New Liberal Torah Commentary Spotlights Work of Medieval Luminaries
For decades, English-speaking rabbis have been employing innovative academic, literary and theological approaches to produce fresh commentaries on the Bible that would resonate with their modern-day congregants. But as the yearly Torah cycle reached the book of Exodus this month, Rabbi Michael Holzman tried out what qualifies these days as a more radical approach: He is directing his Reform students to an all-medieval lineup of Judaism’s most revered biblical commentators.
At a class held last week at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Philadelphia, Holzman — along with Orthodox and Reconstructionist colleagues — introduced 100 students to “The Commentators’ Bible,” an annotated edition of Exodus released last September by the Jewish Publication Society. The new commentary relies predominantly on four medieval rabbis — Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides — who generally wrote from what typically would be described today as an Orthodox perspective. Among their assumptions is the belief that the Torah was a unified document revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Additional commentary from a half-dozen other medieval scholars, including Abarbanel and Sforno, is also included.
While such medieval luminaries commonly are required reading in Orthodox day schools and yeshivas, they remain relatively esoteric figures to many Reform and Conservative congregants. The decision to use the new commentary comes at a time of growing interest in Torah study, especially the study of traditional commentators, according to Holzman.
Holzman said he saw a “definite upsurge of interest in learning of all kinds, and the traditional sources are as much a source of interest as anything else.”
“I have congregants who turn to me and say, ‘We’d love to study Talmud.’ I don’t think you saw that a generation ago, ” he said.
For much of the 20th century, synagogues of all denominations used the so-called Hertz Bible, annotated by late British Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz. Hertz drew heavily on modern scholarly research, but mainly in order to refute modernist scholars who portrayed the ancient Israelites as primitive and described the Torah as written by human beings and evolving over time. Even as later commentaries put out by the Reform and Conservative movements accepted the view of the Torah as an evolved text, they ended up incorporating as much if not more traditional material than Hertz did. For the most part, however, commentaries aimed at liberal Jewish audiences presented these centuries-old sources through the analytical lens of modern-day rabbis, along with the views of academic scholars who rejected many of Orthodoxy’s assumptions. In contrast, the new commentary, edited by Michael Carasik, a professor of biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, offers readers an unfiltered look at the medieval commentators.
Carasik said that the book, while traditional in approach, appeals to Jews from across the spectrum of religious observance.
“I certainly would not label any of my commentators as Orthodox with a capital ‘O,’” Carasik told the Forward. “When you find Jews from non-Orthodox synagogues studying this book, it’s not as if they’re going to find a unified perspective that comes from the Orthodox standpoint. You’re going to find four very, very different people, and their personalities are going to attract different folks. It’s not as if the more Orthodox are going to like Rashi and the Reform people are going to like Ibn Ezra because he says that 12 verses in the Torah weren’t written by Moses. That’s not how it works out.”
The new work includes brief biographies of the selected medieval rabbis and a glossary of key terms. Carasik edited, translated and annotated the rabbinic commentaries himself, but provides the two major JPS translations, from 1917 and 1985, for the biblical text.
JPS printed 2,500 copies for its initial print-run — an average printing for the publisher — and has sold about three-quarters of its inventory. By comparison, Marc Zvi Brettler’s “How To Read the Bible,” which JPS released in this past October, sold 4,000 copies within a few months and was considered a blockbuster.
For JPS, a nondenominational, nonprofit publisher based in Philadelphia, a typical first printing consists of just a few thousand books — far smaller than the number released by large commercial publishers. But unlike commercial publishers, JPS aims to keep its books in print for many years.
Book sales account for about $2 million of the organization’s $2.5 million operating budget, with much of that coming from the sale of older books. Fund raising covers the rest of the operating budget.
Arielle Levites, a JPS spokesperson, described the new commentary as part of the publisher’s strategy of aiming to satisfy various niches within the Jewish community. “We’re trying our best to make [the Bible] available to different kinds of people and to meet our readers wherever they are,” Levites told the Forward. She noted that JPS offers many works for those more interested in academic Torah study or in a mix of modern scholarly and traditional sources.
According to Levites, JPS would like to follow up the new commentary on Exodus with similar works dedicated to the four other books of the Torah. She said that JPS and Carasik opted to do Exodus first, because tackling Genesis, which has more associated commentary, would have been a tougher opening act. In addition, she said, Exodus contains a representative sampling of the Torah’s various literary styles, including narrative and legal portions.
Carasik said that the project has been the fulfillment of a promise he made after attending a 1987 lecture given by Rabbi David Hartman, an Orthodox theologian who moved to Israel from Canada in 1971. Carasik, poised to begin his doctorate in Bible study at Brandeis University, was struck by Hartman’s “four-point plan for revivifying Judaism in America.”
“I don’t remember what the first three points were because the fourth point was that he wanted Jews to start studying Torah again,” Carasik said.
“He got very excited,” the UFP professor recalled, “and he said, ‘I want Jews riding on the bus to be saying to each other, “Well, Rashi says…”’ When he said that, I said, ‘Okay, sign me up. I’ll help you with that one.’”