Book Review: Hokhma LiShlomo
Yitzchak Blau | Tradition Journal Online | February 6, 2022
Hokhma LiShlomo: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin by his Distinguished Colleagues and Students, edited by Baruch Sterman and Judy Taubes Sterman (Maggid Books/Ohr Torah Stone, 2021), 134 English pages, 472 Hebrew pages
The arrival of a large tribute volume is usually noteworthy, both for the potentially significant writing and scholarship it will contain, and for helping us frame the accomplishments of the festschrift’s honoree. The recent publication of Hokhma LiShlomo: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin delivers on both counts.
The volume includes eleven English and thirty Hebrew essays, many of which explore themes relevant to the honoree. A few authors directly address R. Riskin’s many accomplishments. Others explore Torah concepts such as leadership, aliya, ethics, and pesak, all areas in which R. Riskin has excelled or concentrated his talents in his long and distinguished career. The founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue who moved to Israel, became Chief Rabbi of Efrat, and headed Ohr Torah Stone certainly connects with leadership and the Zionist project. His writings about freeing agunot and related topics bring morality and religious decision-making to the fore.
While I cannot survey each item in this expansive collection, I would like to draw your attention to a number of particularly interesting contributions. Communal issues, challenges, and frustrations are discussed in the articles of Rachel Levmore and Jennie Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld describes her pastoral work as female clergy in Efrat in positive terms but notes the limitations imposed by the local religious council’s lack of support for her role and work. Levmore complains correctly that the current implicit agreement about appointing dayyanim (an equal distribution between Ashkenazi Haredim, Sefardi Haredim, and Religious Zionists) does not accurately reflect the larger constituency of Am Yisrael.
The essays run the gamut of Torah subjects, including halakha, Gemara, Tanakh, and Jewish thought. In an article about the mitzva to live in Israel, R. Eliezer Melamed, in characteristically bold fashion, rules that today there is no problem leaving Israel for a vacation when transportation is so easy. In an essay integrating Jewish law with Jewish thought, R. Benny Lau locates sources that talk about marriage as a means of procreation and as the finding of a soul-mate, and indicates how the two conceptions affect rulings regarding birth control. R. Yaakov Medan attempts to solve the conundrum of how Saul could give Michal to Palti, when she was already married to David, by claiming that they used hafka’at kiddushin, a rabbinic method of annulling a marriage. As with many creative geniuses, R. Medan sometimes presents ideas that, while innovative, prove to be a bit too farfetched. In this case, I found his proposal too anachronistic to offer a plausible reading of the biblical text.
Chana Godinger (Dreyfuss) writes of two themes in the first sugya in Ketubot discussing the optimal day for marriage. The first mishna opens with the husband’s claim that his bride was not a virgin which places the focus on the women’s virginal status, as does the tractate’s subsequent discussion of rape and seduction. Shmuel’s introduction of the rabbinic desire to have three days of preparation to provide for an adequately festive celebration shifts the emphasis to honoring women. Shmuel also draws our attention to a mishna in the fifth chapter which discusses conventional marriage rather than categories of rape and seduction, thereby shifting the tone of the discussion.
Yonatan Grossman contributes the volume’s strongest essay. The Tekoaite woman’s parable about a man killing his brother in the field (II Samuel14) surely hearkens to Cain and Abel. However, this wise woman cleverly makes the family’s desire for revenge (v. 7: והנה קמה כל המשפחה) linguistically parallel to Cain’s sin (Gen. 4:8: ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו), thus discouraging vengeance. Secondly, Cain is not put to death which also helps the woman’s argument. Grossman finds another example of intertextuality in David’s judicial response, “Not one hair of your son will fall to the ground” (v. 45), an allusion to Absalom, the subject of the parable, known for his full head of hair.
References to knowledge, good and evil, and an angel of God clearly point to Genesis 3. The point may be that David does not achieve wisdom by listening to the woman, just as Adam and Eve suffer from listening to the snake. At the end of the day, David experiences exile due to the return on Absalom. Humanity can achieve wisdom but cannot ever fully foresee how decisions will historically play out.
Finally, Ohad Tehar-Lev cites a powerful midrash that I had not seen before. In KoheletRabba 11, a number of Jews encounter a Roman castaway desperate for help—and they reject his pleas. In contrast, R. Elazar ben Shamua provides the Roman with food, clothing, shelter, and money. When this Roman fellow becomes Caesar and wants to take vengeance on the Jews, a visit from R. Elazar alters his plans. Tehar-Lev adds some quality analysis: He notes that this story reminds us of the meeting of each party’s ancestor, Jacob and Esau, but there, Esau shows compassion to Jacob. The story begins with the Jewish group heading to the Temple for the holiday. R. Elazar’s taking the Roman into his own home to care for him may entail missing out on the pilgrimage, but his compassionate act enables a more authentic encounter with God than achieved by those who ignored the Roman’s plight and proceeded on to the Temple.
This volume, honoring a rabbi with a distinguished resume, contains enough variety and interest to merit a worthwhile place on our bookshelves. The topics covered successfully convey the range of accomplishment of the honoree.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta, is an associate editor of TRADITION.