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High Holidays Feature Reform Torah Translation Gets Rave Reviews from Rabbis, Scholars

September 26, 2005
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In the past, when Rabbi Elyse Frishman sought to draw meaning from Torah passages for her congregation, she’d sometimes resort to translating the biblical text herself. The translation and commentary then in use in most Reform congregations, she says, didn’t always do the trick. “Often when I would translate from the Hebrew, I would indicate that we weren’t using the text translation that was in the other commentary,” says Frishman of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. That book, she says, “had a sense of being distant.”

But with the recent release of the “Revised Edition of The Torah: A Modern Commentary”– which now is being used in many Reform-movement pews — Frishman doesn’t have that problem. The book is published by URJ Press.

“The book is really a response to what we need,” she says. “There was a lot of thought that went into considering what would be most helpful to a community that wanted to study together.”

Those responsible for editing the revision say that the original 1981 version — compiled from a series of individual volumes, mostly by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut — has been updated and improved in about 40 ways.

Among the new features are:

text organized by parshah, or the weekly portion, rather than thematically, as in the prior edition;

clearer, easier-to-read Hebrew text;

closer visual correlation of the Hebrew text with the translation;

revised scholarly essays on the relationship between the Torah and ancient Near Eastern literature;

new Genesis translation by the late Rabbi Chaim Stern;

incorporation of a revision by Plaut of his 1974 Genesis commentary;

inclusion of Plaut’s Haftarah commentary;

subject index;

thicker, more opaque paper;

In addition, the volume, which uses the Jewish Publication Society’s translation for Exodus through Deuteronomy, has been rendered “gender sensitive” — or, as Rabbi David Stein, the general editor of the revised edition, calls it, “gender accurate.”

“I find the gender-accurate translation exciting because it reflects a serious new engagement with the Hebrew text,” Stein says.

The ascription of gender-sensitive language took several forms in the translation and is explained in detailed charts included in the book’s preface. Whereas the King James Bible translation renders Numbers 24:8 as “God brought him forth out of Egypt,” for example, the new translation of this verse reads, “God who freed them from Egypt.”

Where the King James version has “they shall die to the last man” for Numbers 14:35, the new translation has “until they are finished off.”

Sometimes, though, the revision uses a gender-specific term where the King James version had neutralized the translation. Such renderings are based on more accurate contextual understandings of particular verses.

In the King James version, for example, Exodus 30:12 is translated, “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment.” In the revised edition the verse reads, “When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment.”

And in the case of the word “God,” translators used several of what Stein’s preface calls “God-language strategies.” “His people,” for example, becomes “God’s people.” “His voice” becomes “the divine voice.”

“The fact that we worked very hard to create a gender-sensitive translation, I think, is a reflection of what the Reform movement is,” says Rabbi Hara Person, editor in chief of URJ Press. “It was done very, very carefully with scholars and research.”

Many in the Reform movement are saying that the very need for a revision reflects a movement deeply engaged in Torah study.

“We have declared that the goal of our movement is ‘Torah at the center,’ ” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writes in his foreword to the revision. “That is, keeping Torah at the center of our lives as the best path and first step to securing the Jewish future.”

Since it was founded some 130 years ago, Reform Judaism has evolved from a German Jewish movement advocating enlightenment and emancipation from ritual to one seeking a deeper engagement with tradition and more active participation in Jewish ritual life.

“It’s not that the Reform movement hasn’t had an interest in Torah,” Frishman says. “The Reform movement is so committed to applying the teaching of Torah to our lives that it was critical to review the tools that we have for doing so.”

“This contemporary translation speaks in the language of our time,” she adds.

The approach seems to be working: The initial printing of 7,500 copies sold out fast, and URJ Press went straight to a second printing of 7,500. The book is now in its third run, about 10,000 copies.

Plaut could not comment for this article because he now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. However, his son, Rabbi Jonathan Plaut, says that by using both his father’s Torah and Haftarah commentaries and by organizing the edition according to parshah divisions, the editors have made this edition “an important and useful tool for both study and worship.”

“The new revised edition helps to carry on my father’s contribution to the Reform movement for several more decades,” says Plaut, of Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Mich.

Observers agree that after nearly a quarter-century in print, Plaut’s commentary still strikes a chord.

“The commentary itself, for the most part, still holds up beautifully,” Person says. “It’s still up-to-date and valid.”

She adds, though, that were “some exceptions” to its relevance.

Critical commentaries on the Bible have been published since the 19th century; these early books were done by Protestant commentators. The original Plaut commentary was the first liberal Jewish commentary.

Since then, other critical Jewish commentaries have emerged, notably that of the Jewish Publication Society. Commentaries by other Jewish authors have been brought out as well, by publishing houses that are not specifically Jewish.

Among the primary reasons the Reform movement needed a new edition, insiders say, is that Plaut’s original version was not intended for use in the pews, while the new edition has been arranged specifically with synagogue use in mind.

“Originally, the Torah Commentary was designed for adult study groups, and thus the biblical text was divided into topical sections — ‘Rescue at the Sea,’ ‘The Festival Calendar,’ etc.,” Stein says.

“Soon after publication, however, the volume was placed in the pews — because it was the best commentary available for congregational worship — and over time the synagogue became the main setting in which it was read. But the topically oriented book was not easy to navigate for liturgical purposes.”

Further, Stein says, the revision was “an attempt to present the most recent biblical, archaeological and feminist scholarship; the evolving societal perspectives on homosexuality, intermarriage, and divorce; and readers’ changing understanding of gender language.”

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