Finally, face to face with the divine text

Finally, face to face with the divine text

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, sitting, and his son, Rabbi Meni Even-Israel, work together at the Steinsaltz Center in June 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, sitting, and his son, Rabbi Meni Even-Israel, work together at the Steinsaltz Center in June 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) went at it with his grandfather, Rashi (R. Shlomo ben Yitzhak, 1040-1105, some say 1030-1105) regarding the plain-sense meaning of biblical passages.

A mini-Renaissance was underway in medieval France, fueling a desire among non-Jews and Jews alike to interpret the Bible rationally, based on common sense and internally consistent rules.

Among Babylonian and Spanish scholars, this approach was old news. But in Ashkenaz, the midrash of the Sages had long held sway. Grammar and style were all but ignored in favor of brilliant, perceptive, but non-contextually-based interpretations that played by a whole other set of rules. These spiritually illuminating interpretations created a parallel universe full of starkly drawn characters, deep human insights, and often fanciful narratives — but left the text’s original intent in the dark.

That is, until Rashi.

Rashi was the innovator. His Torah commentary attended to many grammatical and stylistic details and enlisted the Sages’ interpretations in the service of peshat — the plain sense of the text — when a more straightforward interpretation seemed elusive, undesirable, or religiously impossible. Rashi often explicitly rejected midrashic interpretations as incompatible with the text. But when all was said and done, his commentary contained mostly midrash. It was Rashbam who picked up the peshat ball and ran with it, writing Bible commentaries that eschewed entirely the reliance on midrash, even in the legal sections of the Torah.

Which brings us to Rashbam’s conversation with his grandfather.

To hear Rashbam tell it, Rashi admitted that had he the time, he would have to prepare a new edition of his commentary to include “the plain sense meanings that emerge daily.” It is the spirit of this statement, Rashbam implies, that drove him to write his own Bible commentaries. And roughly 950 years later, this same spirit has driven Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the renowned Israeli Orthodox rabbi and educator, to do the same.

Drawing on his Hebrew Chumash commentary, Rabbi Steinsaltz — in partnership with Koren Publishers — now has produced a Chumash with an English commentary that focuses entirely on the peshat.

Here in the United States, there is no shortage of English Bible translations/commentaries produced by Jewish scholars. Two that spring to mind are Robert Alter’s recently completed work and the Jewish Study Bible, which uses the Jewish Publication Society translation and is edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler. Though secular or non-denominational, these are commonly used by many Orthodox Jews who study and teach Tanakh. Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “The Living Torah” is a translation that also features terse notes based mostly on traditional commentators.

The Steinsaltz Humash, however, is the first English Chumash commentary produced for the United States under Orthodox auspices that aims to clarify the meaning of the text itself, without midrashic embellishment. As anyone who has studied the Bible knows, there are many gaps — cultural, geographic, linguistic — between the text and the reader. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s modest but daunting goal is to provide just enough information to bridge those gaps, so that the text can speak directly to its audience.

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s main tool for this task is a running translation interspersed with brief explanations, a technique he first used in his Hebrew Talmud commentary. These explanations provide a rationale for a character’s opaque behavior, connect one verse to another where the transition is unclear, supply ramifications of an action or a law, and explain difficult or disputed words or phrases.

Two footnote symbols appear regularly in this running text: “B” for Background and “D” for Discussion. These refer the reader to the bottom of the page for information about the text’s background (archeological, botanical, geographical, topographical, or zoological), or a deeper discussion of the commentary (ethical, halakhic, literary, spiritual, or purely exegetical). The Discussion engages traditional commentaries, while the Background uses modern scientific and archaeological sources.

I really enjoyed using this translation/commentary combination and found it extremely useful for getting a good, basic grasp of the text quickly and easily. It alone is sufficient reason to own this book. (In fact, were it not for the fact that this book is a commentary I would have said “everything else is commentary.”)

What follows are brief impressions of some other features.

1. Rashi included. The text is vocalized, making Rashi much more than just an afterthought. The font (“Rashi” script, of course) is beautiful, if a bit precious and small.

2. Introductions everywhere. Each book has a one- or two-page introduction to its main themes and content. Each individual section has a helpful two- to three-sentence preview.

3. Illustrations abound. Next to the commentary itself, this is the book’s most helpful feature. Color photos shed light on the size and shape of the manna (round “like coriander”), the Tabernacle and its appurtenances, identification of pure and impure animals, the miraculous blooming of Aaron’s staff, and dozens of other motifs and laws. Maps illustrate borders and itineraries.

4. Typos/errors. The citation of Rashbam’s comment in the Introduction reads “Genesis 38:2.” It actually is found at Genesis 37:2. Alas, in Parashat Bereishit, all 79 source footnotes found at the back of the Chumash are missing from the commentary itself.

5. Translation quality. The interspersed commentary takes much of the burden off the translation. As it turns out that is a very good thing, because the translation, while adequate, leaves much to be desired. (While the translation is based on Rabbi Steinsaltz’s original Hebrew commentary, Rabbi Steinsaltz himself was not directly involved in the translation process.) The translators’ goal was “to stay as close as possible to the original Hebrew verses,” which accounts for some of the awkwardness. But they could have accomplished this with better choices of English words that avoid unwanted and incorrect connotations. When describing a burglar who tunnels into a home (Exodus 22:1) there is no reason to use the word “excavate,” which though technically correct conjures up archeological digs and expanding one’s basement. The phrase “ma’aseh hagadol” in Deuteronomy 11:7, encompassing as does the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, and the Splitting of the Sea, deserves a better rendering than “great work,” better suited to a teacher’s comments on a homework assignment. And “toldot” in Genesis, which has been translated variously as begettings, chronicles, descendants, genealogy, generations, line, lineage, offspring, or story, becomes “legacy,” a word whose definition matches neither the root of “toldot” nor any context in which it is used.

To return to the spirit behind the commentary: Here in the United States, the decidedly charedi ArtScroll Chumash has become the standard in many modern Orthodox shuls, leaving some shulgoers yearning for a more enlightened alternative. Now, the pursuit of peshat often resists the automatic acceptance of received interpretation. Peshat commentators such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Don Isaac Abrabanel are viewed suspiciously in some Orthodox circles due to, shall we say, flirtations with the boundaries of tradition. Given its exclusive focus on peshat, and its origin in Israel, where a literary-structural approach has become popular in religious Zionist Bible study, it is fair to ask: just how modernishe is the Steinsaltz Humash?

Not very.

If you’ve been waiting for a truly modern Orthodox Chumash, this is not it. Here’s why:

1. The Chumash is ideologically neutral. It is not a “modern commentary” and has little to say about the contemporary world.

2. There seems to be no mention of modern literary techniques. One searches in vain for, say, a chiastic structure or a leitwort.

3. In passages that affect normative halakha, the translation and commentary depart from the plain sense and follow the interpretations of the Sages. Two examples:

a. “Bein ha’arbayim” is consistently translated “in the afternoon,” in keeping with the halakhic window of time for bringing the Passover sacrifice, despite the fact that the term seems to mean “twilight.”

b. Exodus 22:6-12 discusses the cases of two types of guardians, one who guards money or articles, the other animals. According to the plain sense, this distinction explains why the former is not liable for theft and the latter is. However, the commentary says that this is not the determining factor; rather, the Sages taught that in the former case the bailee is an unpaid guardian, and in the latter, he is paid — although this is said nowhere in the text.

In both of these examples, the stance of the commentary is nearly identical to Artscroll — although it must be said that the presentation of the Steinsaltz Humash in both cases is far more nuanced and helpful.

4. Even in the realm of narrative peshat, the commentary is far from edgy. The boldest interpretations of Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, for example, are not represented.

All of this is, no doubt, by design. As the Introduction tells us, the Chumash “does not aspire to be revolutionary or novel.”

And yet, there’s something extremely untraditional about this Chumash.

Much like in Rashi and Rashbam’s day, today’s popular understanding of the Torah, maintained and reinforced by the weekly reading, is filtered through a midrashic lens. Our two main sources are “parsha sheets” of divrei Torah distributed in synagogues and online, and the Artscroll Chumash. The former aim to inspire the reader. The latter offers almost exclusively midrashic interpretations of the text, sprinkled with Mussar and mystical-spiritual ideas.

Consider the following contrast between the Artscroll Chumash and the Steinsaltz Humash.

In Genesis 28:11, the Torah describes the fleeing Jacob’s preparing to spend the night at a certain place by taking from among the local stones and placing it/them under his head. Artscroll follows the Sages’ and Rashi’s understanding of this verse: Jacob took several stones, but they began to compete for the privilege of supporting his saintly head — whereupon God combined them into one. Hence a later verse that mentions “the stone” Jacob had put under his head makes perfect sense. Artscroll then goes on to preach 1. a moral lesson about how humans should strive for the honor of serving a great person 2. the value of unique individuals — here the 12 tribes, represented by the stones — uniting as a single nation.

All this is worth thinking about, but ignores the commonsense question: who on Earth uses a stone as a pillow?

Asked of the wrong yeshiva elementary school teacher or in the wrong school, that question could get a student kicked out of class. To raise doubts about the patriarch Jacob’s choice of camping equipment is asking for trouble.

But this is just the type of question for which the Steinsaltz Humash has an answer. Along with an illustration of an ancient Mesopotamian carved stone pillow (more of a concave headrest), it explains, “There is evidence of the practice of resting one’s head on a hard pillow, made from wood or similar materials, among the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Chinese, as well as other nations.”

There is something refreshingly new and untraditional about this. Jews have lived with much of the real world of the Torah unexplained for so long, we seem to have made a virtue of it. The cryptic and mysterious is somehow holier. Harnessing “the plain sense meanings that emerge daily,” Rabbi Steinsaltz has cautiously removed the veil concealing the Torah and uncovered the unadorned Divine Face of the text. It is perhaps different than we imagined. But at least now, we can finally see it for ourselves.

Having achieved its modest goal — and then some — the Steinsaltz Humash deserves a place on your and your shul’s shelf next to the ArtScroll. (Who knows? It may even edge it out.) 

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