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November 27, 1981 - Image 72

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1981-11-27

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72 Friday, November 27, 1981


Plaut's 'The Torah: A Modern Commentary' Fills Reform Void

(Editor's note: Rabbi
Hertz is senior rabbi at
Temple Beth El and a
member of the faculty at
the University of Detroit.)
"Monumental" is the only
adjective to describe the
new modern commentary of
the Torah edited by Rabbi
W. Gunther Plaut of To-
ronto and published by the
Union of American Hebrew
The commentary has
been a long time in coming.
More than 17 years ago,
Rabbi Plant and Rabbi Ber-
nard J. Bamberger of New
York embarked on the proj-
ect. Bamberger died re-
cently, being able to finish
only one of the five commen-
taries, his superb Commen-
tary on Leviticus.
What does this commen-
tary do? Whom is it for?
What is different about it?
Why another commentary?
These and a host of other
questions came to mind in
perusing for the first time
this massive reference book,
1,787 pages long, printed
very legibly on ultra-thin
This commentary on the
Pentateuch, the Five Books
of Moses, covers the first
five books of the Hebrew Bi-
ble. Both the traditional
and the modern point of
view in biblical exegesis are
noted, though as is obvious
from the background of the
editors, and where they are
coming from, their enor-
mous scholarship — ar-
chelogical, linguistic, an-
thropological. and other-
wise — means that their in-
terpretation of Scripture is
from the liberal point of


view rather than the fun-
Without going into detail
over the Graf and Wel-
lhausen expositions, Plaut's
modern commentary as-
sumes that the Torah can be
treated as one book, de-
clared a sacred text by offi-
cial canonization about the
year 400 BCE. What Plant
and his colleagues are in-
terested in is what the
Torah text meant origi-
nally, what it has come to
mean, and what can it mean
to people today.

W. Gunther Plant de-
serves great credit for se-
eing this project through
many difficulties and post-
ponements. He wrote the
commentary to four of the
five books. The translation
used is the New Jewish Ver-
sion published by the
Jewish Publication Society
in 1967. In addition, each
individual book's commen-
tary is introduced with an
interesting, highly inform-
ative essay by the distin-
guished Yale professor, Dr.
William W. -Hallo.
Besides this introduction,

Books from Bar-Ilan Press

University's publishing
program has been stepped
up with the appearance of
several new titles. Among
the new books in English
"Hungary and the Jews,
Policy and Legislation
1920-1943" by Prof.
Nathaniel Katzburg. The
book is concerned with
Hungarian-Jewish rela-
tions before and during
World War II. Its center of
focus is official Hungarian
policy towards the Jews,
and particularly anti-
Jewish legislation.
"Three Sulgi Hymns" by
Dr. Jacob Klein. King Sulgi,
the most outstanding ruler
of the Sumerian Ur III
Dynasty (ca. 2094-2047
BCE), is depicted by his
court poets as a unique
combination of military
hero, charismatic political
leader, sage and ardent
patron of arts and science.
The book contains English

translations of the hymns
and scholarly introductions.
"Contemporary Israeli
Music, Its Sources and
Stylistic Development"
by Prof. Zvi Keren. This
book aims at explaining
the workings of the major
factors which have influ-
enced contemporary Is-
raeli music, such as the
music of the Orient, 131-
blical cantillation, West-
ern music and Jewish
folk tunes. Original
material was obtained
through interviews with
musicologists in Israel.
"Aesthetic Expericnce in
Creative Process" by Prof.
M. Alexenberg. Twenty of
the most prominent artists
and scientists in the U.S.
were asked to describe in-
tense esthetic experiences
in their creative work. The
transcriptions of these in-
sightful interviews form the
core of this book.

the Hebrew text then fol-
lows with the translation,
together with textual notes
appearing below and im-
mediately following the
These notes give the "p-
lain meaning" of words and
sentences without going
into deeper interpretations,
and give the reader some
explanations about terms,
names, references to other
biblical books, and brief no-
tations on linguistic diffi-
The Plaut Commentary
then gives a brief essay ac-
companying each unit to
bring some relevancy to the
theme of each section.
The "Gleanings" ap-
pended to each section culls
from world literature var-
ious selections that have a
bearing on the text, includ-
ing ancient Jewish texts,
Midrash and even some
Christian and Moslem sour-
cebooks. A few maps help
identify important geo-
graphical places.
One unique innovation to
this commentary is the way
the exposition is presented
and grouped around ideas
rather than verse by verse.
For example, the commen-
tary on Genesis begins with
the prologue: the creation of
man (Gen. 1:1 - 2:3). Man in
Eden then continues 2:4-24.
The expulsion from Eden is
covered by 2:25 - 3:24.
In other words, the Com-
mentary does not end the
story with the end of a chap-
ter, for the Torah is not tra-
ditionally broken up into
chapters that begin and end
an idea. Many times, a nar-
rative will run over into the
next chapter before begin-
ning with a new idea.
The Plaut Commentary,
on the other hand, begins
and ends each specific story
or theme in logical units.
The traditional Massoretic
chapter separations done in
the Middle Ages were an of-
ficial device that made it
convenient to identify
specific chapters and verses
by number. •
Plaut's is-a much more
pragmatic approach. When
a story ends, another then
begins, whether it is the
first verse of a chapter or in
the middle of a chapter.
These subdivisions give
recognition to the content of
Scripture, dividing it ac-
cording to the narrative
theme that makes the break
up of chapters and verses
easier for the reader to ap-
Since each book is divided
into several major parts, the
number of traditional chap-
ter divisions is exceeded.
But this only makes for
more interesting study than
the way Medieval Christian
scholars separated the text

into chapter and verse.
What is different about
the Plant Commentary'
than the others which have
appeared in English? The
two other one-volume
English commentaries are
the so-called "Soncino
Humash," which appeared
in 1947 under the editorship
of the Rev. Dr. A. Cohen,
and the "Pentateuch and
Haftorahs" edited in 1936
by the late Chief Rabbi of
the British Empire, Dr.
Joseph H. Hertz. Both vol-
umes were published by the
ments based on the classical
Soncino Press.
The Hertz Commentary is Jewish commentaries, but
a monumental piece of work without the exegetical notes
drawing upon the tradi- or the illustrations and
tional commentaries but sermonic comments
supplied verse-by-verse in
adding Hertz's own holileti-
cal and illustrative mate- the Hertz commentary.
Many of the commen-
rials to the comments
verse-by-verse as well as taries cited by A. Cohen are
brief essays at the end of the traditional medieval
each book of the Pen- commentaries, such as the
tateuch. His view of higher "Mikrot Gedolot" which, of
criticism of Scripture asso- course, have a medieval
ciated with Wellhausen's flavor. Rashi, Ibn Ezra,
Biblical Criticism is what Rashbam, Nachmonides,
Kimchi and other ex-
Dr. Hertz himself called "a
perversion of history and a positors are the ones most
desecration of religion." frequently quoted by Co-
Obviously, then, his grand
The need, therefore, for a
one-volume commentary re-
flects a point of view not ac- modern commentary that
appeal to modern Re-
ceptable to liberal Reform
form Jews has been appar-
ent for a long time.
The Cohen "Soncino
Orthodoxy believes that
Humash" is even more the Torah literally was
limited than Hertz's com- given to Moses on Sinai, as
mentary. It contains the was the Oral Law and its
Hebrew text and English interpretation of Torah. Re-
translations, with com- form Judaism views the

Isaiah is the foremost name among the prophers..4 member
of the royal household tn Jerusalem, he preached for some
forts wars in the latter part of the eighth century B.C.E..
warning king and people to trust God rather than the
nught of their armies. Though Ismah's name is attached
to the whole book, chapters 40 to 66 sternfrom an unknown
later prophet of exilic times.

The opening of the Book of Deuteronomy shows Moses
placing the story of his people into the context of God's
providence. The leader reproves Israel time and again
and so does Isaiah in his sermons. The haftarah is always
read on the Sabbath before the ninth day of A , (Tishah
6' /Iv) which ts known as Shabbat Cha:on. after the first
word of the text.

Torah not unlike the other
books of Scripture, as writ-
ten by man searching for
God, striving to know God
and about God . . . not a,
book written by God for
man, but written by man
about God.
This fundamental dis-
tinction between Orthodoxy
and Reform is basic to
understanding how to_
inter-pret Scripture. Fun-
dainentalists, whether they
be Christian or Jewish, be-
lieve the Bible is the actual
word of God, spoken by God
to man and to be observed
literally just as it is written.
Liberals, whether they be
Christian or Jewish, believe
the Bible was written by
man about God, in search
for God, and in the process
touched by God's spirit.
The new commentary
edited by W. Gunther Plaut
fills the need for a liberal
interpretation of what the
Torah means to moderns.
Its scholarship, its monu-
mental insights into the To-
rah, are to be understood as
being a major contribution
to modern Jewish life.
It's a big book for
everyone, a reference book,
an encyclopedia of the
Torah to study over and
over again. Reform Jews,
Conservative Jews and
even Orthodox Jews will
find much in 'the Plaut
Commentary to make it in-
valuable for understanding
what the Torah means to
modern Jews.

HAFTARAH 'Devarirn


1 : 17 27

Chapter 1

I] The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz,
who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem
in the reigns of Czziah. Jotham. Ahaz. and Heze-
kiah, kings of Judah.

give ear, 0 earth,
For the LORD has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up—
And they have rebelled against Me!

2] Hear. 0 heavens: and

3] An or knows its owner,
An ass its master's crib:
Israel does not know,
1 ■ 1) people takes no thought."

4] Ah, sinful nation!
People laden with iniquity!
Brood of evildoers!
Depraved children!
They have forsaken the Loan,
Spurned the Holy One of Israel,
Turned their backs [on Him].

Why do you seek further beatings,
That 3 ou continue to offend?


A page from the Plaut Commentary (smaller than actual size).

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