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Biblical Models For Modern Jewish Relationships?

Review of Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible: Ancient Role Models for Sacred Relationships by Jeffrey Salkin (Jewish Lights, 2008).

I am what some have called a "secular Jew." I was not given any formal religious education as a child, but my mom, a single parent by choice, took pains to help me learn what it means to be Jewish in the societal, cultural and historical sense. Now that I am a single parent myself, I'm trying to do the same for my kids.

Salkin book coverAs such, I'm not sure that I am really the intended audience for Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible: Ancient Role Models for Sacred Relationships by Jeffrey Salkin. As the subtitle implies, the basic premise of this book is that by studying the biblical examples of non-Jews who helped the Jewish people, we can come to greater understanding of how to approach our own relationships and interactions with gentiles--and especially how to practice our own faith in coexistence with others practicing different faiths. I don't necessarily feel that this is a message I'm in great need of hearing; perhaps there are a lot of American Jews whose daily lives rarely bring them into contact with non-Jews, but that is not my personal experience.

Still, the overall message is valuable to all, I think: namely, that one doesn't have to be a believer in a particular religion in order to honor it, and that one doesn't have to be a member of a particular group in order to want to help them. These are definitely important concepts to me as a Jew, an American, a parent and a human being.

In the book, Salkin devotes each chapter to a different person or group of persons from the Bible: fifteen in all. For each one, he tells the story as it appears in the Bible, and goes on to flesh out the story using details from midrash and similar sources, as well as apparently some speculation or embellishments of his own. The end result is a juicy cross between soap opera and morality play; Salkin tells an engaging story, although he has a strong tendency to wander off on lengthy tangents, making it occasionally difficult to follow the thread of the narrative. But overall he does a good job of summarizing each story including the attendant politics and social climate of the time. Some of the people he writes about are kings or religious leaders; some are common folk or even lower-class citizens; some are familiar names, some obscure; they all of course have in common that they are not Jewish, and that in some way during their lifetimes they had a positive impact on the condition of the Jewish people in ancient times.

I found it interesting that fully half the chapters are devoted to women. They include prostitutes, midwives and warriors, as well as notably the handmaiden Hagar, mother of Ishmael. I found this chapter particularly interesting, and was gratified to note that Salkin acknowledges straight out that the story of Hagar is not particularly flattering to Jews (or, specifically, to Abraham and Sarah, and their clan). To think of Hagar for me is to think of the frightening dystopian imaginings of Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale, stories of women forced into subservience, forced to conceive and bear children that they will never be allowed to call theirs. But in truth Hagar's story is one of the stories of Israel; as a prophet herself and as the mother of Ishmael her legacy permeates the canon of not one, not two, but three religions! And Salkin gives it a twist by recounting the story of Hagar as it is known in Islam, and weaving that version of the story into his interpretation.

Overall, Salkin's analyses of the stories are a bit spotty. In some chapters he devotes pages and pages to fiddly discussion of details of Hebrew grammar and what this word might or might not imply versus that word; then at the end he tacks on a sentence or two about the moral of the story, and moves on to the next. In other cases, he takes so long about recounting the story (with all its twists and turns, and his many digressions) and then again adds just a brief discussion of the story's message. In still others, he presents the story itself somewhat perfunctorily and then muses at length about the moral implications. This unevenness--along with the fact that the final chapter ends when its story ends, with no closing chapter to summarize and recap the entire thing--left me feeling a bit unsatisfied in the end, like I had been left hanging. Overall the book reads more like one man's ruminations on a motley collection of stories, than like a well-constructed argument in favor of a specified conclusion. Probably this is neither good nor bad; the points Salkin is making don't necessarily lend themselves to the strict structure of a persuasive essay; the "series of ruminations" is perhaps more suited to the topic anyway. In the end, he makes some good points and told me some things I didn't know about Jewish history, which is all good.

I think that anyone who is Jewish, or not, and who has interest in the complex relationships between Jews and gentiles, would find this book edifying. Certainly one of my goals as a parent is to teach my children that any person may be their friend regardless of faith, and that other faiths are to be respected even when they differ from ours, and that all people are to be respected and honored. And while Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible may not have anything truly earth-shattering to say on the subject, it can certainly provide food for thought, and is a gentle, engaging read.

Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at.

Joan Leib is a technical writer and single mother of two.

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