Koren Publishers: Tell us about yourself.
Alex Israel: I live in Gush Etzion and teach Tanakh in Jerusalem. I am lucky enough to teach in several wonderful frameworks, teaching students aged 18 to 80 and from a diverse set of backgrounds. I teach Modern Orthodox gap-year students at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi and Midreshet Lindenbaum. I teach Tanakh teachers in Matan’s Eshkolot Program, and I teach adults at the non-denominational and diverse Pardes Institute. The range keeps me fresh. I also learn a great deal from my visits to communities and campuses around the Jewish world, on my international lecture tours which I do several times annually.
I love living in Israel; the connection with our history, the bond through language and nationhood inspire me. Whether I am leading a tour in Ir David or at the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, or even hearing the news on the radio, the revival of our nation in our land is a miracle of historic proportions. It is one of the ways in which the Tanakh comes to life, as the stories of the past inform the present with a renewed resonance and relevance.
Koren Publishers: What drew you to Kings in particular?
Alex Israel: I was visiting a friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, who is a superb teacher and scholar and had recently published a book. He said: “You should publish a book on Tanakh.” “Me?” I asked? He challenged me: “If you had to write on one book of Tanakh, which book would you write about?” I responded, “Sefer Melakhim – Kings.” And to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure where that came from.
But when he asked, I explained. You see, I had been teaching Neviim Rishonim annually for over 15 years, the books that depict the historical continuum of the Jewish people from her entry into the land of Israel until the Hurban – the Temple’s destruction and our national exile (in 586 BCE.) The books of Joshua , Judges and Samuel are filled with so much narrative; colorful stories which draw the reader and invite questions. But Kings – well first of all, very little was written on it; as a teacher, it was hard to find material. But beyond that, the biblical text itself felt less inviting. It was filled with detail and statistics, the stories seemed less developed. I saw how many a student studied Joshua to Samuel, and then got stuck in Kings. I felt that a book was needed to give context and character to Melakhim and to accompany the reader as he or she worked through the book. That is what I have aimed to do.
Koren Publishers: Were you ever afraid of misrepresenting characters by adding in these details found in other sources?
Alex Israel: The process of writing can be terrifying. You are always concerned that you are putting your perspective out there and that you are exposing yourself to critique. But I researched thoroughly. First through traditional commentary and Midrash, and then with modern works, literary and archaeological. The book is thoroughly footnoted so that the reader can check my sources. So, in fact I have added few details that are not found in other sources. But yes, I have taken a stand on many characters, from Elisha to Gehazi, from Jehu to Hezekiah. I have offered challenging and possibly lesser known depictions. I think my perspectives are well substantiated.
Koren Publishers: Kings II is so full of detail and precision- What is your writing process? How long did it take you to write this book?
Alex Israel: The process has been arduous. The book has been in process since 2012 when I wrote a series for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash. Since then it has undergone waves of research, rewriting, editing and more editing. Maggid Books have done a superb job at every stage, and put the best editors and proofreaders at my disposal. When I held the book in my hands a few weeks ago, it was very moving to hold the final product of thousands of hours, and seven years of work.
Koren Publishers: The biblical book of Kings doesn’t always enlist so much detail in describing the various monarchs. In fact you had to draw upon other sources to fill in the gaps in order to present a full picture. In the course of your research, was there a particular monarch or prophet that you felt the most drawn to or connected to?
Alex Israel: There are too many incredible characters to choose a single one. I was very taken by the dilemmas that Kings faced when they were up against huge and powerful aggressors such as the Assyrian Empire. The prophet is always advising and instructing the Kings of Judah to retain their neutrality, because associating with powerful empires usually means swallowing their cultural world, inviting in a huge influx of idolatry, magic and foreign culture. But can a king rely on miracles to keep the country safe? Hezekiah relies on God, and God does deliver a miracle. But that is hardly a this-worldly policy! I can only imagine the pressure Hezekiah was under to forge this alliance or to join one of the alliances of the period. That is one of the reasons that the book has a sub-title, “In a Whirlwind.” Sometimes the Israelite kingdom feels like a small ship buffeted by winds and currents much larger than her, and one frequently feels quite anxious for her survival in those stormy waters. The political and religious challenges of the period are far from simple, and at times, a political choice has severe spiritual ramifications.
Koren Publishers: What can readers hope to learn from this book?
Alex Israel: Well, first and foremost the reader will study a key book of the Bible and will encounter both classic stories and central events of our collective history.
They will study the great prophet Elisha as we probe the enigma of why he always solves a problem with a miracle.
We will meet the revolutionary Jehu and discuss the use of zeal and violence for the sake of God.
We will study the story of King Joash and raise the challenge of funding for public institutions and how that can be made more transparent and effective.
Several episodes will also discuss questions of religious corruption which unfortunately has become a contemporary topic.
We will meet Hezekiah and ask when it is all right to rely on a miracle and when we have to achieve things through human effort.
We will read about the religious revolution of Josiah and wonder how a cultural reversal can penetrate the layers of society.
So there is plenty here.
Koren Publishers: Do you have any other projects in the works? Any projects you’d like to begin?
Alex Israel: Yes. I have two books on my computer, waiting to be edited and published. (Are there any sponsors out there??)
The first is a book on the Jewish holidays, the chagim, which is a mix of scholarly articles and lighter blog and Facebook posts, written over 2 decades, to take us through the Jewish year and inspire our experience of those holidays.
The second is a project called “The Parsha Discussion” which offers material and ideas to stimulate Shabbat Table discussion with teens around the topic of the weekly Parsha (Torah Reading.)
To get your copy of Kings II: In a Whirlwind click here or visit your local Jewish book store.