Title: “Scandals” in the Bible
By Jessie Fishbein
This is the second book by author Jessie Fischbein, a Tanach teacher from Far Rockaway, NY, popular lecturer, and author of the book Infertility in the Bible. In this book, she offers an account of various “scandalous” episodes that occur or could/should have occurred in the biblical narrative. In addition to exploring the Torah, she invites the reader to broaden the scope of investigation to the entire Tanach, through the accounts of the stories of Amnon and Tamar and the particular prophecies at the beginning of Hoshea.
Let there be no mistake: the “scandals” in question in this book are all sexually related. The author correctly observes that orthodox education will often ignore these difficult passages, which is mostly legitimate for the youngest – I have experienced this myself, the most striking for me being the skipping of chapter 38 of Genesis (Judah and Tamar) and then the complete neglect of studying it during the rest of my schooling. Paradoxically, she herself does not make explicit in her title the type of scandals that she will deal with.
Each chapter is dedicated to a biblical event, for which the author proposes a reminder of the facts, backed up by the texts, pointing out the troubling passages. Without being overly detailed or thorough, she shares with the reader her questions, sometimes the beginnings of answers, and what the commentators have to say about them, from the Tanaim of the Talmud to the most recent ones such as Dr. Yael Ziegler, by way of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Abravanel or Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, thereby demonstrating a wide-ranging scholarly knowledge.
The style of the book, occasionally abrupt, gives the impression that the book was written in the form of the transcription of a (scholarly!) discussion that the author would have with the reader. You can feel this especially through the use of the first person, the abundant punctuation in “!!” and “??!” or the little confidences dropped in here and there. This contrasts with the often impersonal, if not cold, tone of books or articles dedicated to Bible study, with its pros (warmth, closeness to the author) and cons (a certain familiarity that is sometimes a little excessive).
In terms of content, one will appreciate the mention of episodes that could have gone wrong, such as the attempted rape of Josef by Potiphar’s wife or the seduction of Boaz by Ruth, the latter having chosen to do things “by the (Holy) book.” The attentive reader will notice how carefully many connections and similarities, sometimes oppositions, are made apparent in these stories. These many connections are (unfortunately) rarely fully developed, but the author herself indicates that her book is an invitation to discover and further study the Book of Books.
The only real reservation I would have about this book is that there is sometimes what seems to be a confusion between what the Sages or midrashim say on the one hand and what the Tanach says on the other. I think it’s good to make a habit of always being careful, as best as one can, to distinguish the two.
Would I recommend reading this book? Most definitely yes. The question of the target audience, as well as that of the reading objectives, remain more complex, however. While it is refreshing and useful to have an insight into otherwise little studied subjects, the psychological barrier to dare to tackle them remains, I believe, important for a large majority of the very “frum” public. On the other hand, those who have already crossed this gate will have, for the most part, investigated by themselves the various biblical episodes treated in this book. The real added value lies, finally, in the numerous questions that the author asks herself. This invitation to dig into the subjects and explore others, to “not look away” (Deut 25,12) when faced with the ethical questions that the role models of the Bible can pose to the “modern” readers that we are. Let us not forget that there are also other sorts of scandals in the Tanach that are worthy of our consideration.