Jeff's Reviews > Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses

Essential Torah by George    Robinson
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's review
Aug 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, lieberry_books
Read from August 23 to September 20, 2012

I thought all the grade school Bible reading was sufficient, but i began looking for guides to help me understand that monster quickly into my current endeavor to read it cover to cover. The Interpreter's Bible seemed a godsend (harrharr) but it added a lot of time and effort. Additionally, it felt wrong: volume 1 is a decidedly Christian vision of a decidedly Jewish text that frequently hinted at an underlying anti-Semitism. So i found Robinson's book by scanning the Oak Park (MI) public library shelves.

I enjoyed it from the start. I almost could not restrain myself from jumping ahead to the mini-Midrash. Patience was a virtue in this situation, so i recommend that you not skip ahead. This book provides much more than a Jewish exposition of Bible verses.

I see Robinson as someone smitten by Judaism yet level-headed enough to realize it cannot be the same thing to every person. (How do i know he's in love with Torah? He lauds the narrative perfection of Leviticus. Nuff said.) He conveys his devotion with the conviction of a star-crossed lover and the pragmatism of a dedicated skeptic (though he certainly isn't a skeptic in the sense that he innately rebels against the existence of god or the value of Religion). All i'm trying to say is that he portrays his faith honestly and without the hyper-gushiness of the secretly uncertain (even to himself) proselytiser (cf. my opinions re: Every Person's Guide to Judaism).

Oddly enough, one of the book's greatest strengths is the backmatter: helpful glossaries of terms and Torah commentators, a juicy bibliography that makes me want to cry like Burgess Meredith's character at the end of the Twighlight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last", and a brief essay about the non-inclusion of a chapter about Torah's historicism. Go to, find the hardcover version, search for "purport to describe," click on the link that takes you to pg 549, and read the last paragraph. If you can dig that, i think you'll like this book.

I wish i could remember enough of each chapter's contents to give you a taste of their strengths and weaknesses, but i read too hastily and noted only a few things.

I must ask the ladies to forgive me yet again: my latent anti-feminism made me prejudge the chapter on the silencing of women's voices as a snoozer. Robinson does not sweep the chauvinism under the rug. He doesn't attempt to explain it away. The words of prominent female Torah scholars speak for themselves and argue the case for equal value of women within Judaism even though the Bible typically gives them short shrift. It was lively. And it probably enlightened my benighted soul.

The equally good "Troubling Texts" chapter, which i could probably talk about for hours, follows right on the heels of feminism's chapter. In it, Robinson stands bravely on the assertion that he probably will never know how to assimilate some Torah horror stories with the Jewish ethos that centers on the sanctity of life. Yet its most foundational text includes the well-known (i think) tale of god blithely ordering Abraham to use his son in a blood sacrifice (aka, the Aleikah). It also contains decrees requiring the death penalty for infractions clearly unworthy of such a harsh punishment, homosexuality (male only, by the way) being the most cited and publicized. (i'm planning a soapbox speech on this topic as part of my review of the Bible, but don't hold your breath)

I'd already read Bereishit/Genesis and Shemot/Exodus before picking up Robinson's book. So i started reading the parashiyot in Vayikra/Leviticus according to his list. Then i'd read his exposition, often making notes in my Bible. Then i'd quickly go through the whole parashiyot again. (A parashah, by the way, is a "Prescribed weekly section of biblical Torah (Pentateuch) read in synagogue liturgy on an annual cycle"; plural = parashiyot.)

After only a couple parashiyot i felt disappointed because Robinson's explanatory text was ... nothing like The Interpreter's Bible. His were so much less academic, less elaborate. Ah, but isn't that what i was looking for? Didn't i say i'd prefer not to spend an entire year reading "The Book" plus a dozen 1000-page volumes of commentary, especially if that commentary entailed subliminally Jew-hating Protestants sussurating in my ear about books to which Christians should just relinquish all claims already? Okay, so i am at peace with "Jewish but (almost insufficiently) brief." Far preferable to "Christian but (exhaustingly) complete."

And that's all i got. Except i can't resist.
Is Hollywood bastardizing the Abraham/Isaac story (the Aleikah) yet? Maybe 4 or 5 shorts, each by a different director & writer working from a different Midrash, but with the same actors? Just spitballin here.

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Reading Progress

08/24/2012 page 22
4.0% "Seemed silly to read only Christian exegesis and exposition of the Hebrew Bible, especially of the Torah. I've enjoyed the first tiny bit and can't wait to get to this book's 2nd half where he gets to the nitty gritty."
08/26/2012 page 135
22.0% "More good stuff."
08/29/2012 page 251
40.0% "Tantalizingly close to the actual Torah commentary. Forgive me mother, for i have sinned: i thought the chapter on Jewish feminism would be a snoozer. It was quite lively and enlightening, a great lead-in to the equally good "texts of terror" chapter. Is Hollywood bastardizing the Abraham/Isaac story yet? Maybe 4 or 5 shorts each by a different director-writer (but with the same actors?). Just spitballin here."
08/30/2012 page 282
45.0% "and now begins Robinson's Midrash. At last."
09/01/2012 page 308
49.0% "Only a couple parashiyot into it. Alas, they are ... so much less than even remotely thorough that i can't help feeling disappointed. Are the only choices *truly* between "insufficiently brief" and "exhaustively complete"?"
09/04/2012 page 399
64.0% "Bereishit/Genesis and Shemot/Exodus done; now to read Vayikra/Leviticus for reals"
09/05/2012 page 401
64.0% "How do you know if someone's in love with Torah? Well, one sign is that he lauds the *narrative* perfection of Leviticus. Robinson is gaga"
09/06/2012 page 432
69.0% "Amid various sacrificial details is YHVH killing Nadav and Avihu with fire *in the temple*. KJV's word choice of "leprosy" is erroneous. Ch 18: tradition of literal scapegoating. Ch19 gives us the timeless classics "Love your neighbor as yourself" (which might be translatable w/"companion," "fellow," or "peer" instead!) and "Be holy because i am holy," which usually appears to be a non sequitur."
09/16/2012 page 467
74.0% "The first several chapters of Numbers/Bemidbara could be prescribed for insomnia, the strongest soporific being the chapter on the gifts to the temple of the 12 tribes -- spoiler alert! -- they all give exactly the same thing, expressed in exactly the same words, 12 times. Oy vey."
09/18/2012 page 516
82.0% "i can't seem to get the right update comments in the right boxes for the Bibble or Essential Torah."
09/20/2012 page 624
100.0% "annnnnnd done ... except for the writing of the thoughts for the review"
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