In his 1971 sermon on Parshat Bereishit, Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l engaged with a perennial, pressing question: how might we bring ourselves to Bereishit again? With Simhat Torah come and gone, we find ourselves each year gazing anew at the beginning of the Torah; perhaps renewed by the High Holiday cycle, motivated to commit ourselves to a year of being “studying Jews,” in Lamm’s words. And yet, the question looms: how can we look at Bereishit with new eyes? This time around, how can we cultivate a stance towards Torah study that feels authentic, relevant, and meaningful?
The challenge of finding a way to read Torah that energizes is hardly unique to Bereishit, nor has it fizzled since 1971. In fact, a series of challenges face veteran readers who have traveled through the cycle many times over. For one, as Rabbi Lamm warns, the closer the Torah feels, the greater the threat of over-familiarity. Too much closeness can translate into a lack of reverence for the Torah, or a sense of loss of the sacred. Humility before the text may be in scarce supply. Even more, you may begin to feel like you already know what the Torah has to say. As one of my high school students recently quipped: “I have read Bereishit so many times, and it always says the same thing!” Intriguing or puzzling verses and chapters may fail to surprise readers or elicit inquiry, and ready-made conclusions will obscure an awareness of the Torah’s depth.
I have long noticed the closeness-distance paradox among students of all ages. As modern readers, especially in the observant/ day school community, we work dutifully to bridge the gaping chasm between the world of the Torah and our own. On a basic level, for example, we encounter phenomena in nearly every chapter that are alien to our experience, but we work hard to adapt and nevertheless find ways to link biblical reality to our own. At a certain point, we grow comfortable with the idea that God speaks to people in everyday life. And yet, when we manage to successfully forge a sturdy bridge we may find that we have closed the gap too far. A paradoxical byproduct of reading the Torah as near, dear, and comfortable is the elimination of a vital, critical space between ourselves and the text, the kind of space that allows us to be able to see the text again, apart from what we expect it to say. One of our jobs, then, as we progress as readers of Torah is to find the means to craft the right amount of distance so that we can engage again in interpretation, and see the text with new eyes. When the Torah feels seamlessly knowable, we need to make it ‘strange’ again so that we may truly see it.
There is, of course, a danger inherent in such work. If we create too much distance, the Torah may cease to speak to us, and we may find ourselves in a posture of learning about the text, but no longer learning from the text (James Kugel, How to Read the Bible p. 666). How can we honor the text without getting lost in it? Likewise, can we find a way to read where our individual instincts as readers are useful guides, but don’t overwhelm the text?
Enter Rabbi David Fohrman’s new book, Genesis: A Parsha Companion. Like in his popular Aleph Beta videos, Fohrman’s book presents his readers with a pathway to Tanakh study that puts the text at the center and suggests that each reader can reach powerful, meaningful conclusions about what the text is trying to say. In the introduction, Fohrman shares that his early years of Torah study left him feeling lost in a maze of commentary (and supercommentary), without the clarity to discover what the text actually meant, or was trying to teach him. When he began to adopt “basic reading” strategies and declutter his mind from the pull of commentary, he was blown away by the power of what he was able to find inside the text. Most significantly, he was overcome by a deep love for the Torah. Fohrman recalls,
If I just sat down and read it, the text would invariably leave me with something unexpectedly profound, and along the way, with a wink and a nod, it would find a way to remind me that this was no ordinary book. Its layers of meaning would dazzle me.
In a sense, this book is Fohrman’s effort to bring more people into a loving relationship with Torah. His strategy is to show them how he reads the text, to make that way of reading explicit and clear, and in so doing, provide others with the opportunity to discover the joy, love, and meaning that he has found in Tanakh study.
Without calling it as such, Fohrman’s “basic reading comprehension” is a streamlined version of the literary approach to Tanakh study. In each Genesis chapter, he identifies and follows “clues” in the text, such as chiastic structures, repeating words, and foreshadowing in order to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Noticing and analyzing the Bible’s linguistic patterns can yield critical insight into the messages of the biblical narrative. In other words, the “how” of the stories is intimately connected to “what” they are trying to say. Fohrman is not the first to adopt a literary approach to reading Tanakh. Biblical scholars such as Robert Alter, Adele Berlin, and James Kugel have written extensively about the stylistic techniques of the Bible. In the last 50 years, prominent Torah teachers such as Rabbi David Silber and Rabbi Menachem Leibtag have popularized this method, spreading it to countless students and teachers. What sets Fohrman’s work and teaching apart, perhaps, is in his packaging: clear, direct, engaging, and modeling the step-by-step approach that he takes.
One of the advantages of the literary approach is the central position the text occupies in front of the reader. Unmediated by commentaries, Fohrman draws his readers’ attention to the artistry — the wonder, even — of the text itself. His careful eye picks up on biblical nuance and word play, exposing the biblical treasures hidden in plain sight. It can be revelatory to (re-)read biblical narratives through Fohrman’s guidance; previously overlooked words or phrases suddenly emerge as the keys that unlock a deeper meaning or direction in the narrative. A few of his readings are breathtaking. And you may ask yourself: how did I miss that before?
More often than not, Fohrman’s interpretations run counter to the familiar ways of understanding a story, a biblical character, or a concept. This should not surprise. In line with the joy he describes in discovering the text “on his own,” Fohrman seems to relish in sharing these discoveries with others and helping us to see possibilities in the text that we never saw before. A memorable example shows up in Parshat Toldot. Fohrman argues that Yakov never intended to pretend to be Esav; the ruse was an in-the-moment accident when he showed up in the room. Instead, Rivkah had encouraged her younger son to act more like an Esav: to be assertive, to claim what he wanted, etc. She never attempted to deceive Yitzhak or to cajole Yakov in kind. Whether or not you find Fohrman’s literary trail convincing, the conclusion’s dramatic unconventionality forces the reader to re-think assumptions and read the text again with curiosity. In other words, his unusual readings unseat the readers’ expectations about the text and may create momentum for readers when they approach other stories as well. He encourages readers to say to themselves, “let me read carefully and try my best to forget what I have been taught/ heard in the past…”
In his broader work with Aleph Beta, Rabbi Fohrman’s major contribution to online learning is his ability to create a sense of intimate presence with his students without physical proximity. In his videos, Fohrman never shows his face but narrates lessons while the viewer watches animated words and images on the screen. He invites students to follow his literary method – and not just listen to his conclusions– through the visual display of text, highlighted words, and conceptual development. But he never leaves the viewer without his voice as the anchor; he is always the steady guide. This unique educational posture of distant presence is strikingly similar in his book as well. Remarkably, even without images, cartoon characters, or appealing graphics, Fohrman succeeds at having the reader feel engaged, seen, and guided along as they read. For one, Fohrman adopts the same conversational, casual tone in the book, offering analogies and turns of phrase from everyday life as well as direct questions to the reader (e.g., “What do YOU think?”).
Furthermore, the visual format of the book is user-friendly: color-coded passages, bold font, and frequent section headings. At times, Fohrman invites the reader into a havruta of sorts, resisting the presumed passivity of the learner who reads a static book. For example, in Parshat Lech Lecha, in discussing the Bible’s use of the literary device of chiasms in order to encode layers of meaning in the narrative, Fohrman encourages his reader to “break out a package of magic markers and use them to highlight the pairs you find… I’ll meet you in the next section and we’ll compare notes” (35). Fohrman pokes fun at his own suggestion of coloring in a book, but the intention is clear: Fohrman is reaching out, extending his arm to the reader through the page.
Clearing the deck of commentators allows Fohrman to maximize exposure to the text itself, inviting readers to form fresh, new judgements. And yet, despite his relative independence from commentary, Fohrman recognizes and acknowledges that they share the same goal: a close-reading of verses, attentiveness to the linguistic features of the text, and pursuit of the Bible’s message. In fact, throughout the book, Fohrman draws from Midrash with surprising regularity. For a teacher who advocates a fresh look at the biblical verses, Midrash shows up quite often! Most of the time, Fohrman uses Midrash as a springboard for his own readings. For example, in Parshat Vayishlach, Fohrman bases his analysis on a particular midrash and utilizes a parallel drawn by the Midrash to notice more parallels and connections between the stories in question. In this instance and others, drawing from Midrash allows Fohrman to deepen his own instincts as a reader, and in the process, to position his approach within a traditional frame. At times, however, Fohrman incorporates Midrash into his essays at face value, treating the Midrash no differently than he does the verses themselves. Read this way, Fohrman concretizes or materializes the extra-biblical traditions, flattening their capacity to serve as a tool for further investigation of the verses.
Fohrman’s book will draw you in and perhaps inspire with its unusual, text-rich offerings. If you are a devotee of his videos, the book will feel like a non-digital version of Fohrman’s Torah insights (and indeed, nearly all the material in the book appears on the Aleph Beta website). And yet, despite all of the illustrative examples that the book has to offer, the book does not prepare you to apply Fohrman’s method on your own. Fohrman explicitly involves the reader in his writing, but the effect of the essays is closer to a performance than a classroom lesson. You may be wowed, but you will not walk away with the skills or the tools for application. In the introduction, Fohrman shares his hope that readers might accept his conclusions or draw their own from the literary trail he uncovers. But the packaging of his message is so neat — no loose ends in sight– that the reader is squeezed out of the opportunity to generate or even consider alternative possibilities. All told, you will be in solid hands as you read from parshah to parshah. And you will certainly look at Bereishit with new eyes.