How Jewish Is the New ‘Jewish Study Bible’?


By Mark Jay Mirsky

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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The Jewish Study Bible

By Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler (Editors) and Michael Fishbane (Consulting Editor)

Oxford University Press, 2,181 pages, $40.

* * *

‘The Jewish Study Bible,” a hefty, 2,181-page tome published this year, packages a previously published translation of the Hebrew Bible together with extensive marginal commentary and essays by modern scholars. In some ways, it represents the latest layer of exegesis, commentary by scholars who might aspire to the same mediating role as the great figures of the past, Rashis and Rambams.

But as I looked through it, I couldn’t help but ask whom it was meant to serve: the serious academic, the Orthodox synagogue bench, the Conservative or Reform Jewish reader — all of the above? In his introduction, Marc Brettler promises to maintain a balance between two apparently irreconcilable points of view: the unashamedly religious, which regards the text as a divinely inspired whole, and the academic, which sees a patchwork of sources stitched together by several redactors — with gaping holes, redundancies and obvious contradictions. This proves more difficult than one would hope.

If one comes to the “Guide” for information from academic disciplines of history, archeology, textual analysis and comparative religion, there is a lot in the margins, and it’s a pleasure to have the text so enriched. But the difficulty of sharing out the books of the Bible among different editors is that no larger vision can be discerned. When the editor sets three or four redactors to battling, the page becomes noisier than the pews — and just as distracting. Are we to see a passage in Genesis as a pasting togethter of an old folktale, with a preist’s brief for conventional pieities? Are the contradictions and disjunctions deliberate riddle of just mistakes? Is the Samaritan’s Bible version a more reliable source than the Masoretic text?

I would argue, moreover, that the project’s preference for the fragmentary over the holistic is at odds with religious experience. A Jewish reader like myself stakes out a place in the middle. I am happy to sit down with scholarship detailing the possible attribution of a paragraph to a priestly manuscript intent on hectoring the population into sending the Temple its dues on time. But on a Saturday morning while the Torah is being recited, my eye scurrying over the Hebrew, I listen for a moment that speaks aloud to me.

In trying to explain why I often preferred the “holistic” approach, I turn to my own education. The Bible as taught in my Boston Hebrew School was a dreary book. But then, at Harvard in the early 1960s, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, the college’s Hillel director, told me about a critical study of Exodus that was as powerful as Shakespeare. I scoffed at first, but the commentary, by an Italian Jewish scholar named Umberto Cassuto, brought together religious intuition and recent research from archeology, comparisons with other Middle Eastern texts, and textual criticism. Cassuto made explicit the laughter of a mysterious Unknown speaking to and through Moses.

Another guide to the inner pieties and the radical possibilities of a holistic reading were the lectures of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who seemed to make biblical time present. Commenting, but also seeming to relive the experiences of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Moses in Egypt, in his weekly lectures on the biblical portions read in the synagogue, mingled the epigrams of Kierkegaard and Heraclites with those of medieval commentators like Maimonides. The marginal notes of the “Guide” do not communicate such a single vision.

Most important, perhaps, is the problem of humor. In Jon D. Levenson’s marginalia and introduction to Genesis, he offers a cogent and pithy citation as the Holy One clothes Adam and Eve: “God’s clothing the naked indicates that His anger was not the last word… ‘Great are acts of kindness, for the Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness.’ For it begins with God’s clothing the naked, and ends with his burying the dead (Moses).” But let’s backtrack to the moment when Adam and Eve appear “naked.” In the text, it is followed by an inexplicable break in the narrative in which the snake, just before tempting Eve to eat the apple, is described as “wise.” The Bible’s translators noted the similarity between the Hebrew word for “naked” (arummim) and the word for “wise” (arum), a linguistic relationship that ties together the snake and the nude couple. But Levenson’s commentary, while pointing out that the “innocence” of the couple is contrasted with “the shrewd” (or wise) nature of the snake, seems to miss the joke in its pun.

I don’t fault the “Guide” for taking one road instead of another, but for taking too often the humorless one. Levenson skillfully anatomizes several of the issues involved in Eve and Adam’s eating the forbidden apple, but his marginal note on Adam’s excuse states the obvious in slangy moralizing. “The man, lamely, attempts to pass the buck.” So, nu?

Happily the deficiency of the margins is repaired in several of the essays at the end. My sense of the laughter of the Jewish world is confirmed in David Stern’s essay on Midrash. In it, he cites the battle between Esau and Jacob in the womb of Rebecca where the text puns on the Hebrew for, “Vayitrotzetzu habanim bekirbah, (“The children struggled in her womb. Identifying the word ratz or “run” in the Hebrew of Vayitrotzetzu, “the rabbis develop first one interpretation, “The one ran (ratz) to kill the other: then hearing words that sound similar to the Hebrew just cited, when spoken rapidly, ‘hiter tzivuyav,’ (“gave permission”) they suggest, ‘The one permitted what the other forbid.’” And finally the Midrash returns to ratz, but extends the race to within the womb itself: “They tried to run out of her womb. When Rebecca passed by a pagan temple, Esau would kick her to let him leave…. And when Rebecca would pass by a synagogue and a study-hall, Jacob would kick her to let him out….”

Rabbi Soloveitchik once remarked wryly, “Adam sinned and God said, ‘Put on your pants.’” That tempering sense of humor weaving through the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs, which I listen for in the Bible and its Jewish commentators, whispers in my ears as the voice of the Unknown. It is not overborne by pain or guilt. It does not demand, faith or transcendental vacuity, but curiosity. It is the “instruction” of riddle — amused, exasperated, offering at every opportunity a challenge. In the moments when the “Guide” speaks this language of paradox, I recognize it as Jewish and am happy to follow its instruction.

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