Pinchas Polonsky, Bible Dynamics: Contemporary Torah Commentary (Orot Yerushalaim) – 4 volumes to date on Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers
Reviewed by Eliezer Levin
Throughout history there have been many individuals who have had more influence after death than during their lives. Among these, a select few have even published more books posthumously than when they walked among us. Rav Yehudah Leon Ashkenazi (1922-1996), known by his nickname “Manitou,” published almost nothing during his lifetime, yet, in the quarter century since his death, we have witnessed the arrival of dozens of volumes, with more on the way.
The reason for this is that, in his lifetime, R. Ashkenazi transmitted his teachings almost exclusively as Oral Torah. His great focus, his deep understanding of the Bible, and through it, his understanding of history and current affairs, could have been lost with his death. Fortunately, his students and his students’ students have taken on the task of converting that Oral Torah into a written one. The directors of the Manitou Foundation, through recordings and notes, have managed to preserve his teaching, and expand it to a much wider circle than his students (principally in Hebrew and in French). Secondary literature, exploring the meaning of Manitou’s thought and the posthumously-published writings have begun to appear, exploring his way of studying the Torah and understanding history.
Most significantly, Manitou’s Torah has received more attention and dissemination in recent years because it is more relevant today than ever, as a tool for understanding complex contemporary issues.
He suggests that the characters in the book of Genesis are the key to understanding today’s events. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the matriarchs, the tribes of Israel, Ishmael and Esau, Lot and Laban, along with less-studied, less well-known characters such as Cain and Abel, Methushla, the sons of Noah, and many more, are shown to represent 2,000 years of history. In Manitou’s hands, these figures help us make connections between that history (a third of the history of mankind, according to tradition)and our present world, as if those biblical personalities walked right of four own newspaper front-pages.
Manitou was born in Algiers to R. David Ashkenazi, that country’s last Chief Rabbi. From his father he received the basics of the Torah and the Kabbalah with the traditional Sephardic approach. He was recruited to the French Foreign Legion in 1943, served in the infantry and was wounded in the Battle of Strasbourg. After World War II, he moved to France, where he joined the French Jewish Scouts (Tzofim), and received his nickname (which means “Great Spirit” in Native American dialect). In France he met his teacher and mentor, Jacob Gordin, from whom he received the Torah in its Ashkenazic approach, as well as a grounding and approach to historiography which would be present throughout his work.
He simultaneously studied philosophy, psychology, ethnology, and anthropology at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he received the tools to understand and confront Western culture. He did not undertake this with the aim of using academic tools to understand the Torah. On the contrary, through teaching Torah he aimed to measure, judge, understand, and analyze world culture.After the Six Day War, he made Aliya to Jerusalem, where he studied with R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Part of the power of R. Ashkenazi’s teaching seems to reside in his gathering and uniting of the disparate trends in Jewish learning – Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and the Torat Eretz Yisrael of Rav Kook. Like assembling so many puzzle pieces, he knew how to complement and build a much more complete and deep understanding of Torah and history.Originally his classes and writings were in French and later in Hebrew. As of this writing, none of his works have yet been translated to English, which may explain why he is not well-known in America. However, many of his ideas and his special approach, after having traveled a peculiar path, have already become accessible to the English speaker.
This journey begins with one of Manitou’s leading students and disseminators, R. Uri Sherki, who “received the Torah” directly from him. For many years, R. Sherki has been transmitting it to his students and through the internet to a much wider circle.
Dr. Pinchas Polonsky, a Jew born in Moscow, Refusnik in the Soviet era, today one of the most popular authors of books on Judaism in the Russian language, became a student of the Manitou Torah via R. Sherki’s lectures. Based on these lessons, Polonsky has authored four volume sin his Bible Dynamics series in Russian, now translated by Todd Shandelman into English. Lessons that were given in French, transmitted and updated in Hebrew, written in Russian, have finally reached English.
Unlike R. Ashkenazi’s books, which are not organized around the weekly parasha but according to the biblical characters and the “identity process” they experienced, Bible Dynamics is divided according to the weekly Torah portions. However, it is not just another book of Parashat HaShavua, as it offers little or no exegesis of that week’s reading per se. Rather, the author aims to explain the history of the Jewish People as it unfolds through the Torah.
What does all this mean? We are accustomed to studying biblical characters, as we know them, as a final product. However, the Torah and the Midrash describe the process, the steps taken to for any one individual to become who he is. Abraham was not always Abraham. At first henwas Abram from Ur Kasdim. The process to get rid of the “Aramaic shell,” the different tests he underwent while facing the cultures of Mesopotamia and later of Egypt. All of that turned him from being an individual character to a universal character, worthy of our eternal attention. Similarly, the people of Israel have been undergoing a process over the last century. This has taken us from being individual Jews in exile, to being Hebrews again in the land of Israel. Understanding each step in the process that led Abram from Ur Kasdim to become Abraham, the steps that led Jacob to become Israel, the deep understanding of each identity, its weaknesses and challenges, and mainly the process and not only the result, enables us to understand the processes and challenges that we as a people face today.
Bible Dynamics is very well organized, and that organization presents many advantages along with some disadvantages. Manitou’s books are transcribed lessons. A question from a student can divert the topic that can lead the reader to nearly endless topics in philosophy, theology, or current affairs. So, too, are the lessons of R. Sherki. Bible Dynamics constantly returns to the verse at hand. This forces us to maintain a certain order, with its limitations. One is exposed to the Manitou ideas, via this unlikely, polyglot chain of tradition, but we cannot experience his tone and style.
Clearly, Bible Dynamics is not a book penned by R. Leon Ashkenazi. The book has its own “dynamics.” But, until R. Ashkenazi, from heaven, decides to start translating his books into English, or until it is skillfully done for us by others, Polonsky’s Bible Dynamics creates the opportunity for the English speaker to experience some of Manitou’s unique approach.
Eliezer Levin, a native of Mexico, graduated from Yeshivat Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, and later studied at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem. He is currently the director of the Nativ program in the IDF.