Hail to the chief rabbis

Hail to the chief rabbis

In my last column, I promised to use this space this week to review some new books to help readers study the weekly Torah portions on their own.

The closest thing American Jewry has to a chief rabbi is a chief rabbi – not here in the colonies, but back in Great Britain. It is not that Jews here turn to the “chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Communities of the British Commonwealth” to settle matters of halacha; they do not and never have. But a former holder of that position, the late Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, has helped generations of Jews both in the study of Torah and in understanding the daily prayer book.

Keeping the faith Hertz’s “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs,” with his commentaries on nearly every page and several essays as well, was a staple in most modern Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in the United States from the time the Soncino Press first published a one-volume version of the work more than 70 years ago. Despite heavy competition in the last 20 years, it can still be found in many synagogues of both streams. (Hertz, by the way, was the first rabbi to be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary.)

Hertz’s “Authorised Daily Prayer Book” – published in the United States by the Bloch Publishing Company (albeit with a “z” in “authorized”) – was more of a siddur to study from than to daven from, and it remains a sensational volume. (Nowadays, it even is available on a CD-ROM from the Davka Corporation.)

The current holder of the chief rabbi title is Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. Much attention has been given to his new siddur, known simply as “the Koren Sacks Siddur,” both for its publisher (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) and its editor. I hope to review this siddur and several others in a column later in 5770.

The Orthodox Union has teamed up with Koren Publishers Jerusalem to distribute Sacks’ other new volume, “Covenant & Conversation-A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Volume I: Genesis” (Hardcover, 353 pages, $24.95).

The volume and the four others to follow break down the individual books of the Torah into its weekly readings, and then presents a series of essays based on themes within each parasha. In the just-released Volume I, there are four essays for most of the parashiot; in three cases, there are five essays.

Sacks is both a great scholar and a great communicator, and he has done a superb job in crafting commentary than is at the same time erudite and accessible to the average reader.

Consider this excerpt from an essay called “Challenging God,” the second of four essays on the weekly portion known as Vayera. At issue is why God allowed Abraham to deal with Him, as it were, regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why, Sacks, asks, did God invite Abraham’s challenge?

“The answer, I believe, is that the Torah is intimating a profound truth, not about a human challenge to God, but the opposite: God’s challenge to humanity. God wants Abraham and his descendants to be agents of justice….

“Justice is a process, not just a product. It is not enough for the court to be right. It must hear both sides of the argument…. Justice involves conversation, dialogue, argument. It requires the ability to see things from more than one perspective. Justice, even divine justice, can only be seen to be done if there is a counsel for the defence. That is what God empowers Abraham and subsequent prophets to be….

“[T]he implication is truly extraordinary. God needs humanity to become His partner in the administration of justice.”

Best of all, Sacks calls on the wisdom of ancient commentators and modern scholars alike as he takes readers on their weekly journey through the Torah. I have no doubt that the remaining four volumes will be as intellectually stimulating and as easily grasped.

Not always easily grasped or understood was the English version of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s “The Pentateuch: Translation and Commentary,” published by Britain’s Judaica Press 43 years ago.

The original work was written in a very highly-defined German and was published more than 130 years ago. Hirsch, then chief rabbi of Frankfurt and founder of the neo-Orthodox movement (a forerunner of Modern Orthodoxy), was a great ethicist as well as a great scholar, and his works reflected both aspects.

This great work, in five volumes, was “rendered into [British] English” in the mid-1960s by Hirsch’s grandson, Rabbi Isaac Levy. The “rendering” was deliberately literal, meant to capture the style and flavor of the original German. That was a mistake.

Now, after a 12-year effort by Daniel Haberman (with individual volumes appearing as they were completed), Judaica Press in England and Feldheim Press here have produced a six-volume version, “The Hirsch Chumash” (hardcover, $189.95). The improvement is noticeable from the first verse of Genesis through the last verse of Deuteronomy. Here is an example, part of Hirsch’s commentary to Deuteronomy 17:19:

Levy translation: “Significantly enough, all the dictates of the Torah are presented to the king as chukim, as given inviolable norms within which even the king’s authority and arbitrary actions find their limitations, just as in the following verse his position towards all classes of his people, whom he is to regard not as subjects but as Brethren, is given to him to take to heart as mitzvah as ‘being appointed to his post’ by a Higher Being Whose first servitor he is to be.” (There are 83 words in that sentence, by the way.)

Haberman translation: “All the mitzvos of the Torah are called here ‘chukim,’ for they face the king as given, immutable norms, which also limit his authority and personal caprice. In verse 20, however, the Torah in its entirety is called ‘ha-mitzvah,’ because Scripture there describes the king’s relationship to all the members of the people: He should not regard them as subjects but as brothers – ‘so that he not feel superior to his brethren – and the Torah in its entirety should be taken to heart by him as mitzvah, ‘which assigns him to his post….’ God Most High assigned him to his post, and he is His foremost servant.”

The one drawback of the old five volumes remains a drawback in the re-translated six volumes: a reliance in the English translations of un-vocalized Hebrew. It assumes a knowledge of Hebrew that is beyond the ability of most American Jews (including more than just a handful in the Orthodox world).

There are lots of other great study aids and they are available at local Judaica shops, as well as on line. Happy studying.