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Reviewed! The Ethics of Genesis

A Book Equipping You to Defend G-d and Our Patriarchs

The Ethics of Genesis by Rabbi Dr. Abba Engelberg. Kodesh Press, New York, 313 pp.

Reviewed by Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq.

The Ethics of Genesis is available here

Most of us studied the first book of the Bible when we were little children, and are not equipped as adults to respond to the major challenges to our faith in a just and merciful G-d raised by sophisticated adults, most notably, allegations raised in response to a relatively recent movie about Noah, eliciting observations that G-d was allegedly a mass murderer in killing off almost everyone in a flood, as well as other innocents in other areas of the Bible, and Abraham was a hypocritical father and human being by opposing human sacrifice and then preparing to sacrifice his innocent son without even an argument like the arguments he made on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom.

This book responds to these questions and many others, often with a variety of answers and charts.

Sometimes the book responds to questions that may not be quite as troubling, such as why Joseph didn’t reveal his good fortune – and even his survival — to his father earlier, without causing so many heart-stopping delays and demands that could have caused a lesser man’s heart to burst with heartache and fear.

The book points out, with a chart, that an average of one major and troubling lie was uttered by one of our patriarchs per parsha, and the author analyzes each one critically, without whitewashing them. Virtually all can be rationalized, though the author concedes that an argument can be made against some of the rationalizations, and he sets forth some of these arguments as well.

Some of the most seemingly outrageous lies uttered by our patriarchs fill a chart on lies by the patriarchs and justifications for them. There is a related chart on sources for laws prohibiting lying, and the meaning of those sources according to the Rambam. Still another chart deals with Biblical verses on affirmatively loving the truth.

One of the most challenging questions posed is whether there are fundamental differences between divine justice and human justice.

The book also does a lot more than explain how behavior that may seem unethical on the surface may be ethical and laudatory.

The book teaches lessons of all kinds, and provides facts and calculations that may not have been thought of before by many if not most readers.

For example, the lesson of Rebecca at the well, known to most people, is that she cared about animals as well as human beings, but there is another lesson in her behavior going to the subject of hygiene. Eliezer tested Rebecca by not completing drinking from the pitcher of water she gave him to drink. If Rebecca would then take the pitcher home and allow her family to drink the remaining water from it, she would show herself to be careless and unhygienic, since the stranger could be carrying a disease, which could be spread by the saliva left on the pitcher. Pouring out the water in front of Eliezer could embarrass him in case he would suspect the reason for her doing so. Giving the leftover water to the camels showed that Rebecca was considerate enough not to choose the demeaning option, but intelligent and efficient enough to choose the optimal option. It is a lesson that many kiddush reciters in every generation would do well to learn, though another solution for those who don’t have camels around their table is to pour out some wine first and drink it immediately from another cup.

Jacob’s work ethic for Laban can justify Jacob’s ruse to get just payment retroactively, and provides an opportunity for the creation of a whole Appendix to the book (among numerous other appendices)  dealing with the sensitive issue of the optimal relationship between Torah study and mundane work; whether there is a general prohibition against people of average intelligence devoting themselves indefinitely exclusively to Torah study, even if independently wealthy.

The principle of LIFO, ‘last in, first out,’ can justify Jacob’s claim to the birthright.

There is an eloquent discussion as to why the Golden Rule in the Talmud is formulated in a negative fashion, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.”

There is a brilliant discussion of why loving one’s neighbor as oneself may not necessarily work for everyone. Some people don’t love themselves enough, and now more than ever we see how many self-hating Jews fill our Jewish social halls and voting booths. So, reports the author of this book, Ben Azai comes along and teaches that no matter what you may think of yourself, remember that everyone is created in the image of G-d and as such must be loved and respected.

The book provides justifications for rituals in general, citing Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits who compared them to war games, in this case training people in self-control for use in interactions with fellow human beings.

Other challenging topics dealt with in this book include reward and punishment, and attitudes toward beauty.

As far as attitudes toward tradition, it should be noted that the sources are a wide variety of traditional Jewish sources and the book is written from an Orthodox perspective.

Some readers may feel that the book may go too far in citing midrashim that seem to veer away from the approach to rationalize the activities of the patriarchs. One example was a combination of midrashim establishing that one important woman lived to the ripe old age of 1,500, eclipsing Methusaleh by more than a half of HIS lifetime! The author himself seems to anticipate possible objections to reliance on or citations of midrashim, and preemptively responds that the Midrashic explanations are used “not as much to reconcile the problematic texts as…. to provide a glimpse of the weltanschauung of the sages, which can often provide valuable insights in addressing modern problems.”

There is a section on source material, and a separate section on the authors of the sources themselves, with such tidbits of information as which Tosafist was taught by a daughter of Rashi, and a follow up to the famous epitaph of the Rambam, “from Moshe (Rabenu) until Moshe (Maimonides), there was none like Moshe.” The tombstone of the Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles, states “from Moshe (ben Maimon) until Moshe (Isserles), there was none like Moshe.” One might say that from the time Genesis was written until the time The Ethics of Genesis was written, there has been no book quite like this one!

Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq. is the author of The Maverick Rabbi about Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein and the editor of the augmented edition of the biography of Harry Fischel.

The Ethics of Genesis is available here


The Ethics of Genesis by Rabbi Dr. Abba Engelberg

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