by Rabbi Francis Nataf
Hardcover, 125 pages
From the Introduction:
“We see fewer and fewer serious
attempts to seek the Torah’s evaluation
of new ideas and behavior.... This
is the way one treats antiquities: by
protecting them in musuems, they
lose any relevance to the present. More
important, this is not the way Jews
have treated their Torah throughout
history. From time immemorial, Jews
have taken the risk of misinterpreting
the Torah. They have done so in order
to find guidance, inspiration, and truth
for themselves and their communities.
This, perhaps more than anything else,
has allowed our ancient Torah to be a
living document for the Jewish people.”
About the Author:
Rabbi Francis Nataf is Educational Director of the David
Cardozo Academy and has previously held senior educational positions in
Israel and the United States. Rabbi Nataf was ordained at Yeshiva University and
also holds degrees in Jewish history and international affairs. He has published
numerous articles on Jewish thought and education.
Praise for Redeeming Relevance:
The purpose of this excellent volume is stated clearly by
the author in his introduction: “to return to the profound
originality characteristic of Jewish tradition.” In this,
Rabbi Nataf has eminently succeeded, he is a bearer of the tradition and is yet original. He brings to his
analysis of six critical passages a creativity born of
deep respect for the Biblical text... as well as an acute
awareness of perplexing moral dilemmas. Happily, he is thus relevant even as his insights are redemptive.
This is a book well worth reading – and studying.
–Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Yeshiva University
(I)n the tradition of the Ramban and the Netziv,
Rabbi Nataf fuses reverence for our greatest with an
awareness of their humanity; moreover, he recognizes
that the human element does not compromise the
greatness but, rather, ennobles it.... (T)he serious and
sensitive initiative to cope with the substantive issues as well as with their educational
ramifications deserves the respect of a broad range of readers. Rabbi Nataf’s fresh voice
is one the Torah world will find well worth reading.
–Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtentstein, Rosh haYeshiva, Yeshivat Har Etzion
Unearthing timeless wisdom and applying it to the most contemporary of human issues
and concerns, Rabbi Nataf restores the sense of the powerful continuing relevance of the
text.... All can benefit from his focus on issues of process, choice-making, submission,
devotion, balance between spiritual and material, and multiple models of leadership.
Read this and grow.
–Rabbi Saul J. Berman, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a fresh, creative voice.... He pursues Jewish spiritual renewal with
moral and intellectual honesty. Seeking solutions to difficult problems, he does not
hesitate to slay “sacred cows” along the way. There is no doubting his impact in the
–Prof. Yehuda Gellman, Dept. of Philosophy, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Translating shiurim onto the page presents at least two challenges, the how and the why. A shiur is a living, breathing conversation between teacher and student(s), the personality and persona of everyone in the room meshing together to produce a whole that would seem irreducible to the written word (at least for the good shiurim). Lectures, where the person is reading off a prepared text, are more easily disseminated, as are scholarly analyses of a topic, essays, monographs, and so on.
In that regard, Rabbi Francis Nataf has succeeded admirably at taking the shiurim on Bereshit he has given over many years and venues and putting them in an engaging and readable form. His discussions of major figures in Bereshit - Avraham, the Imahot, Yaakov in contrast to Yishmael and to Esav, Yitshak, Yehudah, Reuven and Yosef - raise useful and worthwhile questions about the text, lead readers through the search for solutions by adducing sources that grant the sought-after insight, and end with practical lessons that bring the theoretical analysis into the real.
As for the why, part of the answer lies in the title. Readers of Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis (Urim, 2006) will, as per the pun, learn how to redeem the relevance of the text as well as be redeemed by it. Operating within a traditional context - the vast majority of sources cited are from the Gemara, rishonim, or acharonim - Rabbi Nataf takes up questions that either were not directly addressed or whose answers he can enrich by relating the stories of old to the new situations the contemporary world presents.
In addition to the first, more explicitly addressed goal of the book, showing readers a middle path between the extremes of hagiography and insufficient respect for our forefathers, Rabbi Nataf's readings also redeem his readers by his self-conscious interest in expanding our religious horizons. Seeing how our Patriarchs and Matriarchs struggled with real-life concerns while operating within many of the same human limitations we face makes them also more reasonably a standard of religious excellence towards which we can require ourselves to strive.
Beyond that, though, works like these -- along with such similar ones as the writings of the late Nechama Leibowitz, and lehavdil bein hahayyim u-vein hahayyim, R. Yoel Bin-Nun, and Dr. Avivah Zornberg, whom Rabbi Nataf mentions in an Afterword that should have been part of the Introduction -- allow careful readers not only to gain from the author's insights, but to be trained by that author in how to create such readings on their own.
R. Nataf's book can serve as a wonderful companion to the study of Bereshit, either to enrich the educator's own presentation or as a secondary source for students to consult, challenge, or expand upon. Instead of loading students with consecutive texts, a mode of study many students find stultifying, Rabbi Nataf offer a model of taking the text in different kinds of chunks, studying a personality or a theme, mining the text of the Torah for more than what appears from a surface, superficial, or lazy reading. The writing is clear and well-presented, enough that a motivated eleventh or twelfth grader could enjoy utilizing the book and gain from it.
The book reads well and quickly, and its focus on Bereshit makes it immediately accessible, as these are stories and figures that while well-known are too often left at the elementary school level of appreciation. Rabbi Nataf's interest in redeeming them will work for anyone who reads his book or uses it as a tool to help students deepen their understanding of, approach to, and interest in the study of Torah.
The Jewish people are accustomed to reading one Torah portion every Shabbat. Perhaps the rabbi expounds upon the text, perhaps we think of what that text means to us. Rarely do we look at any Torah portion in depth. After all, we are reading one parashah a week; there is seemingly no time. Furthermore, we are fearful of misinterpreting the Torah. "Rabbi Francis Nataf, dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, feels that our continuous rereading of the parashah every year impresses meaning upon us. Instead of taking each parashah and mulling it over for weeks, we hear the text cyclically and so receive layers of meaning. Rabbi Nataf also feels that in order to make the Torah live, we must take the risk of misinterpreting. As we hear it every year, we will learn the correct interpretation. In this text, Nataf focuses on six stories from Genesis. Stories of Abraham, the Matriarchs, Ishmael and Israel, Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Judah are examined in light of the protagonists' humanity. We learn and are redeemed in hearing their stories year after year.
Redeeming Relevance is written for laypeople with a good working knowledge of the key figures in Genesis. Rabbi Nataf's thoughts are clear and easy to follow. I would recommend this work for any synagogue library and for academic libraries with collections in Judaica and/ or textual interpretation.
-Rachel M. Minkin
As the title indicates, Rabbi Francis Nataf's Redeeming Relevance seeks to provide meaningful new interpretations relevant to the contemporary cultural context. Nataf believes that recent generations have become fearful of new interpretations to the Torah, abandoning a long tradition of Torah commentary that addresses, explicitly or implicitly, current issues. The 6 essays in this work use a combination of traditional commentaries and literary awareness to give a reverential yet human depiction of the Biblical characters, and then conclude with a homiletical lesson. These are serious yet accessible essays with thoughtful and timely messages. The book includes a short yet telling introductory letter from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, praising Nataf for avoiding the excesses of "eye-level Tanakh study" and "fus[ing] reverence for our greatest with awareness of their humanity."
-Rabbi Shlomo Brody
Tradition Journal online