A Year with the Sages (Rabbi Reuven Hammer) -- A Review

A YEAR WITH THE SAGES: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion. By Rabbi Reuven Hammer. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2019. Xviii + 356 pages.

Christians (at least some Christians) read Scripture in conversation with earlier theologians and saints. We call this Tradition. Tradition helps bridge the gap between the ancient sacred text and the contemporary world. When we read the sacred texts in conversation with earlier interpreters, we acknowledge that we’re not the first persons to engage the text. Because earlier doesn’t make them right, but quite often there is something valuable to be learned from these conversations. We're not alone in this. Other faith traditions also read sacred texts in conversation with saints, sages, theologians, and other interpreters who engaged the text in earlier times. As a Christian, I tend to read the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) in light of these Christian interpreters and with Jesus as the prism through which to interpret the text. Jews read the same texts as I do, but with a different set of conversation partners. They engage with the Sages whose work has been passed down through time, and which continues to speak to the community.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer's A Year with the Sages offers commentary on the weekly Torah Portions that are read in the synagogue and home. Besides the weekly readings, there are reflections on readings set out for the Jewish Holy Days (these tend not to come from Torah but from other portions of the Hebrew Bible). The conversation partners that Hammer engages are the founders of Rabbinic Judaism. They are the men (no women were counted among the Sages) who provided foundation form modern Judaism. Some of the names, such as Hillel, Shammai, and Akiva are relatively well known. Others may not be, but these are the interpreters who helped guide Judaism as it moved from a focus on the Temple to a focus on Torah. Important for Christian to understand, the Rabbinic tradition is the heir of the Pharisaic tradition.

As for the author, Rabbi Hammer is the former dean of the Israel programs offered by the Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem. He is also the founding director of the Institute of Jewish Studies, which is known today as the Schechter Institute. He is by way of denomination, ordained within the Conservative Jewish Movement. In other words, he is highly qualified to engage with Scripture and its interpreters.

This book focuses on the five books of the Torah, with commentary on select readings. Each reflection begins with an excerpt from the Hebrew text under consideration, followed by a brief exposition of the text by Rabbi Hammer. This is followed by sayings from the Sages, accompanied by Hammer's interpretation of the sayings, setting them in context. Finally, there is a personal reflection on Rabbi Hammer's part, sharing how the text and its interpretation by the Sages, engages with his own life experience. Regarding the sayings from the Sages, he notes that he has attempted to choose portions "that both illuminate the Sages' thinking and are particularly relevant to our lives for today.

In a word that might be well heard by Christians, regarding the value of Tradition, Hammer writes of the Sages, that the "importance of their teachings cannot be overestimated." He writes further: "one cannot even begin to understand Judaism without knowledge of their work. Just as the Torah and the entire Hebrew Bible are the foundations of Judaism, the Sages' teachings are the structures of Jewish belief and practice that have been erected upon that foundation. The one is incomplete without the other" (p. xvii).

One can read this as a lectionary commentary designed to be used by one who preaches, or for use in congregational study. Its value to Jewish readers is self-evident. It helps connect the different elements of Jewish tradition and faith for the contemporary world. Hammer draws on We engage with people like Hillel and Shammai, along with Rabbi Akiva, whom Hammer calls the greatest of the sages. The first-century sages were linked to the Pharisees, a movement that died out by the end of the first century, but which was succeeded by later Sages. These later Sages, including Akiva, continued the basic principles of the Pharisees. Their teachings are largely found in the Mishnah (Second Century C.E.) and successor volumes, including the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.  Of these Sages, Hammer notes how diverse they were. He writes: “while some came from wealthy patrician families, many others were from poor plebeian backgrounds. Akiva, for example, is said to have come from unlettered, unobservant, country stock. His rival, Ishmael, was said to be the descendant of the high priest” (p. xvi). Through these conversations with Scripture and Sages, Hammer addresses important issues ancient and modern, which is helpful both inside and outside a Jewish context.

In reading the text, the Sages and contemporary Jews, bring into the conversation their own realities and concerns. Regarding the Exodus and the question of where God is in the story, Hammer notes:
Rabbi Akiva and his followers developed a daring theory: God was actually suffering along with Israel. They went so far as to picture God as enslaved together with Israel and subsequently redeemed together with Israel. According to this interpretation, at a time of human tragedy God is not passive or remote. He certainly is not on the side of the oppressors. Rather, God suffers with us and is in need of redemption, too.  (p. 67).
Contemporary theologians, such as JΓΌrgen Moltmann, have made similar claims. It’s clear that this relational vision isn’t necessarily new, and that it is in line with earlier Jewish claims.

I read this book as a Christian minister called to preach and teach from the biblical text. That includes the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. My starting point is different from that of Rabbi Hammer. Jesus is the lens through which I read, though modern scholarship invites a broader perspective. By engaging with books like this, I can further broaden my perspectives. When dealing with texts that are held in common between two faith communities, it is helpful to hear alternative voices. How might my Jewish neighbors read and understand a text? Does it differ? Or not?

I would highly recommend engaging with A Year with the Sages and Rabbi Hammer’s interpretations. I think it will broaden our vision of the nature of God and the way in which Scripture speaks to us today. The Sages he draws upon lived at the same time as our earlier Christian interpreters. Their interpretations may at times overlap, but at other points diverge. Where they diverge will be of greatest interest, and the question Christian interpreters need to ask is why they diverge. Christians are not the primary audience, but we will benefit from the conversation. We might even understand why Jews are often hesitant to talk about Jesus.


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