the world until the beginning of the Egyptian exile. However, a careful reader will quickly recognize that a great deal of explanation is needed to make sense of much of the narrative. This is true not only for the early chapters of Genesis, which deal with obviously difficult topics (such as the creation of the universe, the original sin, Noah and the flood, etc.) but also for the later narratives about the Patriarchs and their families. Stories that, at first glance, appear to be quite simple, such as the tales of sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau or Joseph and his elder brothers, quickly become far more complex, even incomprehensible, when read with a more careful eye.

In his recent book, Echoes of Eden, Rabbi Ari D. Kahn attempts to shed light on many of these difficult topics, through a series of essays working through the entire book of Genesis. Towards this purpose, Rabbi Kahn marshals a broad host of traditional commentaries and midrashic sources (including a number of important kabalistic works), many of which are not well known. Indeed, much of the value of Rabbi Kahn’s work is precisely in the sources that he quotes. Even experienced scholars will find a number of gems here that they were unaware of previously. In addition, Rabbi Kahn provides a number of valuable original insights. I was particularly impressed by an insight that Rabbi Kahn gives over from his teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the essay, “The Universal and the Particular.” Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that, in Genesis 22:5, when Abraham and Isaac separate from the two young men accompanying them to complete their journey to the “binding of Isaac”, Abraham tells the young men that he and Isaac would “go yonder and worship and return to you.” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that these last words indicate that the religious experience would not be complete until Abraham returned and shared his experience with others. As Rabbi Kahn goes on to explain, this is an important aspect of all Jewish spirituality, that while we may need to separate ourselves from others at times to achieve spiritual heights, we must ultimately bring these experiences back with us to those we “left behind”. On a cosmic scale, this is the role of the Jewish people relative to the world as a whole.

Unfortunately, however, despite these virtues, the book suffers from a number of major flaws that severely undermine its usefulness, especially for readers who are not equipped to study the original sources that Rabbi Kahn cites. First of all, it should be noted that many of the sources that he quotes in his footnotes are quoted in the original Hebrew without translation. This is a major loss for those readers who are not literate in Hebrew. However, a far more serious problem is that the book’s presentation of these sources is often inaccurate and misleading. Many of the translations are substantively erroneous, frequently in matters directly relevant to the discussion. Sources are often cited as stating or supporting ideas that are not to be found in the original material. In some cases this appears to have been the result of a misunderstanding of the material, itself a serious problem. However, in most cases, it seems as if the author is unjustifiably reading his own original ideas into the sources. While, in themselves, many of these insights may be legitimate, the attempt to give them a false pedigree is very problematic. Errors of this sort abound throughout the book, in some cases the errors are minor (but irritatingly elementary - as in his commentary on Genesis 27:1 that Isaac enjoyed the aroma of the meal that Jacob had brought to him, when the verse states that he smelled Jacob’s garments!), and in other cases the errors are very substantial, fundamentally undermining the validity of the entire essay.

Even when the author’s presentation of a source is correct in substance, the tone of his presentation may be very discordant with the intent of the original source. As an example, the author quotes, in Hebrew, a commentary of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (d. 1893) that states that because Abraham was so deeply immersed in theological and philosophical thought, his father was the one who initially led the family in their travels. In English, the author gives Rabbi Berlin’s commentary a rather different tone, saying that Abraham “was a luftmensch – his head was in the clouds”, which has a rather derogatory tone that is completely absent from the original commentary.

A related problem is the author’s tendency to unjustifiably jump to conclusions that are unsupported by the sources and, in many cases, to then present these conclusions as settled fact. For example, in his essay on the wife of Noah, “Na’amah”, he asserts early on that “Noah’s wife could only be Na’amah [the sister of Tubal-cain].” Yet the midrash explicitly states that this was a matter of debate and that the Rabbis believed the wife of Noah to have been a different woman with the same name. Later, when the author quotes this very midrash, it is erroneously translated to say that the rabbis agreed with the identification of the sister of Tubal-cain with the wife of Noah and the debate was only about her moral character.

In other cases, the author takes what would otherwise be a valid insight and carries it too far. Thus, the author asserts that, although Abraham erected numerous altars, “he never brought an offering upon them.” He bases this assertion on the fact that, in several locations, when Scripture tells us that Abraham erected an altar, it does not mention any offerings (with the exception of the binding of Isaac). While this is a valid textual insight (not restricted to Abraham), it does not support the author’s conclusion, which he presents as self-evident. On the contrary, the commentaries, quite reasonably, take it for granted that Abraham offered sacrifices upon these altars (that is what altars are for, after all). Later in the same essay, the author actually quotes a commentary by Nachmanides that explicitly contradicts this assertion, but the quote is not translated into English.

Finally, I felt that many of the essays were written in a confusing manner, without a clear presentation from the beginning to the conclusion. The essays often feel unfocused and meandering, as if the author got sidetracked from his initial point and went off on a tangent and never quite found his way back. Many of the essays suffer from poorly presented reasoning, as if important steps were omitted or insufficiently stressed, so that the reader is unsure how he got from one point to the next. Many of the essays seem rather pointless, where a great amount of effort is expended to bring us to an anticlimactic conclusion that is not particularly interesting or meaningful. For example, in the essay, “Clothes Make the Man”,  the author goes on for twelve pages, citing a number of interesting sources, but comes to no meaningful conclusion except that “clothing” symbolizes sin. And what, exactly, are we supposed to do with that?

I suspect that most of the problems with this book are due to the essays being based upon oral lectures that Rabbi Kahn delivered to different audiences over a few years. The dynamic nature of such, often partially extemporaneous, oral lectures generally cannot be simply transcribed into print. Such material needs to be very carefully worked over (and, often, completely rewritten), by the author himself with the help of competent proofreaders. The failure to do this can cause even a highly competent scholar to appear incompetent.

While Echoes of Eden has some valuable insights, I cannot recommend it to anyone who is not able and ready to work through the essays critically and to research all of the sources that are quoted. The reader cannot simply rely on the author’s presentation of the sources as reliable. It is my hope that future volumes of this work will be handled more carefully (as well as, hopefully, a revised edition of this first volume), as I believe that Rabbi Kahn has a great deal to offer.

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