A Call For a New Modern Orthodox Humash

A Call For a New Modern Orthodox Humash

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Yosef Lindell

In 2000, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, co-editor of ArtScroll’s highly successful Stone edition Chumash, spoke to a reporter about the difference between his Humash and the much older Pentateuch edited by Rabbi Joseph Hertz:

The Hertz was a masterpiece in its time, a piece of literature. What he did was heroic . . . He was trying to convince people that the Chumash was worthwhile. He would quote Shakespeare, church fathers and other Christian sources. Nowadays, people are offended by that. Now you have people with a yeshiva education. They want to know what the Chumash means to Jews, what the traditional sources have to say.

Scherman spoke from a place of confidence. By that time—seven years since the publication of the ArtScroll Chumash—it had cornered the Orthodox market. In synagogues across the United States, the seventy-year-old Hertz commentary was being removed from the shelves and carted off for burial, replaced by the embossed blue faux-leather ArtScroll edition. Even in those congregations where the Hertz edition remained, it was no longer a popular choice during the Torah reading. As Scherman recognized, the differences between these two Humashim went beyond their ages and cover designs. Each one possessed a distinctive character and religious attitude. Thus, the triumph of the ArtScroll edition provides a window into the changing face of American Orthodoxy.

The Hertz Agenda
The Hertz Pentateuch appeared in five volumes from 1929 to 1936. Its editor, Rabbi Hertz, served as the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain from 1913 until his death in 1946. He was born in Hungary and was in the first class of ordainees of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As Chief Rabbi, Hertz noted the lack of an available and complete English commentary on the Humash for synagogue and home use, and decided to compose his own using an existing English translation. In his efforts, Hertz was assisted by four other rabbinic scholars, although he maintained full editorial control throughout the project.

His editorial agenda was readily apparent. Hertz was a staunch traditionalist. The Chief Rabbi was a fiery advocate for the Divine authorship of the Bible and the integrity of the Oral Law. As such, much of his commentary waxed apologetic about the divinity of the Torah and polemicized against those who rejected it, features already noted by Harvey Meirovich in his book on the Hertz Pentateuch. In the preface of the commentary, Hertz singled out the biblical criticism of Julius Wellhausen as a “perversion of history and a desecration of religion.” For Wellhausen and other liberal Protestants, the Bible was not only a man-made text; its moral exhortations predated its legal rules. According to these scholars, Christianity, which had jettisoned much of biblical law, was more authentic than Judaism.

Hertz’s commentary was determined to respond to Wellhausen. The Orthodox rabbinic scholar disputed the biblical critics’ claims about the origins and dating of the sacred text. He also reinforced the morality and authenticity of biblical and rabbinic Jewish law, as well as Judaism’s advantages over, in Hertz’s terms, the Greco-Roman influenced Christian faith. To prove his points, the editor relied on much more than Rashi and other traditional commentaries; Hertz harnessed the tools and methods of the critics themselves. For instance, he cited non-Jewish scholars as often as he referred to Jewish ones. And, his scholarly lenses included archaeology and history.

Much can be gleaned from a lengthy essay at the end of Genesis titled “Are There Two Conflicting Accounts of Creation and the Deluge in the Bible?” There, Hertz dismissed the critics’ claims that these stories prove that the Bible had multiple authors. Foremost among his arguments was that although Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 each use a different name for God, that did “not argue a diversity of writers, but simply that the Divine Name has each time been selected in accordance with the idea to be expressed.” His proofs were diverse. Hertz derived strength for his position from scholars like David Zvi Hoffman (Orthodox), Benno Jacob (non-Orthodox), and W.H. Green (non-Jewish). He even drew from “the late Lord Chancellor of England, the Earl of Halsbury,” who “consider[ed] the assignment of different fragments of Genesis to a number of wholly imaginary authors great rubbish.” Hertz also referenced archaeological findings and a parallel Babylonian flood story.

For this early twentieth century Bible commentator, it was also crucial to show that Judaism bested Christianity on the morality score. For example, Deuteronomy 13:13-17 commands that a city of Israelite idolaters be razed to the ground and never rebuilt. Hertz noted that the sages maintained that this law was not to be carried out, and that some went as far as to declare that there never was and never will be such a city. He added, however, that “[t]his view was not shared by the Church.” Rather, the law of the idolatrous city was codified in Canon Law, and often carried out in medieval times, such as during the Crusades. Similar jabs at Christianity were found throughout the work.

In a similar vein, Hertz’s deep-seated conviction that the Bible was fundamentally ethical compelled him to reinterpret God’s command to the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute (Hosea 1:2). In a full-page introduction to this Haftarah reading (Parashat Bamidbar)—the only such introduction in the entire commentary—Hertz asserted that God never explicitly gave Hosea such a morally troubling command. Rather, Hosea’s wife, Gomer, only descended into prostitution after he married her, at which time Hosea recognized parallels between his continuing love for his faithless wife and God’s enduring love for a faithless Israel. Hosea then realized his impulse to marry this woman must have actually been the prophetic will of God. Therefore, Hosea “represents it as if God had from the first ordered him to marry” Gomer (emphasis added). Hertz’s approach here—in which Hosea reinterpreted a past event as a Divine command—was somewhat non-traditional, but it was in line with Hertz’s goals; it responded to any challenge to the morality of God’s command and Hosea’s actions.

In line with his scholarly bent, Hertz tended to provide rational explanations for what appeared to be supernatural, as long as it did not compromise his conviction that God can and does act in history. He accepted the evolutionary development of humans but rejected the view that evolution lowers the place of humans in creation. To Hertz, “it is the ascent of man,” or the unique aspects that make humans different from apes, that were significant. In another instance, Hertz theorized that the plagues visited on the Egyptians were miraculously intensified versions of natural catastrophes. The blood was due to “vegetable matter” in the Nile, and the slime caused frogs to breed, whose deaths led to swarms of flies that spread disease. Hertz the rationalist was also uncomfortable with the narrative of Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22, and was not sure it should be taken literally. He wrote that one “should feel too deeply the essential veracity of the story to be troubled overmuch with minute questions about its details,” and concluded that in “whatever way we conceive of the narrative, its representation of the strivings of conscience is of permanent human and spiritual value.”

The ArtScroll “Revolution”
In 1993, ArtScroll published its Stone edition of the Humash. This new translation and commentary differed from Hertz’s significantly. In accord with the values of the yeshiva community, or Orthodox Right, ArtScroll renounced the use of non-Jewish sources and modern scholarship. Here is how ArtScroll’s Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz put it in the opening pages of ArtScroll’s first book, a commentary on Megillat Esther:

It must be made clear that this is not a so-called ‘scientific’ or ‘apologetic’ commentary on the Megillah. That area has, unfortunately, been too well-covered, resulting in violence to the Jewish faith as well as to correct interpretation. It is in no way the intention of this book to demonstrate the legitimacy or historicity of Esther or Mordechai to non-believers or doubters. Belief in the authenticity of every book of the Torah is basic to Jewish faith, and we proceed from there. . . . Rather, the aim was a specifically traditional commentary reflecting the Megillah as understood by Chazal. No non-Jewish sources have even been consulted, much less quoted. I consider it offensive that the Torah should need authentication from the secular or so-called ‘scientific’ sources.

The ArtScroll Chumash followed in this mold. Its interpretation of the text relied solely on traditional commentators.

The work’s introduction offered insight into its methodology. In it, the editors noted that Maimonides set forth “the unanimously held view that every letter and word of the Torah was given to Moses by God; that it has not been and cannot be changed; and that nothing was ever or can ever be added to it.” The editors further proclaimed that “the Torah is the essence of the universe.” It predated the creation of the world, was God’s blueprint for creation, and infuses creation itself—its “black and white fire” now “garbed in ink and parchment” with “God’s wisdom . . . embedded in its words and letters.” Although generations of the Jews’ enemies “vented their hatred on God’s Torah . . . they could no more destroy [it] than they could override the laws of nature.” The questions of authorship that Hertz grappled with simply did not begin. The ArtScroll edition did not need to prove that the Torah is Divine since a document that predated the world and was part of the fabric of creation could not have been written by human beings.

Moreover, according to ArtScroll, not only was the Torah fully Divine, but its meaning had been faithfully transmitted. One authentic interpretive tradition—one Torah ideology—could be traced throughout the generations. As demonstrated in the following examples, although ArtScroll did not polemicize in quite the same way as Hertz, it did editorialize in pursuit of ideological objectives. ArtScroll preserved the views of traditional commentators, but filtered their words through the worldview of the Orthodox Right to which it subscribed.

Although Hertz did not often present multiple approaches to any particular subject, he was comfortable with the notion that traditional biblical interpreters spoke with many voices. His treatment of the incident of Balaam’s talking donkey, about which Hertz asserted there was not “any one authoritative interpretation,” is a good example. The ArtScroll, on the other hand, often smoothed over disagreements between commentators in an attempt to demonstrate that there was just one authentic meaning to stories in the Torah. But this kind of harmonization could sometimes present a deeply inaccurate picture. For example, when Jacob dressed like his brother Esau and tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau, the verse states that Jacob told Isaac, “I am Esau your firstborn” (Genesis 27:19). The verse appears to indicate that Jacob lied, which is inconsistent with the dominant belief in the yeshiva community that the Patriarchs never sinned or acted inappropriately.

Therefore, ArtScroll cited Rashi, who read the verse creatively such that Jacob said, “anokhi, It is I who bring this [food] to you; Esav be-khorekha, Esau, (however,) is your firstborn.” The commentary then noted that Ibn Ezra suggested the following similar readings: “He meant, ‘I am who I am; Esau is your firstborn,’ while others suggest that under his breath, he said, ‘I,’ and loudly, ‘Esau is your firstborn.’” But in fact, although Ibn Ezra cited such views, he rejected them in no uncertain terms. Rather, Ibn Ezra maintained that Jacob lied. ArtScroll omitted Ibn Ezra’s actual view, and harmonized Rashi and Ibn Ezra based on its ideological conviction, which is misleading at best.

ArtScroll’s approach mirrored that of the Orthodox Right with its view that the rabbinic midrashim explaining the biblical text were received traditions, not creative interpretations. Thus, ArtScroll collapsed the distinction between peshat—the plain meaning of the text—and derash—rabbinic homiletic readings. ArtScroll does this not just in the commentary, but even in its translation. For example, Genesis 4:26 states that in the time of Enosh, an early descendant of Adam, “az huhal likro be-shem YKVK,” which, rendered plainly means, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord by name.” ArtScroll, however, translated the phrase, “Then to call in the name of Hashem became profaned,” following Rashi’s midrashic reading that idolatry arose in Enosh’s time. This was contrary to the verse’s plain meaning.

In addition, ArtScroll’s commentary frequently accepted midrashic identifications of biblical characters that lacked textual support. For example, the commentary stated that Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, was Pharaoh’s daughter, and that Keturah, another concubine of Abraham, was also really Hagar. Because ArtScroll likely saw the text and midrashim as part of the same received chain of interpretation preserving God’s word, it was not particularly interested in distinguishing between what is in the text and how later Sages had interpreted or embellished it.

Finally, ArtScroll painted biblical characters with a broad brush; they were portrayed either as paragons of virtue or irredeemable villains. For example, a reader might be inclined to look unfavorably on Lot’s daughters when they seduce their father in Genesis 19. They are certainly far less sympathetic in the story than Lot, who naïvely allows his daughters to get him drunk, but is not as culpable as his daughters for the act. But according to ArtScroll commentary, Lot’s daughters were entirely righteous, and if anything, Lot was to blame. Perhaps ArtScroll believed that since Ruth and King David descended from this union, it could not be that the Messianic line was conceived in sin. Similar concerns appeared elsewhere. As noted above, Jacob could not have done anything wrong when he took the blessing intended for Esau—it was justified in light of his spiritual superiority and Divine mission. Joseph’s brothers did not sin when they sold him because they legitimately viewed him as a threat to the family’s destiny. Although every one of these assertions was supported by traditional sources, ArtScroll’s selective approach ignored other traditional views on how to read biblical characters and the lessons we can learn from their actions, both good and bad.

From Hertz to ArtScroll
Originally, the Hertz edition was published in five volumes between 1929 and 1936. But unfortunately for Hertz, the multivolume set did not sell much. It was expensive, and no doubt the worldwide economic depression discouraged many purchasers. No less important to its poor sales was that in 1936, the year that the last volume of the commentary appeared, Soncino Press approached the Chief Rabbi and offered to publish a one volume edition of his commentary using the more readable 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation. In this second foray, the Hertz volume, now one third the price, sold very well in the United Kingdom and the United States. Hertz specifically targeted sales to former Jewish Theological Seminary colleagues, public libraries, and members of the Jewish Publication Society. Through these channels and others, the Humash found its way into English speaking synagogues of every denomination. A descendant of Rabbi Hertz estimated that Soncino distributed 20,000 to 50,000 copies in the years following World War II.

The Hertz edition was the mainstay of American synagogues of every denomination for nearly fifty years. Although the non-Orthodox did not have much use for Hertz’s dogmatic insistence on a literal revelation at Sinai, the work was a masterful synthesis of tradition and scholarship, and it strongly trumpeted Jewish moral values. As the product of tremendous effort, it was not easy to replace. But in time, the 1917 translation seemed archaic, and much of the turn-of-the-century scholarship Hertz relied on was outdated. Some things may even shock the modern reader, such as Hertz’s suggestion that a master’s lack of culpability for the death of a slave can be analogized to the blamelessness attached to the death of a child that dies due to overzealous discipline.

Other options began to appear starting in 1981, when the Reform movement published its own Humash with a commentary by the noted scholar, Rabbi Gunther Plaut. Two Orthodox alternatives to the Hertz edition appeared in the 1980s as well: a one volume excerpt of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah commentary translated from German into English by Gertrude Hirschler, and the Living Torah by the Orthodox mystical writer Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. They were followed by ArtScroll’s Stone Edition in 1993, and finally by the 2006 Gutnick Edition produced by the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The last denomination to hold out was Conservative Judaism, whose synagogues continued to offer only the Hertz until the Etz Hayyim edition appeared in 2001.

But none of the new Orthodox Humashim were quite as successful as ArtScroll. By 2003, the publisher had sold nearly 400,000 copies of the Stone Chumash. As discussed above, ArtScroll was not an update to the Hertz, but instead represented an ideological revolution. The work easily found a home among certain elements of the burgeoning Orthodox Right, many of whom felt uncomfortable with Hertz’s method and theological assertions. As Scherman had astutely noted in his statement to the Forward with which we began, many in the right-wing community were “offended” by Hertz’s ecumenism, and wanted a Humash that focused on traditional commentaries. In May 2006, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller published an article in the Agudath Israel’s monthly that harshly criticizing Hertz’s acceptance of evolution, his willingness to quote non-Jewish scholars, and his readiness to provide rational explanations for miracles. Modern Orthodox writers rose up to defend the Hertz, but it was still an endangered Humash.

No doubt the fall of the Hertz telegraphed the slide to the right documented by historians and sociologists of American Orthodoxy. The Hertz, intra-denominational and in dialogue with the world of scholarship, was representative of the Modern Orthodoxy of the early to mid-twentieth century. The ArtScroll edition, on the other hand, appealed to the growing and self-assured Orthodox Right who wanted a Humash that was exclusively Orthodox.

But perhaps what was most interesting about the rise of the ArtScroll Chumash was the currency it established even among the Modern Orthodox. ArtScroll’s monumental Tanakh translation project in the 1970s and 1980s—which the Stone Edition grew out of—initially aroused the ire of some in the Modern Orthodox community. In 1981, Tradition, the Rabbinical Council of America’s journal, published a blistering critique of ArtScroll’s books that took issue with ArtScroll’s ideological orientation and allegedly shoddy scholarship. The reviewer even maintained that ArtScroll was deceptive like a pig—whose hooves look kosher but the animal is not—because ArtScroll looked and felt modern, but in fact rejected modernity.

Yet, this critique did not go unchallenged. Letters to the editor poured in, criticizing primarily the tone, but also the content of the review. Some noted that ArtScroll books were a fine tool for the layperson, and a service to the broader community. Others said that the critique set up a straw man, because ArtScroll never tried to be modern. Arguably, the harshness of the initial review distanced those who might have otherwise been allied with ArtScroll naysayers. The editors of Tradition themselves stated that they fully agreed with a critique finding the tone of the initial review problematic.

Similarly, when ArtScroll published its now ubiquitous siddur in 1984, there was initially some RCA opposition because the siddur failed to include the prayer for the State of Israel. But the RCA was largely pacified by ArtScroll’s willingness to include the prayer in a special 1987 edition. Thus, despite the siddur’s non-rationalist commentary and failure to mention Modern Orthodox thinkers, it was accepted among the Modern Orthodox. This incident certainly paved the way for a similar acceptance of the Stone Chumash in the following decade.

The fact of the matter was that ArtScroll books were aesthetically pleasing, and the Stone Chumash was no exception. It was replete with charts, tables, and diagrams—such as several genealogies of biblical figures and detailed pictures of the Tabernacle vessels. It was user-friendly, well-organized, and easy to read. Although the translation made some interesting choices, it was far easier on the modern reader than the 1917 JPS translation that Hertz had used. And ArtScroll marketed its Chumash well. It looked and felt modern, even if the content was not. With its Chumash—as with all its works—ArtScroll had made it possible for the modern, worldly, English-speaking Jew to engage with a traditional text on terms with which he or she was comfortable. As one New York City councilman wrote to the Jewish Press in 1987, “I write not as an elected official but as a student. My yeshivaArtScroll.” The average Modern Orthodox reader was more likely to be persuaded by ArtScroll’s user-friendliness than be dissuaded by its ideology.   

A Modern Orthodox Humash?
From a Modern Orthodox perspective, neither Hertz nor ArtScroll are fully satisfactory. The Hertz edition, despite its magisterial language and no-nonsense rationalism, fights yesterday’s battles against Christian anti-Jewish views and outdated biblical scholarship. And although ArtScroll is remarkably popular, its lenses are narrow, and it does not see much value in the secular world and the contributions of scholarship. Arguably, we need a new Humash that merges the aesthetic appeal of ArtScroll and the engagement with modernity of Hertz. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Koren Publishers did this with the siddur several years ago, and Rabbi Sacks has indicated that he is now working on a new Humash similar to Hertz. I for one await it eagerly.

But a Modern Orthodox Humash for the early twenty-first century cannot just be an updated version of Hertz’s product. In the last thirty years, there has been a revolution in the study of Tanakh, akin to, or perhaps even surpassing, the change to Talmud study wrought by the Brisker method at the beginning of the last century. A new method of literary analysis, that pays close attention to themes, motifs, repeated words, characters, and narrative structure, has come forth from Zion. This new way of learning Tanakh, which was started by teachers at Yeshivat Har Etzion and its affiliate, Machon Herzog, blends a traditional peshat focus with some of the insights of modern literary scholarship. It has already spread to other yeshivot in Israel and to Modern Orthodox schools across the world. Now it is ripe for popularization among synagogue attendees. Although much of the work of this school is complex, there are insights that could be presented succinctly by the right interpreter. And it gives an opportunity to have long-form essays in a Humash, just like those found in Hertz’s commentary.

Creating a new synagogue Humash is a tall order. There are so many things it must do. As a companion to the Torah reading, it must engage its user but not distract from the service. The translation should be accurate, but preserve the understated majesty of the Hebrew. The commentary ought to provide religious inspiration within a moral framework. Both the learned and the uninitiated should be able to appreciate the commentary. And the Humash must celebrate the diversity of our tradition and the many ways in which the Torah has been and should be studied. Although the Torah is timeless, we are not, and that is why its lessons need to be reaffirmed in every generation. So let’s put a new Humash on the bookshelf.

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