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Hail to the chief rabbis

 
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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.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.
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Criticizing charedim — what about our kids?

Hundreds of thousands of charedim marched against military conscription last Sunday. The issue is tearing Israel apart.

More secular Israelis argue that the charedim are parasites. They don’t work. They live off government subsidies. Worse, they don’t fight for the country, expecting some other’s guy’s kid to risk his or her life and possibly die so the charedim can sit idly and study, contributing nothing meaningful to the country.

The charedi response is that their Torah study defines the essential character of the Jewish state. After all, without the Torah and Judaism, what distinguishes Israel from Belgium? The contribution of the young man with side curls sitting in front of a Talmud is no less valuable than his olive-green clad counterpart holding an M16. The latter focuses on Israel’s physical survival, the former on its spiritual continuity. And just as you can’t have a body without a soul, you can’t have an army that doesn’t have a spiritual reason to fight.

 

 

Saying that suffering is caused by sin blames the victim

The movie “Noah” is generating global controversy even before its release. Bill Maher set the blogosphere alight when he ranted that the movie was “about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God.

“What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?”

The question of why God allows the innocent to suffer is the most challenging in all religion. But while the Bible offers examples, like the flood, where sin is expressly identified as the cause of suffering, it is both foolhardy and blasphemous for humans ever to claim to know why people suffer, or to hold them accountable for their own agony. The man-is-sinful-God-is-just response is arrogant and sanctimonious, and provides small comfort for a parent who, say, God forbid, loses a 7-year-old child who obviously was without sin. After victims suffer some uncontrollable tragedy, rabbis and priests would inflict the final indignity against them by saying that either their suffering really is something good — but they are too blind to see it — or that they must be cleansed of wrongdoing. Rubbing people’s noses in their pain and misery is hardly a just response to tragedy.

 

 

Islamic Iran is 35. Hurray!

What amazed me at my visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month was how a man in a black turban and long flowing robe stole the show and became the rock star of the conference.

I sat about 30 feet from President Hassan Rouhani of Iran as he lied through his teeth about being a moderate, even as his government, according to the UN, hanged 40 people from cranes in public spaces in Iran in the month of January alone. And that is to say nothing of his spinning centrifuges, designed to bring about wholesale destruction of the Jewish state.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Rwanda and Israel have both decided to give up on the UN

I was walking, half way around the world, trying to make sense of the shrieking and suffering that surrounded me, when suddenly I was transported back to the United States to a more mundane task by the ring of a phone.

I was in the Rwandan capitol of Kigali for the 20th anniversary commemorations of the genocide, where President Paul Kagame had asked me to speak at Amahoro National Stadium before 20,000 Rwandans.

Guests who joined the commemorations included UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, most of Africa’s presidents, Tony Blair, and my friend, the American UN ambassador, Samantha Power.

 

 

Count the days, study the ways

Come Tuesday night, we begin to count our days — 49 days, to be exact, seven complete weeks — as we vicariously journey from Egypt to Sinai, from the slavery of Egypt to our birth as God’s holy nation.

Each night, we add another day, and remind ourselves, as well, of the days that have passed. “Today is the 15th day of the Omer, which is two weeks and one day of the Omer.”

One day added to another and then another, each day taking one step closer to the moment when God reveals to us our sacred mission as His kingdom of priests. We are His emissaries to the world. It is our task to teach the world by example how God wants all His children to behave toward each other and toward all of creation.

 

 

Dear Rabbi

 
 
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