Title: Genesis: A Torah for All Nations
By Jeffrey M. Jaffe
Gefen Publishing House, 240 pages
As the annual Torah-reading cycle renews itself, the familiar stories of Sefer Bereishit have returned. And with them is the arrival of a new volume that takes a fresh perspective on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, seeking to use classical rabbinic commentary to develop a set of universal moral and ethical themes that is addressed to all of mankind.
Jaffe begins with Rashi’s opening question to Genesis: Why did the Torah need to begin with these stories? More specifically, he zeroes in on the narratives that take place before Abraham arrives on the scene and is chosen to start a family that would grow into the Jewish nation. Jaffe concludes that the Torah is teaching the Noahide Laws to all of humanity through the stories of Creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel.
The book is organized into 42 short chapters, each deriving a specific lesson. There are philosophical insights on the nature of G-d, man, the soul, the afterlife, and reward and punishment. There are essays on human morality, from individual behaviors such as marriage, modesty and procreation, to larger societal ethics such as legal systems, global citizenship, environmental responsibilities, and the notion of progress.
Jaffe uses the framework of the Noahide Laws to organize his themes, citing a Talmudic derasha (Sanhedrin 56b) that derives those laws from a single verse in the Garden of Eden story. In light of this, the term “Noahide Laws” is really a misnomer because the laws were given to Adam and Eve. That derasha sets up the book’s main thesis, which is that the stories in these eleven chapters illustrate by example how all of humanity should live and organize their societies. By the end of these vignettes, with the stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, the Torah is demonstrating the tragic consequences resulting from the failure of mankind to follow these universal morals and ethics.
Because the intent is for each chapter to stand on its own and enable quick reading, a few sections stand out for slightly more in-depth analysis. Examples include the author’s metaphorical analysis of the Garden of Eden story (similar to the Rambam’s approach in Moreh Nevuchim) and a chapter that connects the character of Abel to Megillat Kohelet and reads the megillah as an extended commentary to the Cain/Abel story. Even more extended discussions are left for a diverse section of seven appendices. Some of these are quite detailed and cover such topics as: gender roles in Judaism, reward and punishment, and the role of non-Jews in the Redemption (and the State of Israel’s status).
This book accomplishes its goal. Readers with a background in classical commentaries will feel at home, as most of the essays draw upon familiar sources. However, the book can also easily be read by someone without that foundation, as the author clearly explains the concepts and applies them to a universal audience (There is also a helpful glossary). The author is also comfortable with modern approaches to the biblical text and sprinkles in scientific references including the big bang theory, genetics and psychology. All of these insights, from ancient to modern, are blended by the author to deliver a message that is timely and universal.