Man and Beast

The name Rabbi David Fohrman flashed brightly on my radar screen for the first time in twenty years this past summer. I was in Lawrence, and a good friend told me that he had been challenged by his partner in Torah learning, a highly successful hedge fund manager, to prove that the Torah is the product of a single Author.

My friend had arranged for his learning partner to meet a number of people, and asked if I wanted to join them. The last stop on our highly stimulating tour was Rabbi Fohrman.

Though Reb David and I had learned in the same yeshiva about two decades ago, I was completely unprepared for the brilliance of his presentation. For two hours, he held us transfixed as he showed repeating ideational patterns in Bereishis. He demonstrated how many of the key events in the story of Creation are related as chiasms – or, as they are sometimes known, at-bash patterns. In this literary form, the first idea mirrors the last, the second idea mirrors the next to last, etc. Or, to put it another way – the key ideas follow a pattern of A-B-C-B-A, with C forming the fulcrum.

After showing how this was true for the story of Creation, he then demonstrated how the same ideas and literary patterns are repeated in the story of the Flood (re-creation), and of Avraham Avinu (the creation of the Jewish people).

When he was done, I sat there stunned. The parallel chiasms from story to story (and there are many of them) are the Torah’s way of conveying great depth of meaning in a particularly concise form. But once revealed, they also form compelling proof of the Torah’s unitary authorship.

As we were leaving, Rabbi Fohrman mentioned that he had just finished writing The Beast that Crouches at the Door (Devora Publishing), a close examination of two encounters in parashas Bereishis: that between Chava and the Snake and Kayin’s murder of Hevel. I could not imagine anything equaling the interactive power point presentation I had just witnessed, and feared disappointment. I need not have worried.

Rabbi Fohrman has been lecturing to mixed groups of non-religious and religious Jews for many years, and the ability to provide something that is shaveh l’kol nefesh (enjoyable to all types of people) is evident. The Beast that Crouches at the Door will equally delight a reader who has been studying Chumash his entire life and one who cannot read Hebrew. It is the ideal text for any experienced chavrusah who wants to introduce a non-learned study partner to the subtlety and depth of Torah learning, and is destined to become a key tool in kiruv worldwide.

The book is philosophically deep, emotionally in tune, hypersensitive to nuances in the Biblical text, and reads like a mystery. Each short chapter ends with the reader hanging on the edge of the cliff eager to proceed to the next.

Rabbi Fohrman is not afraid to confront the Big Questions: Why would Hashem have wished to withhold the knowledge of Good and Evil from mankind? Why were Chava and Adam punished for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil if they had no previous knowledge of Good and Evil? In other words, how were they changed by eating of the fruit? Why would G-d, Who is by definition perfect, have created the world? If He “needed” to create the World, does this not constitute an absence of perfection?

Nor does he shy away from hot button issues. He notes that Hashem curses Chava – “your desire will be towards your husband, and yet he can rule over you” – in almost the same terms He uses to describe the yetzer hara to Kayin, just before the latter murders Hevel – “. . . its desire is unto you, yet you can rule over it.” What are we to make of the apparent analogy of Chava to the yetzer hara?

Rabbi Fohrman’s answer avoids apologetics. He explores the text in conjunction with a Midrash that mentions two additional teshukahs to that of Chava for Adam and the yetzer hara for Kayin: Hashem’s teshukah for humanity, and rain’s teshukah for the land (not vice versa). The Midrash forces us to redefine teshukah, not in terms of need, but as an overflowing life-force – a view that both gives us a clear view of the relationship between masculinity and femininity and a far subtler understanding of the yetzer hara.

The yetzer hara is not a “devil in a bright red suit,” but the sum total of one’s desires, passions, and ambitions — particularly the desire to create (yetzer is a variant of yotzer, to create). Thus, Chazal describe Torah as the tavlin (spice) for the yetzer hara, indicating that the yetzer hara is the “meat” of life. Now we can begin to comprehend what Chazal meant when they said that Hashem’s approbation of man as “tov me’od (very good)” refers to the creation of the yetzer hara.

The insights in the book derive from highly nuanced readings of the texts. Over and over again, Rabbi Fohrman notes “obvious questions” – ones we would come up with on our own if we paid adequate attention when reading Chumash.

In a particularly fascinating section early in the book, for example, Rabbi Fohrman points out what appears to be a long digression in the Etz HaDaas Story. After the initial description of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, and before Chava’s dialogue with the Snake, there is an extended section on the creation of Chava and man’s attempt to name all the animals. Why add this section in at precisely this juncture? Why not start with Adam’s failure to find a suitable companion among the animals, continue with the creation of Chava, and then tell the story of the planting of the trees and the eating of the fruit consecutively?

Rabbi Fohrman shows that the apparent “digression” supplies the missing motivation for the Snake. Adam’s rejection of the animals as suitable companions forms the necessary backdrop to understanding the Snake’s actions: The Snake sought, in the words of the Midrash, to kill Adam and claim Chava for himself – in other words, to reclaim mankind for the animal kingdom. Rabbi Fohrman not only answers a difficult series of questions here, he also demonstrates the acuity with which Chazal addressed the text.

In a subtle analysis of the ways Chava changed Hashem’s prohibition against eating from the Tree of Good and Knowledge, Rabbi Fohrman shows how desire overcomes us: by overstating the importance of the object of desire – Chava moves the Tree to the “center” of the Garden; by minimizing the significance of what is permitted – Chava omits Hashem’s permission to eat of “all” the other trees; by overstating the extent of what is prohibited – Chava adds a prohibition on “touching” the tree; and by trivializing the consequences of giving into desire – Chava does not mention that the death will become an immediate and inevitable reality on the very day of eating.

Above all, The Beast that Crouches at the Door is an extended meditation on what it means to be human and the nature of desire. What is it that distinguishes the primordial Snake, which can speak, walk upright, and construct logical arguments, from a human being? The answer lies in the Snake’s challenge to Chava, as interpreted by Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch: “Even if G-d said do not eat from any of the trees of the Garden, [so what]?” (Genesis 3:1). Didn’t He also create your desires and instincts? Why not listen to those; aren’t they the authentic voice of God as well?”

The argument is a natural one for a Snake – for animals really do “listen” to Hashem by following their instincts. What distinguishes humans from animals, though, is that we hear a different voice of Hashem; we hear God’s commandments, which require us to take our desires and make something more out of them.

Adam and Chava’s failure to realize fully what it means to be human led directly to Kayin’s murder of Hevel — not just chronologically, but thematically. Like Adam, Kayin experiences exile, difficulty wresting a livelihood from the earth, and hiding from Hashem, only in a more intensified form. By letting his passions overcome him, Kayin has become “animal-like” himself. As Rashi tells us, after the murder, he immediately fears being killed by his “fellow” animals, whom he senses will no longer experience the natural awe of animals for humans. And he is killed by Lemech after being mistaken for an animal.

Every page of The Beast that Crouches at the Door is filled with such delights, as previously overlooked depths of meaning stand revealed. Every reader will immediately want to buy several more copies to share with loved ones.

This arcticle appeared in the Mishpacha on November 11 2007

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9 comments to Man and Beast

  • dr. william gewirtz

    Chiastic structures whether in the Bible or l’havdil secular works often convey what chazal might term remez or sod. Following a variety of patterns, analagous to but often more global in scope than typically more localized at-bash, they are a mainstay of modern literary analysis. R. Leibtag uses them on occassion in his weekly chumash shiur on the har etzion website.

    Chiastic structures indeed demonstrate a unitary text, but offer minimal implication of whether that text was redacted or written, with or without Divine inspiration. Attempts to demonstrate what are beliefs, like that of a single Author, are often counter-productive. I assume you might agree, but your opening paragraph and the connection to the hedge fund manager’s question might be misconstrued.

  • Neil Epstein

    “For two hours, he held us transfixed as he showed repeating ideational patterns in Bereishis…The parallel chiasms from story to story (and there are many of them) are the Torah’s way of conveying great depth of meaning in a particularly concise form. But once revealed, they also form compelling proof of the Torah’s unitary authorship.”

    Many who doubt this belief focus on how the events after matan Torah or Moshe Rabbeinu’s death and question.

    Though I have no doubt that Rabbi Fohrman’s presentation was spectacular and I look forward to reading the Rabbi’s book, how can an examination of only part of the Torah be a convincing proof of unitary authorship?

  • mb

    R.Rosenblum,

    The use of chiasmi do nothing to promote the idea of a single or divine author any more than the Bible codes do.It was literary form used extensively in antiquity.
    Now if you really want something special to peruse, take a look at the chiasmi in the Siddur. It is replete with examples.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Does this kind of similarity prove single authorship, or just authorship in the same literary tradition? Would you be able to find similar similarities between Judges and Kings, for example?

  • Baruch Horowitz

    “Attempts to demonstrate what are beliefs, like that of a single Author, are often counter-productive”

    I would guess that it depends on the person and on their amount of exposure to anti-Torah sources; depending on the person, they would either benefit, or not benefit from a particular approach. Some would need to build up the other side of an argument to a greater extent than others, so I can see room for individuality. The same could apply in a different way to inspirational speakers and mussar derashos; I myself respond to some speakers and presentations better than to other.

    The book itself sounds like a great one to share with both frum and secular Jews becuase of its in depth commentary; Rav Dessler writes of how comprehending Torah in depth leads to greater conviction of its Divine design(MME Vol III, pg 177), and this type of commentary can be used by those without more advanced textual skills.

  • Jewish Observer

    “how can an examination of only part of the Torah be a convincing proof of unitary authorship?”

    – think of it as an indication, not a proof

  • Ahron

    I’ve been to several of R. Forhman’s lectures, discussion groups and online classes. They indeed tend to be as revealing, and mind-opening, as Jonathan indicates.

    R. Fohrman’s goal in these explorations–and the ones I have attended were structured very much as joint explorations, upon which R. Fohrman and his listeners embark together–is not to “prove” anything. Whether it be unitary authorship or some or another message of religious or sectarian content; efforts at “proof”, apologetics, or religious inducement play frankly no role in the type of study, thought and analytics that comprise these encounters.

    To the contrary, the goal is to allow the text to speak for itself–and in it’s own language–in the simplest and most human terms available. The Torah text and its message is the main protagonist. Assumptions, wishes and projections have little place in these explorations. Human experience, and the existential questions that such experience raises for every thinking person, plays a large role.

    To me his talks have always been interwoven with a profoundly experiential element for precisely that reason. They are deeply intellectual without succumbing to the siren songs of academicism; instead carrying and fostering a linkage of deep conceptual analysis, lexical/verbal awareness and a broad sensitivity to human experience, I continually reencounter a deep and surprising relevance springing up to greet me in the middle of each study. This mixture of presence, prescience and connection is the happy opposite of what one is subjected to by academic productions.

    A particularly meaningful characteristic of his work–and I find this in contrast to many other contemporary shiurim, particularly those that claim to “engage” the modern world–is his declination of any attempt to try and force the Torah’s text to justify itself on anything other than its own terms and the terms of its intended audience: human beings tasked with undertaking an often perplexing mission in this world.

    Indeed if R. Fohrman did try to stew the text into an illusory “relevance”–or try to cajole it into bolstering some or another claim of religious doctrine–he would not be able to deal seriously with the big and fundamental questions. (And this is indeed why so many contemporary shiurim, frankly, are unable to grapple deeply with fundamental questions). But he does deal with those questions, and does so in a manner that is quite powerful. It is simply and frankly Torah li’shmah. Take it or leave it.

    From this perspective R. Fohrman ends up acting mainly as a translator, sent along to accompany and help decrypt an important message that is just arriving from a long trip. I think the enjoyment and admiration expressed above by R’ Rosenblum are an indication of just how satisfying–and surprisingly fun–it is to dive into an experience where fundamental questions in the Torah, and therefore life, are truthfully confronted.

    While they do not try to bolster any particular doctrinal assertions, R. Fohrman’s talks do reveal a far reaching and surprisingly deep thematic and grammatical unity undergirding broad swaths of the Torah. I cannot really overemphasize how deeply unexpected the discovery of this unity is, or just how broadly it sweeps.

    The picture is an emergent one, but it emerges rather rapidly once you can recognize the footholds and signposts you are already staring at. The emergent structure sensitively and almost playfully urges us forward on a path, begging us to discover just how deeply its many branches and tributaries intersect with each other. Like a “magic eye” image, a shifting of perspective and expectations suddenly reveals a depth and structure previously unimagined.

    As the study progresses it becomes apparent–well, at least to me–that the window of likely authors who could have woven together so integrated and multidimensional and fundamentally whole-some a text grows continually smaller until there seem to be virtually no remaining candidates. It is around this point that each person will have to ask him- or herself what the most likely source of such a sophisticated creation was. R. Fohrman, happily and deliciously, does not directly address it.

    And why should he? The Torah he learns with us is speaking for itself.

  • Baruch Horowitz

    “…It is around this point that each person will have to ask him- or herself what the most likely source of such a sophisticated creation was. R. Fohrman, happily and deliciously, does not directly address it. And why should he? The Torah he learns with us is speaking for itself.”

    Thanks for the clarification regarding R Forhman’s shiurim. This sounds like precisely what R Dessler meant, regarding in-depth comprehension of Torah leading to greater emunah(belief), and if so, The Beast that Crouches at the Door is very relevant to people of different backgrounds, as I mentioned.

    I still maintain that regarding the subject of “proofs”, in general, (which as you indicate is not the point of the lectures, but which others mentioned), there is an element of individuality, and to be effective, one also needs to respond to a person based on their specific mindset, knowledge, or readings.

  • David Fohrman

    Hi there; its David Fohrman here — the author of the work cited in Jonathan Rosenblum’s review here. I thought I would just clarify something which the review mentioned obliquely, but didn’t flesh out all that much, as it seems to have led to some confusion.

    The presentation on Sefer Bereishit which Jonathan Rosenblum saw, dealt with intersecting patterns in Bereishit. Its hard to explain without actually seeing the presentation yourself, but in short, the presentation forcuses on the intersection between two different methodologies:

    A) “Repeating” stories in Bereishit
    B) chiastic structures.

    The intersection between the two works like this: Every once in a while, a narrative will appear in the Torah which seems to intentionally quote, point after point, from a previous narrative in the Torah. What I think I’ve found in Sefer Bereishit is a very extensive series of sections of text, which quote, point by point, from earlier sections of text. But along the way, there are chiasms in each of the parallel sections — at precisely parallel spots. And what’s more, the centers of the opposing chiasms invariably mirror each other.

    This sounds abstract — but if you see it in practice, I think you’ll see what I mean. For those wishing to see the presentation, it is available at http://www.jewishtextstudy.org, in the “online class archive”. The name of the series is “A Brief History of the World”, and its follow up series is “Abrahama’s Journey”. The series is comprised of about twelve lectures, and is accompanied by powerpoint presentations. Those interested in reviewing the material can contact me for the passcodes necessary to enter the site. I can be reached at davidfohrman@gmail.com.