I Kings and us

I Kings and us

The Book of I Kings – the fourth book of Prophets, or Nevi’im, and so the middle section of the Tanach – deals with nation building, national identity building, ideology, corruption, and the role of religion in national life, Rabbi Alex Israel said.

But despite its place in the core of our canon, it is seldom read, and infrequently commented upon.

Rabbi Israel has just published “I Kings: Torn in Two,” a book that looks closely at the oddly obscure text, with an eye toward both the traditional understandings and a new close read.

Rabbi Alex Israel

He plans to discuss the book at a number of places in the metropolitan area; locally, he will teach in an open meeting at Congregation Rinat Israel and privately at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls, both in Teaneck.

I Kings’ “story starts with Solomon and the building of the Temple,” Rabbi Israel said. “It is about Solomon’s sins and how he fell from grace, the kingdom is split, and instead of the whole Jewish state, we have the northern and southern kingdoms. The rest of the book is the struggle between the prophets and the kings.”

The book “has a huge amount of relevance to things going on today, even though it is so ancient,” Rabbi Israel said.

I Kings has not always struck its readers as one of the more interesting books of the Bible. “I come from England,” Rabbi Israel said – unnecessarily – in a recent phone interview; his accent is bell-clear and unmistakable, even after the more than two decades that have passed since he made aliyah. “We had to learn the whole list of the kings and queens of England. It was terrible. The Book of Kings in a way seemed similar. A lot of people get turned off by it. It’s seen as very technical.

“I wanted to rise above the technical side, and give it more meaning. More context. The ability of the Jewish people to split itself apart is one of the reasons why this material is so relevant, even though it is so ancient.”

His technique is “to give the text depth and texture,” he added. “Just a close read can be a bit myopic. There is no big picture. I try to give reads of character and look at the groundswell of history; how events really do affect outcomes. I try to look at realpolitik.”

Sometimes, he said, “I think people come at these texts with a very midrash-based approach that gives them an almost unrealistic approach to some characters, a sort of simplistic understanding. People who are sensitive to the text, on the other hand, say that’s not what the text actually says.

“I have tried to retain, on the one hand, the rabbinic, traditional sense of who the heroes are and who are the villains, but on the other I also try to read it closely, with an eye toward what is really said.” He has tried to strip away some of the layers of accreted myth.

As an example, he discussed chapter 7, where Solomon marries Pharaoh’s daughter, and chapter 8, where the Temple is dedicated. According to the midrash, Rabbi Israel said, there were two parties given at the same time. One was for the Temple, and the other for Pharaoh’s daughter. Solomon did not know which one to choose, and he picked the wrong one – Pharaoh’s daughter’s party. The keys to his new Temple were under his pillow, and his guards didn’t want to wake him to retrieve them.

Looking at it as metaphor, “the image that his relationship with a foreign woman is subverting the order of the Temple is very powerful,” Rabbi Israel said.

He tries to look beyond the literal meaning of the midrash, he said. “There is a verse in Kings that says that Solomon talked to the animals, the birds, and all the insects and the fish. When I was a little child, I was taught that Solomon actually could talk to them.

“We are also taught that he knew everything there was to know, and that people flocked to Jerusalem to learn from him.

“I find it hard to believe that the world was flocking to Solomon in the belief that he personally knew everything. He was just one person. But there are other instances in the Tanach where he imports artisans, and we learn from that, that it is most likely that he imported men of letters. He tried to make Jerusalem the Harvard and Yale, the Oxford and Cambridge of the Middle East, such that they would flock there.

“He also hoped that once they were there, it would lead people to acclaim the Lord.”

Solomon was not an entirely un-understandable person, as far away as he is from us. “He was a very religiously motivated person,” Rabbi Israel said. Beyond that, all the characters in the stories “were genuine people. We could learn a lot from them.”

Rabbi Israel is moved by the story of King Ahab’s desire to take his neighbor’s vineyard. In taking the innocent man’s land, he has him killed. Elijah, who is “fearless, stands up to the king.

“Living in the climate that we live in, when so many times you see people in senior positions getting away with so many things, when you see so much corruption, we long for the national prophet who will stand up to the king.

“We hope for such a clear moral voice in our own world.”

Rabbi Israel, who is 46, grew up in a modern Orthodox family in London and then went to Israel for a few years to study. Back at home, he concentrated on computers and economics at the London School of Economics. “I was actually thinking of going into what was then a very cool thing – management consultancy,” he said. “But the truth is that during my student years, I got very involved in Jewish youth work. I loved it. I loved Jewish education.

“I was sending out all these applications for management consultancy work, and I was so unexcited by it. So I decided to follow my heart.”

That organ led him to a yeshiva, where he studied for a year that turned into six years and ended in rabbinical ordination from the chief rabbinate.

That was 18 years ago.

Ever since then, Rabbi Israel has been teaching and lecturing in yeshivot and other modern Orthodox institutions in Israel, including Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He is also active in Tzohar, the religious Zionist organization that has been most active in providing Orthodox, state-recognized weddings to secular Israelis. “I am quite passionate about it,” Rabbi Israel said. “I would like to see greater unity between groups in Israel, and I would like to build bridges between them.

“I am a passionate Zionist,” he continued. “I love living in Israel.

“I love turning on the radio and hearing Hebrew. I love driving around the country and seeing the places I’ve read about in the Bible. I love taking my students to see those sites.

“Loving Israel and living here and being involved in the dramas that include politics and religion and the military and corruption and culture – all this has helped me read the Bible less as an antiquated reality. You can see almost all of it in a very real way.

“My living here has brought the Tanach alive for me.”

Learning more about I Kings
Who: Rabbi Alex Israel

What: Teaches from his new book, “I Kings: Torn in Two,” from Koren Publishers’ Maggid Studies in Tanach, across the tristate region, both publicly and privately.

Where: Publicly in New Jersey at Cong. Rinat Israel in Teaneck on Sunday, February 23, at 9 a.m. and at Drisha in Manhattan on Thursday, March 20, at 6:30 p.m. He will also be at YU’s Seforim Sale on Wednesday, February 19, from 8 to 9:15.

For more information: All the details are on his website, www.alexisrael.org

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