In My Opinion: Thoughts on Religion, Society, and Life by a Very Opinionated Rabbi

In My Opinion: Thoughts on Religion, Society, and Life by a Very Opinionated Rabbi by Rabbi Berel Wein (The Destiny Foundation, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Rabbi Berel Wein has certainly been "around the block" a few times and then some. Throughout his long and varied career, he has worn many hats: lawyer, congregational rabbi, rosh yeshiva, and historian, to which you could also add tour guide, fundraiser, and journalist. In this new book, Rabbi Wein draws from his decades of experiences to offer us tidbits of wisdom and express his learned opinions on a myriad of topics.

This anthology is comprised of about 150 articles that Rabbi Wein wrote, each article running about 2–3 pages. In addition to offering his take on serious issues like current events and the state of Judaism, this book also features Rabbi Wein's musings on such random topics as Uber, texting, answering machines, Vin Scully, Jewish humor, half-birthdays, and punctuality.

Many of Rabbi Wein’s articles relate personal anecdotes that highlight the foibles of life. These often-humorous observations always carry a message that will help improve the reader's life, or at the very least will give him a new way of looking at things. These include lessons learned from trying to find a parking spot in the City of Gold, or the magical minyan where ten people always show up, but never the exact same people.

One overarching theme of these essays is the difference between living in Israel and living in the USA. That said, Rabbi Wein’s unabashed love of Eretz Yisroel is readily obvious. All in all, Rabbi Wein remains ardently Zionist, and yet, as a rabbi he remains staunchly religious and devoted to Jewish Tradition.

As can be expected of the man most famous for his books on Jewish History, Rabbi Wein’s essays also draw on historical examples to teach us lessons relevant to the everyday world of politics, morals, business, and world Jewry.

Two important ideas that keep coming up in his articles are his view on anti-Semitism and the need to unite the Jewish People. Rabbi Wein's articles remind us time and again that — contrary to popular reports — anti-Semitism remains an unvanquished dragon that continues to rear its ugly head from time to time. This is especially true of its latest Israel-bashing incarnation as the movement to boycott Israel. Rabbi Wein views this movement, which is ever so popular in Leftist circles and in American Universities, as but the latest form that age-old anti-Semitism has taken on.

The proposed antidote to many of our woes as a people is the re-unification of the fractured Jewish people by focusing on our similarities, instead of on our differences. As Rabbi Wein reiterates this point in multiple essays, this is especially true within the various groups that comprise Orthodoxy. Rabbi Wein lovingly criticizes any aspect of Jewish Life that he feels needs to be reconsidered. In that sense, neither the Liberals to his left nor the Hareidim to his right are spared the brunt of his criticism. But all of this is done with the understanding that we are one people—even if some of us have glaringly obvious imperfections.

Other recurring themes include the lack of parking in Jerusalem and Rabbi Wein's inability to change a light bulb.

Some of the articles in this book are devoted to rabbinic personalities, each of whom is important in his own special way. These include the likes of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, Rabbi Dovid Silver, and Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog.

The essays in this book are loosely broken up into 10 sections, with each one containing about 15 essays. These include a section on holidays and other special days in the Jewish Calendar, a section on lessons learned from history, and a section on inspiration gleaned from everyday experiences.

As an editor, I would say that this book could have been better organized by theme or topic, and at least should have an index. I also noticed the inconsistent style of the names of Biblical characters, whether they were Anglicized (Abraham, David, Moses) or transliterated from Hebrew (Yocheved, Yitftach, and Yishai).

Like many of Rabbi Wein’s other works, one can criticize this book for its lack of sources. Even when Rabbi Wein quotes explicit passages from the Bible or the Talmud, he never cites his sources. Another point of criticism is that this book tries too hard to please everyone, such that it avoids getting into any real controversy. It also seems that in the quest to avoid creating too much of a stir, Rabbi Wein is sometimes too vague and unclear in his own criticism of others. Because of that, the reader is sometimes left scratching his head pondering to himself, "I wonder what he meant by that." Of course, Rabbi Wein — a true Ohev Yisroel — is never hyper-critical about fellow Jews, but I felt like sometimes in this book, he launches an attack and then pulls back his punch without even explaining what the attack was. Meaning, he criticizes but in such a vague way that fails to really get his point across.

Throughout the book, Rabbi Wein is not as pessimistic or cynical as he makes himself out to be. Rather, he takes on an optimistic, but pragmatic/realistic view of the world. His self-deprecating humor and false pride are endearing to the reader, and his idiomatic way of writing allows his sincerity to shine forth. When reading this book, you can almost hear the words coming off the page in Rabbi Wein's signature Chicago drawl with the dramatic pauses that punctuate his world-famous lectures. I, for one, really enjoyed this book. It was entertaining, informative, and inspirational.

Pharaoh: Biblical History, Egypt, and the Missing Millennium

Pharaoh: Biblical History, Egypt, and the Missing Millennium by Alexander Hool (Mosaica Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Even before the advent of modern Egyptology, scholars have long sought to positively identify the Pharaoh of Egypt who lived in the time of the Exodus. With this book, Alexander Hool chimes in and joins the fray, proposing a radically new view of Egyptian chronology and who the Pharaoh of the Exodus was.

Throughout the Bible, the various sovereigns of Egypt are always portrayed as important political players. Nonetheless, their personal names are not always recorded. In fact, the Pharaohs with whom Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, and Moses interacted are simply named “Pharaoh” without any more specific hints as to their identity. The Bible only provides us with the names of three later Egyptian kings: The Egyptian king whose reign paralleled King Solomon (I Kings 11:40) and his son Rehoboam (I Kings 14:25, II Chronicles 12:5–9) in the Holy Land was named Shishak, although the Bible never uses the term Pharaoh when referring to him. Archeologists typically identify Shishak with Pharaoh Shoshenq I. The second Egyptian king named in the Bible was Pharaoh Necho (“lame” or “handicap” Pharoah). According to the Midrash, he was called such because he became partially paralyzed when he captured King Solomon’s Throne and dared to sit on it. He lived during the reign of King Josiah in Judah (II Kings 23:29-35). Finally, the third king that the Bible mentions by name is Pharaoh Chafra, who lived in the generation after Josiah (Jer. 44:30).

As mentioned above, the Bible does not provide us with a given name for the Pharaoh who ruled in Egypt during the Exodus. That said, a quasi-Midrashic source known as Sefer HaYashar does give the names for two Pharaoh who lived in that time-period. According to Sefer HaYashar, the Pharaoh who ruled after Joseph’s death was Pharaoh Melol and he was reported to have reigned for ninety-four years. Sefer HaYashar relates that Melol’s successor was his son Pharaoh Adikam, or Adikam Achuz. It seems from Sefer HaYashar that the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt happened under Adikam’s rule.

Alexander Hool notes that if one follows the lists of Egyptian kings that Egyptologists have collected, the only Pharaoh, who was said to have ruled for exactly 94 years is Pepi II (the penultimate king of the Sixth Dynasty). It thus seems that Pepi II would match up with Sefer HaYashar's Pharaoh Melol. Moreover, Hool notes that Pepi II's successor Neferkare the Younger reigned for exactly 1 year, which—if Pepi is identical to Melol—would be coterminous with the Exodus. This reviewer has personal reservations about relying too heavily on Sefer HaYashar, but given the facts as Hool presents them, his arguments are somewhat compelling.

Working from this data point, Hool then surmises that Pharaoh Djedkare (the second-to-last king of the Fifth Dynasty, who preceded Pepi II by about 100 years) reigned in the time of Joseph and was the Pharaoh whom Jacob met. Hool then points out that this name resembles the name “Dyen” found in Sefer Yuchasin, by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto (1452–1515), as the name of the Pharaoh in the time of the Exodus.

Hool also tries to show how, chronologically-speaking, the Exodus happened in the time of Pharaoh Thutmose II of the Eighteenth Dynasty. To bolster this supposition, Hool cites the Greco-Egyptian historian Manetho who wrote that God smote the Egyptians during the reign of Tutimaos, which sounds like an allusion to the Exodus story and Hool takes as a reference to Thutmose. Hool argues that Thutmose ruled Middle Egypt (i.e. Memphis) at the same time that Neferkare the Younger ruled Northern Egypt and the Thirteenth Dynasty ruled Southern Egypt.

Conventional Egyptologists date the Thirteenth Dynasty and the Eighteenth Dynasty to long after Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty. But, Hool draws on the works of James D. Long and David Rohl to reconstruct a different chronology of Egypt’s past wherein the Thirteenth Dynasty, the Eighteenth Dynasty, and the Fifth Dynasty all ruled concurrently with one another. The bulk of Rabbi Hool’s work is devoted to presenting his reconstruction of Egyptian Ancient History and adducing various facts that neatly synchronize with his theory. In doing so, Hool uses the so-called “Sothic dating” methodology and uses different astronomical observations to confirm the dates he gives. He also refers to some of the conclusions of his earlier work The Challenge of Jewish History (Mosaica Press, 2014) regarding the alignment of Persian History with Egyptian History to support his reconstructive history. This reviewer readily admits that he is unqualified to pass judgement on the crux of Hool’s thesis, nor can he intelligently assess Hool’s proofs.

Many historians and archeologists believe that the Pharaoh who ruled during the Exodus was Ramsses II (of the Nineteenth Dynasty). Scholars point to the appearance of the place-name Ramsses (Genesis 47:11) — as the name of the land in which Jacob’s family settled — and Raamses (Exodus 1:11) — as one of the storage-cities that the enslaved Jews built — as evidence to the assumption that Ramsses was the Egyptian monarch at the time of the Exodus.

Alexander Hool rejects their findings and dates Ramsses II’s rule to the post-Exodus period, when the Jews had already entered the Holy Land. He explains that Ramsses II lived in the time of the Judges, and may have been named after the city which the enslaved Jews were forced to build. This stands in stark contrast to the aforementioned scholars who argued that, vice versa, the city was named after the king. In light of Hool’s conclusion that Ramesses II lived after the Exodus, we can explain all the similarities between the Kadesh Bas-Reliefs and the Mishkan as stemming from Egyptian attempts to imitate Israelite cultic practices, as opposed to vice versa. This is because if Ramsses lived in the time of Judges, then the construction of the Mishkan obviously predated him.

One difficulty this reviewer had with Hool's reconstructed chronology concerns the Fourth Dynasty. One of the kings of that dynasty was Khafre/Chephren—which is almost certainly a reference to the above-mentioned Pharaoh Chafra who lived after Josiah’s death. Now, according to Hool’s version of Egyptian chronology, the rule of the Fourth Dynasty happened before the Exodus, yet Pharaoh Chafra lived close to a millennium later near the end of the First Temple period.

Despite wading into uncharted territories, Hool always maintains an authoritative voice — even as he proffers ideas that border on conspiracy theory. For example, Hool contends that Abraham invented the paleo-Hebrew script (known as Ktav Ivri) and that Nimrod was a member of the Sixteenth Dynasty (whom Manetho called the “Shepherd Kings”) who built Zoan/Avaris. Hool points out that the next time in Egyptian history that Zoan/Avaris achieves prominence is during the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty—the “Nubian” dynasty whom Hool assumes descended from Nimrod. Hool even builds on this story to explain the rivalry between Nimrod and Esau found in Midrashic sources.

When all is said and done, Rabbi Alexander Hool’s interesting book offers us a different perspective on Egyptian Ancient History, and seeks to resolve difficulties that have long baffled scholars. Hool’s reconstruction reduces Egyptian History by almost 1,000 years and claims that kingdoms that were said to have reigned long after one another actually ruled at that same time! Whether or not what Rabbi Hool proposes is factually or historically correct, his charming book is chockful of information on the history of Egypt and is certainly an entertaining read.

For some of my earlier reflections on this topic, see "Sefer HaYashar and the Pharaoh of the Exodus" and "The Pharaoh and the King."

Mishnas Yaakov: Derushim Nivcharim B'Moadei HaShanah

Mishnas Yaakov: Derushim Nivcharim B'Moadei HaShanah by Rabbi Shnayor Z. Burton (New York, NY, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Although I usually only review books written in English, I could not resist writing about Rabbi Burton's tour de force. This original, yet well-sourced book, is actually written in Hebrew and comprises twelve essays, most of which are related to the holidays and other important days on the Jewish Calendar. Rabbi Burton draws on his mastery of the Bible and the vast corpus of rabbinic literature to offer the reader sophisticated, more nuanced, takes on the deeper meanings of these holidays. The flowery rabbinic prose that Rabbi Burton employs shows that his work is primarily intended for the Torah Scholar, but the layman can nonetheless also appreciate some of the big ideas which he presents us. I personally enjoyed his use of the Hebrew language for this monumental work, but I also hope that it will be translated into English to make it more accessible to a wider audience.

Rabbi Burton's opening essay is one of the longest in the book and discusses something that has baffled Bible scholars for a very long time: Why does the Torah (Pentateuch) place such an emphasis on the laws governing ritual sacrifices, while the Prophets seem to eschew sacrifices as a way of serving God altogether? It seems almost as if the Prophets were speaking about a different religion than the Torah spoke about. Some Bible Critics have even used this question to audaciously posit that the Torah was written after the Prophets! Rabbi Burton masterfully reconciles these two perspectives by showing how they reflect two different ways to approach God.

The Prophets approached Him from the perspective of those to whom He has revealed Himself. They conceive God as immanent and understandable, as they have received His word through prophecy. For this reason, the Prophets constantly exhort the Jewish People to "know God" while the Torah offers no such exhortation. Under such conditions, the prophets felt it was inappropriate to focus on ritual sacrifices, which present God as a far-off Deity who must be worshipped (or even appeased) through tributes. The Torah, on the other hand, reflects Moses' perspective of a totally transcendent God whom we cannot understand at all. Moses asked God to behold God, but God refused his request, famously saying, “… for no man can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

If we cannot understand Him, then our only way of relating to Him is through rituals like sacrifice. Hence, the Torah makes that aspect into a "big deal." While Rabbi Burton only alludes to this, the dichotomy of God's immanence versus His transcendence is really the center-piece of many discussions, such as how to understand the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum and the related debate over whether Judaism ought to be classified as classical monotheism or monist/pantheist.

The next two essays tackle the age-old theodicy that struggles to understand the existence of evil. These essays develop the ideas behind the Sabbath, as Rabbi Burton beautifully demonstrates that evil is merely illusory and stems from an incorrect/incomplete perception of reality. When one looks at God's creation in a limited way that is constrained by personal opinions or biases, then some parts of that world will appear to be "evil." But, when everything is put in proper perspective and one can see the big picture, one will realize that God only provides the world with good. Rabbi Burton shows how Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge muddied the waters and disallowed them from "seeing" the world as it truly was. It was that sin that introduced the misperception of evil to man. Rabbi Burton explains that the Sabbath is the day that represents our faith that God is totally good and only provides the world with good.

The motif of "seeing" comes up again in Rabbi Burton's essay for Passover, where he contrasts the underlying concept of bread—representative of the self-reliant societies of Sodom/Egypt, who do not require rainfall from Above to thrive—with the more demanding model represented by Matzah (unleavened bread), by which one must appeal to God in order for his needs to be met. Our patriarch Abraham typifies this latter approach, while his nephew Lot was caught in the crossfires where these two approaches meet.

In his essay on Sefiras HaOmer and Shavuos, Rabbi Burton teaches how the simple act of “counting” helps a person escape the hustle and bustle of life and appreciate the importance of every passing day. In his essay on Purim, the author contrasts Ezra’s efforts to preserve Lashon HaKodesh (which represents a sort of particularistic perspective that only recognizes the sublimity of one, divine language) with Mordechai’s attempts to expand the Jews’ linguistic horizons to include all seventy languages (a more universalistic perspective). Ezra thus minimized one’s options for prayer, while Mordechai attempted to maximize the forms of human expression before God.

All in all, every one of the essays in Rabbi Burton’s new work is chockful of original insights and mature takes on the issues he discusses. Rabbi Burton offers careful readings of the sources to find meaning and depth in seemingly indecipherable or unremarkable passages of the Bible and Midrashim. He has a knack for connecting ideas that one would have never considered related, and showing how those connections penetrate the very essence of the concepts he discusses.

I hope my fawning sampling of Rabbi Burton’s ideas will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of his Sefer. Rabbi Shnayor Burton is a Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshiva Beis Hillel in Flatbush, a popular podcaster (check out "The Great Sources with Rabbi Shnayor Burton" and "The Depths of Chumash with Rabbi Shnayor Burton"), and a third-place winner in the 2019 International Bible Contest. He is the acclaimed author of Oros Yaakov, a similarly dazzling work of essays on the patriarchal narratives in Genesis. He is renowned for proffering well-articulated arguments and producing work that is just utterly fascinating. His newest work is truly one of the greatest contemporary contributions to Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Thought (Machshavah/Hashkafah).