Elliiott Rabin, PhD, author of “The Biblical Hero,” approaches the Bible in an original way, comparing biblical heroes to heroes in world literature, and his book addresses questions such as “What is the Bible telling us about what it means to be a hero?” and “Why do we need such heroes, possibly now more than ever?” On Sunday, March 15, the community is invited to a Book Launch with Elliott Rabin from 10:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m. in the main chapel of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Bayit.
Zooming into the lives of six major biblical characters—Moses, Samson, David, Esther, Abraham and Jacob—Rabin examines their resemblances to hero types found in (and perhaps drawn from) other works of literature and analyzes why the Bible depicts its heroes less gloriously than other cultures. Rabin excavates how the Bible’s unique perspective on heroism can address our own deep-seated need for human-scale heroes.
Rabin’s motivation for writing this book can be traced to his Shabbat table when his father and father-in-law would discuss the biblical hero, Jacob, and his deceptions of his brother and father. Rabin looked for clues in the parshah and justifications from the mefarshim to answer the objections posed at the table, but found himself “equally troubled and dissatisfied.” Rabin offered, “As I started to consider other paradigmatic biblical characters, I came to see Jacob’s flaws not as something unique and anomalous but rather as exemplary of the Bibles’ perspective as a whole. Indeed, every major biblical character from Moses to David is presented as containing flaws and often as acting in ways that are far from ideal and even criticized by God.” Rabin’s book begins with the acknowledgment of that perspective and investigates why the bible casts a somewhat jaundiced view on its own heroes.
Rabin is drawn to the close reading practiced by ancient rabbis in their commentaries, where every word, spelling and word order provides insight into a character’s intentions and the meaning of events. What is missing, according to Rabin, is the “zoom out,” an overview of a character examining his or her career as a whole. Rabin’s book attempts to “zoom out” on two levels. Regarding individual characters, Rabin describes the arc of the character’s life and explores the meaning that the Bible ascribes to the character when surveyed as a whole. He “zooms out” again to consider the Bible’s view of heroes writ large—looking at biblical characters both as individuals and as expressions of a larger worldview—of biblical monotheism, and comparing biblical heroes with heroes found in other cultures.
As readers of the Bible, we are often invested in our heroes and see them as “bnei bayit,” like members of our own family. We want to see our heroes as perfect. Rabin proffers, “The important point is that the Bible depicts them as flawed for a reason. The Bible is warning us against the danger of turning people into heroes. In the ancient world, heroes were considered to be part-gods. Even today, people idolize their heroes. By showing the greatest biblical characters warts-and-all, the Bible emphasizes that no people, not even—or especially—heroes are divine. The Bible leaves no opening for Moses or David to be deified, during life or after death.”
The Bible tells us not to expect perfection, that no person should be burdened with such impossible expectations. We study biblical stories closely to learn about characters’ strengths—Abraham’s faith, Moses’s leadership, Esther’s bravery—and to learn from their failings. The study of biblical heroes can teach us to emulate the characters’ nobel qualities and equally to accept our own flaws as both inevitable and as parts of our character we can work to improve.
Rabin believes that we need heroes today as much as ever. “Heroes provide us with models to emulate, midot to admire and study. In the Talmud, the rabbis learn from the teachings of their masters, and they visit them in order to learn how their teachers behave. People today are no different; we still need to find people to teach us and model for us what it means to be a Jew, a mentsch, to instruct us with words, with deeds, and with their whole being.” Rabin explained that the older he becomes, the more he finds that heroes are important to people of all ages, “because we can always seek to grow, to learn, to become our better selves.”
By comparing biblical heroes with those in world literature, Rabin provides valuable context for understanding aspects of a particular story that are not evident when that story is read alone. For example, Rabin’s book examines the entire story of Jacob and his sons in relation to other famous trickster characters, and uses that comparison both to sharpen the reader’s appreciation of how Jacob is like other literary tricksters and to discern how the Bible shapes the trickster within its own moral and narrative universe.
Rabin is director of thought leadership, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, where he edits HaYidion, the leading publication for Jewish day school practitioners. He formerly served as director of educational programs for RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network and director of education for the 92nd Street Y’s Makor/Steinhardt Center. Rabin is the author of “Understanding the Hebrew Bible: A Reader’s Guide,” and has published articles and translations from three languages in various scholarly and general-interest publications. Rabin’s book will be available for purchase at the event.
By Yvette Finkelstein