Plaut Redux: Reforming the Reform Commentary

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published February 04, 2005, issue of February 04, 2005.
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Since its release nearly a quarter-century ago, the Reform movement’s first biblical commentary has sold 250,000 copies and helped fuel a revolution in Torah study. But, as more and more congregations in recent years began placing a greater emphasis on Hebrew and Torah reading during Sabbath services, the tome essentially fell out of step with the traditionalist wave sweeping the movement.

Now, in what Reform leaders describe as a clear reflection of the movement’s turn toward ritual, the Union for Reform Judaism press is releasing a new edition of the commentary, with several changes aimed at highlighting the original Hebrew text and turning the work into a more dependable guide for worshippers who follow along with the weekly Torah reading during Sabbath services. At the same time, editors of the new edition have remained true to the movement’s innovative ethos with several steps, including the introduction of gender-neutral God language.

Published in 1981, “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Bernard Bamberger and Professor William Hallo, was the first English commentary to view the biblical text through the lens of liberal Judaism and assert that the Torah is a document that evolved over centuries, rather than the product of a single encounter with God at Mount Sinai. The work, known as the “Plaut Torah,” sought to incorporate the most up-to-date archaeological and scientific information, while offering verse-by-verse commentaries drawing on a wide range of literature, from medieval rabbi-philosopher Moses Maimonides to 17th-century British poet John Milton.

The biggest complaint with the original edition of the commentary was that it divided the Torah by theme, not according to the traditional weekly Torah readings, or parshaot, making it difficult for worshippers to follow along in synagogue.

“That was the big complaint and one of the things we’ve heard continuously since the original edition was published,” said Rabbi Hara Person, incoming editor in chief of the Reform press that is releasing the revised edition of the Plaut this month.

To address the issue, the commentary and the biblical text in the new edition are organized in accordance with the traditional weekly portions. In addition, the new edition contains markers for each aliya, when worshippers are called to the pulpit to bless the Torah. It also includes traditional cantillation symbols with the Hebrew text, which, like musical notes, directs the reader on how to chant the words.

Person said that the aliyot markers are meant to allow Reform worshippers to “re-engage with tradition,” even if many services choose not to follow them.

“It’s a useful reference, a footnote in a sense, for the historical use of the text,” Person said, adding, “We’re also very wary of mandating how something is to be used.”

Along with the attempts to facilitate the process of following along with the Torah reading during services, the new edition is marked by dozens of subtle and dramatic changes, and features updated translations and commentaries, including some by Plaut, rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple.

In many cases, masculine language has been replaced with gender-neutral terminology. For example, instead of translating the divine name as He, the new edition opts for “the Eternal” — following the example set in 1783 by noted German scholar Moses Mendelssohn.

“Whether ancient Israelites viewed God as ‘male’ or not is a moot point,” David E.S. Stein, manager of the revision project, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “Even so, we did not ignore their view of gender when the Torah’s poetry employed human metaphors to describe God: father, king, warrior. To the ancient audience, ‘father’ did not mean the same as ‘parent.’ That’s why our translation portrays God via male imagery in a few poetic passages, as our commentary explains.”

Scholars working on the revised edition also sought to determine when the biblical text’s use of masculine wording referred specifically to men and when it meant both men and women, building on the work of late Hebrew Union College Bible professor Harry Orlinsky, Stein said. In the new edition, “avot” — generally translated as fathers — becomes parents in English, and “banecha” — your sons — becomes “your children.”

The gender changes reflect scholarship, not political correctness, said Stein, a Reconstructionist rabbi.

“The Torah often uses grammatically masculine wording, which can refer either to men or to mixed groups of men and women — that’s the nature of the Hebrew language,” he said. “In those cases, the question is, ‘In which sense would ancient Israelites have understood that wording?’”

To make such determinations, the scholars examined both biblical writings and other ancient Near Eastern literature.

“Sometimes, after our research, I still was not sure, so I noted as much in the commentary,” Stein said.

The editors of the new edition also took several steps to highlight the original Hebrew text.

For example, two versions of the original edition were published: One opened from the left side, like a typical English book, the other from the right, as a standard Hebrew work would. This time around, though, editors decided only to offer a version that opened from the right, as does a Hebrew book.

The English translation in the original Plaut commentary was placed on the top half of the page, above the Hebrew text. The revised edition, on the other hand, has the two languages side by side, a decision Person said reflects “the greater literacy in the Reform movement and the greater willingness to engage in Hebrew.”

“That is a statement, that this is the way Jews read sacred texts,” Person said. “We are Americans, but Hebrew is the primary text, and it opens the way Hebrew books should open.”

Eric Greenberg is a staff writer for the Forward.

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