Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Simchat Torah Feature: Illuminating a Timeless Text; New Releases Delve into Torah

October 1, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and all the creatures within them.

Before long, some of those inhabitants wrote down the way they understood their beginnings, and soon other people were explaining what the stories really meant.

Biblical interpretation was born, and it was good.

People have been analyzing the meanings of Torah for thousands of years; the most enduring Jewish commentaries date back some 1,500 years and are codified in the Talmud.

Yet for generations, the endeavor was the nearly exclusive province of clergy and scholars, and the students were mostly in synagogues and classrooms.

Now, a flood of commentaries on the book of Genesis, created expressly for popular consumption, has burst forth in almost biblical proportions.

At least six new volumes have been published in the past few weeks alone, just in time for Simchat Torah, the holiday celebrating the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings.

The holiday, which begins Saturday night, includes the recitation of the final verses of the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, and begins the cycle anew by reading the first lines of Genesis.

Several of the new interpretations of the Bible’s first book are by writers and scholars — Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Naomi Rosenblatt and Karen Armstrong — who are featured in Bill Moyers’ upcoming public television series about Genesis, scheduled to begin broadcast in mid-October.

They join other Genesis analyses published in the last two years, including a newly completed translation by Everett Fox of “The Five books of Moses”; the final volume of a series of books of commentaries on the Torah published by the Jewish Publication Society; a volume of commentaries on the Haftarot, the writings attributed to the biblical prophets, which was published by the Reform movement earlier this year; and commentaries on other traditional texts, including the Book of Ruth.

Interest in the Bible, for many people, is clearly nothing new.

“The fact that Jews and gentiles have been studying Bible is old news,” said Visotzky, a professor of Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of the new “The Genesis of Ethics How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads us to Moral Development.”

“The fact that it’s burgeoning in the publishing industry, that it’s made it out of the Jewish press into the general press, that’s the news.”

It has been nine years since Visotzky created a Genesis study group in Manhattan — initially with writers, and more recently with business executives — which inspired Moyers to create the television series.

For 13 years, Rosenblatt, a psychologist by profession, has been conducting Bible study groups in Washington with U.S. senators — Jew, Christian and Mormon alike.

Fox, an associate professor of Judaica at Clark University, began translating the Bible in 1968, and first published his poetic, fluid interpretation of Genesis in 1972. Twenty-four years later, Schocken published his “The Five Books of Moses.”

Why now has the subject erupted into something popular and — apparently – – marketable?

“We are living in a very difficult time when people question their own values and bemoan the lost values of the past,” For said in a recent telephone interview.

There is also the “end-of-the-millennium angst,” Fox said. “One always goes back to the sources of the culture to see if we’ve strayed from those ideals, and these stories of Genesis in particular still exercise such a powerful hold on our imagination,” he said. “They haunt us.”

Another reason for the spate of new books is rooted in an attempt on the part of liberal religious intellectuals “to rescue something of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the religious right,” said Peter Pitzele, author of “Our Fathers’ Wells: A Personal Encounter With The Myths of Genesis.”

Most of the Jewish authors of these new mass-market interpretations are not Orthodox. Most are religious in the liberal sense, though some describe themselves as secular.

Yet they are interpreting the Torah not from a scientific-historical perspective, but from a place that views the Bible as a source of great truth and wisdom which belongs to them, as Jews, in a deep and intimate way.

Many of the authors of these new commentaries and translations grew into adulthood in the 1960s, an era that gave birth to an egalitarian ethic, a sensibility that questions every presupposition and strives to make accessible to individual people what once may have been remote or opaque, or required a rabbi to explain.

The era also saw the development of contemporary feminism, which opened up religious tradition to the questions and interpretation of women.

These forces intersected with the rise of a multidisciplinary approach to textual analysis, and gave people permission to bring their knowledge of psychology, literature, linguistics, philosophy and anthropology to their reading of Torah.

As a result, the new Bible interpretations depart from those that preceded them, and are truly deconstructions and reconstructions of Torah.

“The deconstructionist movement has affected everyone,” Pitzele said. Today, there is a new “willingness to look at the unfinished and shadowy sides of our culture, and the Bible is really rich for that.”

In the preface to her book “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a popular Jerusalem-based teacher of Torah, wrote, “To understand Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca through a Freudian reading of Rashi is, of course, to re-understand ourselves.”

In her explanation of Genesis, Zornberg, who is observant, wove together Aristotle and Kafka, Shakespeare and Yeats. She cited the theologies of religious thinkers as diverse as Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich.

Genesis in particular is the focus of so much attention because its players and themes resonate most deeply with readers today, say the authors of the new commentaries and other teachers of Torah.

The Bible’s first book can be read as “an ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family,” wrote Visotzky in his new book.

After all, the first book of the bible contains plot lines that would make writers for Melrose Place blush.

A jealous woman orders her husband’s mistress and her child to leave town. Two sisters sleep with their father. One brother cheats another out of his inheritance. And a father, believing he is hearing the voice of God, convinces his son to follow him up a mountain and then takes a knife to his throat.

The book also contains the kinds of quandaries people face more routinely: infertility, envy, greed and loneliness.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, who has authored no new Genesis commentary but teaches Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said, “Genesis has so much pull because it’s so human. It’s immediately relevant, absolutely candid. There is no attempt to make it nice.”

“The human dynamics make the stories fascinating and absolutely relevant to ordinary people and their lives,” he said.

Recommended from JTA