Review of Steven Bob, Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah Translated and Explained
Steven Bob, Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah Translated and Explained. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2013. 172 pages. $22.00.
Alan T. Levenson
University of Oklahoma
Rabbi Steven Bob has ably translated and explicated five major commentators on the Book of Jonah. Jonah, in Jewish Bibles, usually appears as one of the twelve Minor Prophets, and more importantly, it is traditionally read in the afternoon service in its entirety on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Thus, this slim volume of 160 pages of text would be a helpful guide and primer for Jews preparing to read, study, or speak on Jonah in synagogue. This book has great liturgical value: this collection of commentaries provides non-observant Jews, Christians, and interested Bible readers generally with a handy and inexpensive sampler of some the more important commentators on Jonah. In the case of the biblical text, transliterations ought to have been more consistent: why “va’yahi” in Jonah 1:1 when the vowel is a shva? Why an apostrophe at “Ha’ir hagedola,” but not “Ukra Aleha” (and why the upper case A in “Aleha”?) In the case of the rabbinic texts, I only checked the Rashi translation, but it is accurate and I agree with Rabbi Bob’s explications of Rashi, though, again not necessarily with his vocalizations/transliterations. Since the rabbinic Hebrew commentaries are consonantal only, as is the Torah scroll itself, these matters are open to honest disagreements. This observation actually highlights another great contribution of Rabbi Bob’s book. While there has been no shortage of scholarly translations of rabbinic Torah commentaries (Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, etc.), the other books of the Hebrew Bible have not received nearly the same attention. In other words, someone looking for an English language translation of the rabbinic commentaries to two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible (Prophets and Writings) will find many gaps.
Rabbi Bob, therefore, has made a definite and praiseworthy contribution to bringing Jewish commentaries to the English-language reader, and as explained above, I think his choice to begin with Jonah is eminently reasonable for liturgical reasons. His own original commentary, cleverly named Divrei Simcha, contains many sparking insights and offers testimony to the author’s ongoing interaction with the text. I found his observation and explanation of why Jonah has the sailors throw him overboard insightful and compelling. (Bob wittily describes this as “sailor-assisted suicide” (143].)
The reader probably senses a “but” in this praise, and with reason. Rabbi Bob does not explain his choice of commentaries, which will be obvious only to the rabbinic or academic readers. Bob correctly notes that recent interest in biblical interpretation has grown (ix), but I wish Bob had given some examples and some explanation of this truly important phenomenon. When Bob writes, “The significance of Jewish scholars commenting on Jonah within Christian and Muslim cultural contexts is obvious” (x), I must disagree; it is significant, but it is anything but obvious. Bob does not explain the nature of these exegetical interactions, although I am sure he could have. Similarly, when Bob correctly states that “The Malbim takes the Midrash seriously” (111), the hidden point is that many nineteenth century non-Orthodox scholars did not. Bob understands Malbim (as do I) as being of the camp of Samson Raphael Hirsch and Jacob Mecklenburg in offering a full-throttled defense of oral Torah getting written Torah right. Once again, I have no doubt that this was in Bob’s mind, but it ought to be on paper too. This criticism could be lodged against this volume generally: without increasing the size unduly or hiking the price, Bob might have added these few paragraphs of background and made this book far more useful to the general reader. This book cannot rank along with Barry Wallfish’s Esther in Medieval Garb or other pioneering academic works that unfold the rabbinic system via an explanation of their exegesis. Notwithstanding these qualifications, this is a fine book and I hope synagogues, temples, churches, and libraries will take advantage of Rabbi Bob’s yeoman service of accurate translation and clear explication. I know I will.