American Orthodoxy

Is a Modern Orthodox Humash Even Possible?

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Jack Bieler

In Yosef Lindell’s recent article for Lehrhaus, “A Call for a New Modern Orthodox Humash,” he very articulately compares the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Soncino Hertz Pentateuch, first published between 1929 and 1936, with the 1993 ArtScroll Stone edition. Noting that, for various reasons, neither is suitable for the contemporary Modern Orthodox synagogue goer, Lindell recommends that an edition that would meet a number of different needs be produced. (He notes that R. Jonathan Sacks has been working on such a volume, and looks forward to its being completed.

Lindell does not address the realities of the publishing marketplace that will without question influence any publisher’s decisions whether to issue such a work. For example, according to the author’s own account, when the Hertz Humash was first issued, there were no competing English versions of the Torah with commentary, resulting in Hertz’ work proving popular in the US and the UK.  The Humash was adopted by all sorts of denominational streams, even when they might have objected to one or another of the references that R. Hertz had made. Such a reality no longer exists, since various groups have brought out humashim in line with their own individual ideologies. Nevertheless, the exercise of contemplating what should comprise a Modern Orthodox humash is valuable because it forces the issue on the Modern Orthodox to engage in clearer self-definition and clarifies distinctions from other religious points of view. (The many comments from all sorts of individuals that Lindell’s essay has elicited online give evidence of just how diverse the Modern Orthodox community presently is.)

In addition to several intriguing general recommendations, i.e., that 1) the contents of the humash not distract from the synagogue service during which it will be employed; 2) there be a translation of the biblical text that, on the one hand, is accurate, but on the other hand engenders a certain “majesty”; 3) the commentary offer religious inspiration within a firm, moral framework; 4) that it appeal to a wide range of individuals, from the religiously uneducated to the most sophisticated; and that 5) the humash “celebrate the diversity of our tradition and the many ways in which the Torah has been and should be studied”; Lindell strongly encourages the incorporation within the commentary as well as lengthier essays in the style of the innovative literary analysis that has been developed in Yeshivat Har Etzion and its Machon Herzog, and that has been gaining ever-broader influence in the Modern Orthodox world at large. Certainly, in the interests of capturing an aspect of the contemporary zeitgeist in Modern Orthodox biblical academia, such a recommendation appears to be in order.

It seems to me, however, that Lindell’s last point, i.e., 5) celebrating diversity and multiple approaches to the biblical text, conflicts with an emphasis upon the new approaches to learning Tanakh as serving as the basis for a fresh Modern Orthodox humash to be used in the synagogue. While yemei iyun and much print has been devoted to this “new methodology,” I would maintain that a Modern Orthodox outlook upon Judaism and the world will require a much broader approach to understanding the Bible and thereby the diversity of those considering themselves Modern Orthodox. Advocating close reading of the peshat of the biblical text should certainly become a preoccupation of the broadly educated Modern Orthodox Jew; however, other considerations and understandings of the biblical text should, in my opinion, also be included. There are deep psychological insights to be had from the stories in Tanakh —one great authority remarked that those who haven’t studied psychology will simply be unable to appreciate the dynamics and motivations of many biblical figures. The manner in which groups of all sizes interact appeals to those who prefer to peer through a sociological lens. And then there are those who are interested in comparative politics, with all of its diplomacy, negotiations, and treaties. Spirituality, too, is sought after by many in the Modern Orthodox world, and a commentary that would delve into aspects of how one is to search for God, and/or deepen belief should be of considerable interest. Just as R. Hertz and those who conceived of the Stone Chumash found themselves of necessity limiting the material that they chose for their books along specific ideological and polemical lines, a similar winnowing process will per force need to be undertaken in order to produce a new humash that is both wieldy and meaningful.

Yet, the problem with creating a work that will be of more than passing interest to even the relatively small, but intensely variegated Modern Orthodox community is profound. Short of working out an algorithm by which different topics and approaches would appear either more or less frequently over the course of the volume, it is difficult to pin down where the interests of the general population truly presently lie, and what might be these ideas’ projected longevity—it would be unfortunate if by the time such a humash were produced, it would already be declared irrelevant. Perhaps what would be ideal would be a collection of exemplary types of accessible scholarship, accompanied by references which could lead one who has become interested to be able to explore the area more fully on his own when he is afforded the time. One of my professors at Yeshiva College commented that his weekly exposure to the Hertz Humash in the synagogue sparked his interest to pursue Jewish history, a noble goal for a new Modern Orthodox humash, i.e., to inspire readers to pursue the issues raised as part of a life-long learning endeavor! Even better would be some sort of anthology that was online and therefore could be updated and modified on a regular basis with the most cutting-edge material, in a manner similar to the way many college textbooks are now published. But, for the foreseeable future, printed volumes are still the only Halakhically acceptable form of text that can be used by the Modern Orthodox on Shabbat and Yom Tov and writers and publishers will have to live with such constraints.

Yaakov Bieler
Rabbi Yaakov (Jack) Bieler has been engaged in Jewish education and the synagogue Rabbinate for over forty years. Rabbi Bieler was raised in Bayside, Queens, and attended local public schools. Following graduation from Yeshiva College and the James Striar School for Jewish Studies in 1969, he attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel in 1969-71. Rabbi Bieler then returned to Yeshiva University where he was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and received an MA in Jewish Education from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Education in 1974. Following graduation from Yeshiva, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty and was Chairman of the Talmud Department of the Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz from 1974-1988. During his tenure at Ramaz, he was awarded a Gruss Outstanding Educator award in 1984. Concurrently, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty of the Adult Education Institute of the Lincoln Square Synagogue between 1971-1977, and as permanent scholar-in-residence of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun from 1977-1988. In 1985, he received a Jerusalem Fellows fellowship and spent the year with his family in Jerusalem. In 1988, Rabbi Bieler assumed the position of Lead Teacher and Chairman of the Judaic Studies Department at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, now as Berman in Rockville, MD. He served as the Upper School Assistant Principal in charge of Judaic Studies in 1991-2005. In 1993 he was appointed as Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland where he has served until his retirement in 2015. He has been an active member of the Rabbinical Council of America, serving on various committees over the years. In 2013, Rabbi Bieler was awarded the Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein Memorial Award for Outstanding Rabbinic Leadership by the RCA. Rabbi Bieler has published numerous articles on Jewish education and issues facing Judaism today, especially from the perspective of Modern Orthodoxy.