American Jews have long been unable to pray together.
Anyone who opens a Jewish prayer book must confront theological issues ranging from gender roles to the nature of God. No siddur can cross the denominational divide. Yet, from 1936 to 1981, there was one book that united Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogue goers: the Hertz Pentateuch.
The English translation and commentary on the Torah by British Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz “for use in Synagogue, School, and Home” was a rhetorical masterpiece that melded traditional biblical interpretation with then-modern scholarship. Still, because it rejected biblical criticism, its broad cross-denominational acceptance could not last. And in time, it was also showing its age. The Torah: A Modern Commentary was published by the Reform movement in 1981. In 2006, the Conservative movement released the Etz Hayyim: Torah and Commentary.
Among the varied streams of Orthodoxy, there have also been several new Hebrew-English chumashim [pentateuchs] in recent decades. There’s one that excerpts the insights of the nineteenth century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch. Another is geared toward adherents of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
But the most successful Orthodox replacement for the Hertz is ArtScroll’s Stone Edition Chumash, published in 1993. Its translation is thoroughly modern, without the “thees” and “thous” that had been passed along translation-after-translation since the seventeenth century King James Bible. It has an extensive commentary culled from classical Jewish interpreters, as well as other explanatory features like genealogical charts for all the name lists in Genesis and pictures of the Tabernacle erected in the desert.
However, the ArtScroll Chumash also showcases the oft discussed “slide to the right” in American Orthodoxy, with its distrust of secular sources and its literal acceptance of certain rabbinic legends, or midrashim, not found in the text of the Torah itself. Still, because of its user-friendliness—and despite some of its other features—the Stone Chumash is ubiquitous in a wide spectrum of Orthodox synagogues, from the right to the left.
But the ArtScroll’s dominance might be about to change.
This week, just as Jews worldwide are about to conclude another annual cycle of reading the Torah on Simchat Torah, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and Koren Publishers jointly released the Weisfeld Edition Steinsaltz Humash, a one-volume English translation of the first five volumes of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Hebrew commentary on the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
Rabbi Steinsaltz has spent a lifetime making core Jewish texts accessible to all Jews regardless of their background. His magnum opus is a Hebrew elucidation of the entire Aramaic Babylonian Talmud, now being translated into English under Koren’s auspices. Yet Rabbi Steinsaltz has not confined himself to the Talmud; his prolific oeuvre includes many works on Jewish thought, including a popular one on Kabbalah.
What prompted the decision to translate Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Torah commentary? “It’s always a good time to produce more books,” says Rabbi Meni Even-Israel, Steinsaltz’s son and the director of the Israel-based Steinsaltz Center. But what fast-tracked the project, he explains, was the warm reception received by the Steinsaltz Talmud’s English translation. “It became clear that the public was hungry for an English version of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s pioneering translation and commentary on the Torah.”
The new chumash, according to Rabbi Even-Israel, is designed for synagogue use. And the Steinsaltz Center’s partnership with Koren suggests that American Modern Orthodox synagogues are one important market for the book. Although Koren is based in Jerusalem, it has been marketing English translations of Jewish texts to American Modern Orthodox Jews for over a decade. In 2009, Koren released a siddur with the commentary of former English Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, which competes with the popular ArtScroll siddur for shelf space in many Modern Orthodox synagogues.
Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that the Modern Orthodox community would benefit from a chumash translation and commentary more attuned to its own worldview than ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash. “All Jews share the same Torah text and the same classical commentaries,” explains Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a noted Modern Orthodox educator who holds senior positions at Yeshiva University. However, “members of the Modern Orthodox community would also benefit from commentaries that reflect an awareness of and appreciation for contemporary philological and historical scholarship while accepting and appreciating the fundamental premise that the Torah is the word of God.” And, he adds, “The chumash commentary should also be constructed in a way so as to provide insight into the issues of the day in a clear and compelling way.”
So what makes the Steinsaltz Humash distinctive? What about it might appeal to synagogue-goers? Are there features that highlight an engagement with modernity?
One thing’s for sure — the Steinsaltz Humash is a good-looking book. The fonts are crisp and clear, and there are color images throughout. The Hebrew text of the Torah appears on the left side of the page, and the English translation is interspersed with Rabbi Steinsaltz’s commentary on the right. Two additional commentaries grace the bottom of the page in shaded boxes: one labeled “discussion” provides in-depth analysis of issues not addressed in the in-text commentary, and the other labeled “background” relates to matters of geographical, historical, and at times archaeological interest. Further, each section of the text is preceded by a helpful thematic introduction that describes what the section is about and connects it to prior sections. The chumash also includes the classic commentary by the medieval sage Rashi, but in Hebrew only.
One stand-out feature is the chumash’s effort to place the Torah’s narratives into geographical and historical context. Several notes attempt to pinpoint the locations of the places mentioned in the text. Other color pictures and notes identify flora and fauna, such as the sometimes obscure kosher and non-kosher animals and birds listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy; many of these notes were prepared by “Zoo Rabbi” Natan Slifkin, whose work is widely appreciated in the Modern Orthodox community but has been criticized by the ultra-Orthodox. These discussions and depictions breathe life into what are sometimes considered the duller parts of the Torah. Although these insights often lack citations to their sources, they offer important historical and geographical context — in contrast with the ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash, which eschews discussion of the material culture or geography of the Ancient Near East. (Artscroll does not, for example, try to identify many of the kosher and non-kosher birds, transliterating the names instead of translating them.)
The chumash’s commentary, based on transcripts of over 900 of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s lectures, focuses on peshat, or the plain meaning of the text, which, as Rabbi Steinsaltz notes in his introduction, is sometimes elusive. To this end, the commentary relies heavily on the medieval commentators who focus on plain meaning, such as Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor. (Unlike the ArtScroll, the Steinsaltz Humash typically distinguishes between those midrashim, or rabbinic legends, that are supported by the text and those that are not. It explains, for example, that despite the midrashic tradition that Isaac was thirty-seven when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him, the text indicates that Isaac was much younger.) Rabbi Steinsaltz also proposes original explanations from time to time.
Rabbi Steinsaltz acknowledges that people in the Bible are just people, with warts and all. In his view, the incident where Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law Tamar when she poses as a harlot underscores “an important principle concerning the great characters of the Bible: The Bible does not seek to cover up imperfections; it tells the truth, even though it may be unpleasant.” The ArtScroll Chumash, on the other hand, is typically unwilling to acknowledge such character flaws.
Despite the ways in which the Steinsaltz is more “progressive” than the ArtScroll, it’s still very much an Orthodox chumash. It steers clear of any kind of textual criticism, never addressing variants found in other texts of the Torah such as the Samaritan Pentateuch or Greek Septuagint, or the way in which some narratives appear to be composites culled from several sources. Although some in the Orthodox community, such as the editors of the popular website thetorah.com, have begun to acknowledge and even accept these academic methods, they remain outside the mainstream.
However, the Steinsaltz Humash could have engaged with a broader range of Jewish and non-Jewish sources that bring the Torah and modern scholarship into conversation. Beyond the geographical and historical notes, there is nothing in the Steinsaltz comparable to Rabbi Hertz’s extensive essays on diverse topics such as the perceived conflict between science and religion and the distinctions between the Torah’s laws and those in the Code of Hammurabi. There are several methodological essays in the Conservative Etz Hayyim Humash as well, and I wish the Steinsaltz could have followed suit.
The Steinsaltz Humash also avoids some of the interpretive debates that have animated Jewish commentators for centuries. As Rabbi Even-Israel acknowledges, “Rabbi Steinsaltz took hundreds of years of commentary and created a single clear path for the reader.” While simplicity and clarity are attractive, the reader never really gets the impression that the commentators quoted frequently disagree with each other and grapple with the meaning of the biblical text.
Moreover, in the last few decades, a literary approach to reading the Torah focusing on themes, personalities, repeated words, and narrative structure has become very popular in the Modern Orthodox world. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s occasional literary observations and psychological insights into biblical characters are some of his commentary’s most appealing features, and his Humash could have gained from having more of them.
The biggest drawback of the Humash is that it’s awfully hard to separate the translation from the commentary. Bolded English words translating the Hebrew are interspersed with Rabbi Steinsaltz’s explanations. One can read the bolded words and skip the commentary, but it’s not easy. The two are clearly meant to be read together. No other English chumash of which I am aware makes this choice, but it is highly similar to Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud. Yet what makes sense for the Talmud does not work as well for the Torah. The Talmud’s meaning is obscure in any language, and a plain translation is insufficient. The reader needs an in-line commentary to provide connective tissue—anything from missing words to elaborate logical explanations. Not so with the Torah. A good commentary is interesting and arguably essential, but the format employed by the Steinsaltz Humash blurs the line between what is in the text and what is merely interpretation.
In his introduction, Rabbi Steinsaltz calls the commentary “transparent” and “one whose explanations should go almost unnoticed and serve only to give the reader and student the sense that there is no barrier between him or her and the text.” Nevertheless, one unskilled in Hebrew who reads the translation and commentary as one unit will fail to notice the space for other interpretive possibilities created by the biblical text’s nuance and ambiguity.
Moreover, it’s not easy to study the original Hebrew and the English translation-commentary at once. The former is in one column, while the latter spans two. One needs to keep a finger in each place while reading instead of being able to scan across with one’s eyes.
Even if the Steinsaltz Humash will not cater to everyone’s tastes, it is a worthy entry in the now growing group of synagogue chumashim published since the demise of the Hertz. And the field is going to get more crowded. Lord Sacks is hard at work on his own chumash, which he has called “the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken.”
Is this recent uptick in chumash publication a good thing? Some may decry the proliferation of synagogue chumashim as another unfortunate byproduct of the balkanization of American Jewry, where every denomination—and now sub-denomination—wants to mediate the Torah through its own ideological lenses. Before, American Jews could not pray together. Now, perhaps, they cannot learn chumash together either. Yet there is a counter-argument. As Rabbi Even-Israel points out, “You can never have too many books, especially those that include commentaries on our core Jewish texts.”
Rabbi Schacter agrees, “There can never be enough opportunities to engage Orthodox Jews — all Jews — in serious Torah study. The more commentaries the better.”
And if there’s one area of Torah study about which there’s no dispute, it’s that there’s always more to learn.
Yosef Lindell is a lawyer, writer, and lecturer living near Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in various publications, including The Lehrhaus.