For Torah beginners, this book is essential

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An Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jew are at Shabbat morning services. After the parshah is read, the Torah is lifted and turned toward the congregation. Everyone chants, “ve-zot ha-Torah ah-sher sam Moshe…” The Orthodox and Conservative Jews join in the chant. The Reform Jews scratches his head and wonders what’s going on.

He seriously needs to read George Robinson’s “Essential Torah.”

This vignette risks insulting many observant Reform Jews who do know what’s going on. However, Robinson wrote this book precisely for those who want to know more. In fact, it could easily be subtitled “Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the Torah but were afraid (or too clueless) to ask.” If you are a three-day-a-year Jew (or a few more if invited to b’nai mitzvahs) and wonder what’s going on when the scroll is read, this book is what you need.

The book’s stated purpose is to help revive spirituality in Reform Judaism, a goal shared by every rabbi who ever lived. Robinson is not a rabbi, but is no stranger to things Jewish. With academic training in literary and film criticism, he writes for the New York Jewish Week as its film critic and for other New York area newspapers. He is also a contributor to the upcoming new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Robinson’s earlier book was titled “Essential Judaism,” a survey of Jewish religious practices accompanied by history and folklore, in which he admits giving the Torah a “short shrift.” If his next project is the Talmud, will he need permission from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz to use the title “Essential Talmud” (among the Rabbi’s most famous books)? Or is the title wordplay on Steinstalz’s work?

The book is divided into two parts. The first has seven chapters that constitute a textbook on the Torah:

• Technical details on how a scribe writes the Torah scroll and a description of the Torah service.

• A broad overview of the Torah with discussions of history, image of God, covenants, biblical characters, and literary aspects.

• Traditional and modern views of who wrote the Torah, including the Documentary Hypothesis.

• The role and purpose of commentary and interpretation, including midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, and mysticism.

• An examination of women’s “silent voices” in Torah and their resurgence in the business of Torah commentary.

• An analysis of portions of the text that seem troubling by today’s sensibilities. Examples include the sacrifice of Isaac (child sacrifice and blind obedience to potentially immoral laws are not well-received today) and homosexuality (some say that it’s an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; others say it’s not that simple).

• A consumer guide on how to study Torah, including books to have in your library and how to find a study partner.

The second part is a synopsis and a commentary on each of the 54 parshahs, or weekly portions of the annual cycle of Torah reading. Also included are statistics on the ordinal number of that portion in each book (such as “the first in Genesis”); the number of verses; and a list of the verses in each aliyah. It is not clear what value these data have, since the Torah text is not given; to follow you’d need a separate copy of the Torah. In contrast, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Torah translation, “The Living Torah,” has the aliyahs listed in the margins.

Many Torah commentaries — such as the Conservative Movements’s Etz Hayim and Gunther Plaut’s “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” — have a detailed discussion of nearly every verse, with additional flanking essays and midrash. Robinson’s approach does not reproduce the text but offers essays on the main themes of each parshah, similar to Harvey Fields’ “A Torah Commentary for Our Times” and Ellen Frankel’s “Five Books of Miriam.”

These two parts are supplemented by two appendices containing an essay on the Torah in history and timeline of related events in history; two glossaries, one for commentators and one for terms; an extensive bibliography; and endnotes in each chapter (not all quotes are referenced). The book contains no index, a strange omission for a Torah primer.

Robinson identifies specific references in his bibliography that would be particularly helpful for beginners. He also offers a two-page primer on the Hebrew language. Notwithstanding his goal of appealing to Torah neophytes, some dense language betrays the author’s literary background.

Readers should have a dictionary handy for words such as hermeneutic, quotidian, panoply, plurivocal and polysemous. Nevertheless, “Essential Torah” is useful as a Torah textbook, especially for clueless three-day-a-year Jews who want to get on the path to greater spirituality. If you’re already well-versed in Torah and spirituality, you might be bored.

“Essential Torah. A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses” by George Robinson (624 pages, Schocken Books, $35.00).