Weeds in the Garden of Eden (Hebrew)
Biblical Narratives and Israeli Chronicles
Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, 2002
ISBN 965-02-0154-8
This book, entitled in Hebrew Asabim Shotim be-Gan Eden, evolved from a series of divrei torah that Leon (Shaz) Sheleff delivered as a lay member of Hod ve-Hadar Conservative Congregation. The book examines the way in which the dominant values of Israeli society have been shaped by biblical texts, as viewed through the prism of classical commentaries. Sheleff contends that these commentaries reflect the biases of their authors, who were reacting to particular historical circumstances. These biases, in turn, often distorted the original meaning of the text. Sheleff calls upon the liberal elements in Israeli society—whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated—to reclaim the Bible from the clutches of the stagnant political Orthodox establishment, and to renew the personal dialogue so essential for a dynamic Judaism.
For information about this book in Hebrew, click here.
From the Preface
This book is a rather personal journey into the past, to the heritage whose values were inculcated into me, and whose achievements made me proud. It is also an examination fraught with worry, frustration and despair over what is being done in the name of that glorious heritage by those considered to be its guardians.
Unlike many critics of the Orthodox camp, I believe that the struggle must take place on its playing field and must relate to its members’ interpretation of present-day reality, their analysis of Jewish history, and the use they make of the Bible, which is cherished by us all. I am convinced that the Orthodox Jewry does not have exclusive rights over Judaism; we must all struggle, together with them—and, when necessary, against them—to find relevance and meaning in our ancient heritage. One need not be “religious” in order to be concerned about the fate of Judaism, or to contribute to its rejuvenation.
A different perspective
To clarify some points at the outset:
1. I am aware of the fact that there are some Orthodox Jews to whom my criticism does not apply, but they are still a minority within the Orthodox community. For example, when I discuss the issue of peace, within various contexts, my approach is similar to that of such movements as Oz Ve-Shalom (Strength with Peace), Netivei Shalom (Paths of Peace) and the Meimad religious party. Yet these groups constitute a small minority inside the Orthodox camp in Israel.
2. I relate to the Scriptures as text, without reference to religious beliefs (my own or those of my readers), or to the historical accuracy of the narrative; without reference to archaeological findings in Canaan or the latest theories about the Big Bang or about the creation of the world; without reference to the issue of conversations between God and various historical figures. The text is what counts.
The text became sacred because of its centrality in the history of the nation; it has been accepted by half the population of the world; it has influenced many artists and those who view, read or listen to their works; it still affects our consciousness of reality today and our vision for the future. The text itself is the basis for our work, just as it has been for generations. The descriptions that appear in the Bible have remained with us not because of their accuracy, but because of their words. Surely other words were spoken, but they were not recorded and did not remain in our memory. This fact gives rise to many kinds of interpretation, but we must place limits on the freedom we allow our imagination to fill in the gaps. Even our imagination has to be faithful to the original, i.e., to the biblical text from which it takes flight.
Tradition and renewal
The way texts are read and interpreted is affected by the ideology of the commentators, including the greatest and most pious of sages and scholars. The discussions in this book of the meaning of such terms as “peace”, “stranger”, “reconciliation” and “conscientious objection” reflect differing world views, such as nationalism (including the notion of Greater Israel), on the one hand, and liberalism and human rights, on the other.
In Israel we are witness to religious commentary that focuses primarily on nationalistic considerations. It is time for other values, such as democracy, peace, justice, freedom and integrity to become part of the Israeli dialogue about Judaism, among both observant and free-thinking Israelis. This dialogue is part of the process of developing a Jewish culture, in which the restoration of ancient traditions goes hand-in-hand with renewal and revision. This process takes into account both that which is unique to Jewish culture and that which is universal, as well as the cultural life of the Jewish majority in Israel together with the rights of its Arab minority.
Above all, it is impossible to understand Israeli reality without examining the impact of the Bible and the various biblical commentaries on this reality and on the values that have shaped it.

For information about this book in Hebrew, click here.