Commentary Magazine


Reform Judaism and the Bible

Jewish culture, it has often been remarked with considerable justice, is a peculiarly exegetical one. Though some notable efforts have been made over the centuries to systematize the ideas and values implicit in Judaism, it has been far more typical for Jews to articulate such ideas and values through textual commentary and often, indeed, through commentary on commentary.

This use of exegesis as a vehicle for the declaration of principles has been especially evident in the modern age, in which Jewish life has become so ideological in character. Thus, to cite a signal instance, a formative document of the Hebrew Enlightenment is the Biur, or commentary, on Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Bible. But the phenomenon is equally perceptible in the traditional exegetes, who differ sharply among themselves not only in method but in basic outlook. To mention just the three most prominent commentaries that typographically surround the text in the standard Miqra’ot Gedolot (Bible with traditional commentaries): Abraham Ibn Ezra’s commentary represents a bold analytic enterprise of rationalist inquiry; Nachmanides articulates a much more conservative and mystical view of the tradition; Rashi beautifully synthesizes the homiletic insights of the early rabbis with a philological scrutiny of the text’s plain sense.

The appearance, then, of a commentary on the Torah sponsored by the American Reform movement1 is an event of considerable interest, not only for what new light it may throw on the biblical texts but also for what it reveals of the state of Reform Judaism a century after its classic American manifesto in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. The commentary is the work of seventeen years, originally undertaken together by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut of Toronto and the late Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal collaborators being aided by a large panel of advisers, most of them from the Reform movement. The completed volume is chiefly a Plaut product, Rabbi Bamberger having been responsible only for Leviticus.

Before venturing any interpretive speculations, let me say that as an annotated text for synagogue and home use, The Torah: A Modern Commentary is a splendid achievement. For Jewish readers of the Bible, nothing like it exists in English or, indeed, in any language. The very organization of the volume testifies to the eminent good sense with which it has been put together with an eye to its practical use. Each of the five books of the Torah is introduced by an essay concisely establishing its historical context, literary structure, thematic and theological emphases, and other salient traits. Each of these introductions is followed by a brief essay written by William W. Hallo, the Yale cuneiform expert, on the sources, relevant parallels, and instructive analogies in other ancient Near Eastern literatures. Hallo’s essays are models of wide learning and good judgment, two qualities that do not always come together so happily as here. Hallo scans the surrounding ancient literatures for everything from peculiarities of idiom to large literary structures that might illuminate the biblical text in question, but, free of the simplifications of the old Bibel und Babel scholars, he is admirable in his ability to use the comparative perspective mainly in order to define biblical uniqueness in historical context. Much the same could be said of the Plaut commentary, where considerable space is also devoted to ancient Near Eastern backgrounds and parallels, although this is not, as I shall explain, where the chief weight of emphasis lies.

After the introductions, each book of the Torah is divided into literary units of varying lengths, and each unit is set in perspective for the reader by a prefatory note of three or so paragraphs. The text itself then follows—the original Hebrew text, under that the new Jewish Publication Society translation, and under that, brief annotations, mostly confined to explicating unclear terms and references, noting word-play or other features of the Hebrew, or otherwise glossing the translation. After the section of text, there are two or three pages of more discursive commentary dealing with a wider range of issues, from purely historical ones through the applications in later Jewish tradition to the charged questions of the contemporary implications of the text. Finally, each section is completed by a page or two, entitled “Gleanings,” of brief excerpts of reflections, both ancient and modern, on the text just studied. These excepts represent a wide variety of viewpoints, including even some Christian and Muslim materials, and ranging all the way from the Gaon of Vilna to A.J. Heschel and Thomas Mann, but, notably, the preponderance of excerpts is from midrashic sources. This abundance of guideposts and starting points for discussion is supplemented by graphic aids: maps showing the migrations of the Patriarchs, the various conjectured routes of the Exodus from Egypt, the expedition of the spies into Canaan; a diagram of the Tabernacle; a comparative chart of the poetic representations of the Twelve Tribes in Genesis 49, Deuteronomy 33, and Judges 5.

An extraordinary amount of thought, then, has been devoted to the formal organization of The Torah: A Modern Commentary, and I would voice only two reservations about it. Perhaps it would have been more fitting to have the book read from right to left, since that would have accorded nicely with the constant and commendable implication of the commentary that neither it nor the translation is a substitute for the original Hebrew, which remains primary. The Hebrew text, moreover, though handsomely printed, does not include the traditional trope-marking for cantillation, either for the Torah or for the accompanying selections from the Prophets. That seems to me regrettable, for there surely are a good many Reform synagogues where the texts are chanted in the traditional manner, and, indeed, one might hope that use of the volume would not be wholly restricted to Reform congregations.

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Quite naturally, the assumptions of modern biblical criticism underlie this entire treatment of the Torah, but they do not overwhelm it—as happens, for example, in some of the volumes of the Anchor Bible. Perhaps what most fundamentally distinguishes this new commentary from the outdated Hertz Pentateuch, the annotated Torah done by the late chief rabbi of England in the 30′s and used in many Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, is the totally unapologetic sense here that analytic historical scholarship is in fact relevant, but also not primary, to a Jewish understanding of the Bible.

W. Gunther Plaut is remarkable for the judiciousness with which he handles the vast body of biblical criticism. He sensibly sorts out competing theories, nicely distinguishing between more and less plausible, being quite candid about what we do not really know and may never know, alerting the reader to textual problems without letting such problems finally intervene between reader and text. It seems appropriate that any non-fundamentalist modern reader should be directed, among other issues, toward those aspects of the biblical text that appear to be composite or even internally contradictory in nature, but the Plaut commentary never forgets that the Jews possess a received text which, whatever the intricate steps of its production, constitutes a significant unity in its own right. This observation on the Book of Deuteronomy is characteristic of the commentary throughout: “For a variety of traditions have here been brought together, and this amalgam forms in itself a fitting conclusion to the Torah as we now have it in its totality. For, though the whole book was the product of different times and sources, it became in the course of centuries one book, the repository of Israel’s faith and of its struggle with and for God.”

This last remark points directly toward the larger issues of the theology and the view of Jewish history and law implicit in the The Torah: A Modern Commentary. It is fortuitous in this regard that the commentary on Leviticus should be the work of another hand, for the late Rabbi Bamberger’s contribution to the volume has the effect of providing within the book a detailed expression of the older Reform outlook from which the Plaut commentary in several respects departs. Since I will perhaps seem to overdraw the contrast, let me say that as an exegete, Rabbi Bamberger often exhibits virtues similar to Rabbi Plaut’s, though I do not think he has quite the same sense of exegetical tact about what to comment on and when to stop commenting. What most marks him off from his collaborator, however, is the feeling of distance he frequently projects between himself as Reform commentator and the text, or often, the text as it is embedded in later Jewish practice and exegesis. Repeatedly, he speaks of the “Orthodox” point of view, even in regard to medieval settings where the term is an anachronism—Rabbi Plaut’s preferred term is “traditional,” which is not only more accurate in most contexts but has the great advantage of not designating an ideology or party conceived as the enemy camp.

The fact is that Rabbi Bamberger interprets his mandate in sectarian fashion, frequently bringing the Reform view on a particular practice into elaborate focus, with the assumption that it is the enlightened view, and at one point even quoting at length from the Pittsburgh Platform. He is enough of a contemporary to encourage his reader to avoid the more facile modern condescensions toward the ancient text, but at moments he also can be abrasively aggressive toward the text he is explicating, as when he insists so confidently on the ethical wrongness of the Levitical view of sin and punishment. Obviously, a non-Orthodox commentator cannot be expected to accept unquestioningly the timeless truth of every verse he discusses, but Rabbi Plaut, by contrast, is able to raise moral issues in our encounters as moderns with these ancient notions while preserving a certain reverence for the text, a respect for the complexity with which it engaged unfathomable problems in its own historical context.

Finally, what often accompanies Rabbi Bamberger’s stress on his standpoint as a Reform Jew is a homiletic insistence in the way he extracts from the text the meaning for modern man. (In this respect, his commentary provides a perfect Reform counterpoint to the Orthodox pulpit tones in the Hertz Pentateuch.) “Its message for our time,” he says in characteristic style of the biblical Sabbatical Year, “rings out with clarity and power.” Such emphases are suspect on two grounds—because the relationship between modern reality and biblical text is usually more multifarious and more ambiguous than they suggest, and because they interpose the moralizing modem rabbinical voice as mediator between the text and the lay reader. Fortunately, the Plaut commentary, on which I shall now concentrate, manages to be intellectually honest and sensitive about the possible contemporary relevance of the text without these touches of preacherly exhortation.

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The most striking feature of the Plaut commentary as a document of American Reform Judaism in the late 20th century is its refreshingly unsectarian character. Rabbi Plaut affirms in his preface that the work of the volume “reflects a liberal point of view,” but there is a deliberate semantic slide from Liberal (capital L) as a synonym for Reform to liberal in the sense of undogmatic, empirical, intellectually open. (In Germany and England, it might be noted, Liberal was always the preferred term, except by the most radical Reform factions; in America, where the movement tended to swerve more sharply from tradition, Reform was for a long time the generally used designation.) In fact, the illustration of the volume’s liberal character immediately offered in the preface is the discrepancy in outlook between the Bamberger Leviticus and the rest of the commentary. The volume is liberal, that is, in the sense that it does not represent a single orthodoxy (lower-case o), something that could also be said of the traditional Miqra’ot Gedolot.

Like Rabbi Bamberger, Rabbi Plaut does from time to time cite Reform practice and how it may differ from the biblical injunctions, but he rarely brings these sections so far into the foreground as his colleague does, and there is no clear implication that they represent the “correct” application of the Torah. On the contrary, the Plaut commentary tends to present instances of Reform practice as one option that Jews have taken—varieties of Orthodox and Conservative practice are also frequently cited—and that it behooves Jews to consider, whatever choices of observance they themselves make. There are even places in the commentary where certain of the more radical examples of Reform practice are presented entirely in the past tense—as though the author, perhaps unconsciously, were inviting us to see such sharp departures from tradition as instructive historical curiosities rather than as possible practical guides. The volume is properly entitled A Modern Commentary, for it addresses itself to all modern Jews except those who conceive the Torah in fundamentalist terms, and its most basic assumption is that the Torah is the prime possession of klal yisrael, of the whole variegated spectrum of the Jewish people.

Now, there was a time when the notion of Jewish peoplehood would have been anathema to Reform thinkers. The Pittsburgh Platform put it with uncompromising succinctness: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” And as the members of a religious community, the framers of the Pittsburgh Platform hastened to add, they had no expectation whatever of a return to Zion. Half a century later, when the leaders of the Reform movement drew up a new set of principles in the Columbus Platform of 1937, significant shifts had occurred. There was now positive language about the virtues of Jewish group loyalty, and a new note of Zionist affirmation, in a vein associated with the theorist Ahad Ha’am (the importance of the Jewish settlement in Palestine was not only its function as a refuge but as a “center of Jewish culture and spiritual life”). In these respects, and in certain others which I shall try to indicate, the new commentary completes a process that was still in a transitional stage at the time of the Columbus Platform.

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Peoplehood, or even nationhood, not just “group loyalty,” is repeatedly and proudly affirmed in the commentary. “The covenant at Sinai,” Rabbi Plaut writes, “became the permanent incursion of God into the lives of a nation that pledged its faith to Him. The Children of Israel did it then and, despite lapses of commitment and practice, have continued to acknowledge the binding nature of the compact.” All the key terms of this formulation are antithetical to the thinking of classical Reform. God here is not an elevated ethical idea but a dynamic presence that effects an “incursion,” and a permanent one, to boot, into the life of Israel. The central idea of covenant, which has had strong appeal for modern Orthodox and Conservative theologians as well, would have caused discomfort in bygone Pittsburgh and Columbus because, as the commentary here goes on to make clear, it implies binding commitment and it implies a nation as the party to the covenant with God.

The original Reform position, of course, was to distinguish between eternal verities, always ethical in character, that might be derived from the biblical text, and practical and ritual laws governing the ancient Jewish Commonwealth which could be readily discarded now that Jews were no longer a nation. Thus, the Pittsburgh Platform: “We accept as binding only its [the Mosaic legislation's] moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” By 1937, Reform leaders had become considerably less dismissive of Jewish law and ritual. The Columbus Platform affirms the Torah “both written and oral” and speaks of the importance of the Sabbath and the festivals, but it remains concessive toward the body of practice that Jewish tradition considered to be obligatory, allowing only “such customs, symbols, and ceremonies as possess inspirational value.”

The Plaut commentary, no longer pretending to the dubious criterion of inspirational value, sees in the covenant at Sinai the compelling logic of a way of life that conforms with Halakhah, Jewish religious law. “For to Israel the Presence of the Word implied specific commands, laws that shaped its society then and thereafter. In biblical and post-biblical history, revelation meant divine command and covenant the existence of law.” What it seems to me the new commentary is arguing for here and elsewhere is not so much the Halakhah as “halakhism,” the need for Judaism to operate in some way as a legal system and not purely as a voluntary or “inspirational” arrangement. Rabbi Plaut speaks with great respect of the Halakhah, though he also notes that in recent centuries it has lost its resilience as an adaptive process. Reform Judaism, he concedes, generally broke with the Halakhah, but he observes hopefully that “There has also been a turn toward a greater incorporation of halakhic principles within the Reform movement, albeit on a basis that allows for individual decision within the framework of a mitzvah system.”

Classical Reform sought to sever the connection between Judaism and law and peoplehood, and by so doing it also weakened the link between Judaism and history. For without the vehicle of peoplehood welded together with law, the Jewish role in history was reduced to the vague, implausible, and finally pseudo-historic mission of disseminating ethical monotheism among the nations. In polar contrast, the new commentary firmly puts back together the triad of people, law, and history. Thus Rabbi Plaut remarks on “I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt”: “The first commandment establishes at once that Israel’s is a historical religion, anchored in the people’s experience and validated by their free acceptance of the divine will. [“The people's experience,” it might be observed, is a key phrase throughout the commentary.] It is a religion directed to the individual—note the singular elohekha2—as part of a people in history.”

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As the Torah itself repeatedly reminds us, a people needs a land in order to sustain itself, and the new commentary confronts the connection between ancient promises of the Land and the modern reclaiming of it in the most forthright unapologetic fashion. Abraham’s purchase of the Machpelah burial ground from the Hittites is taken as an occasion to invoke the “dunam-by-dunam” policy of Zionist settlement, to stress the central place of the Land of Israel in Jewish aspirations, and to affirm the terrestrial, historical nature of Jewish faith: “Judaism has always been more than mere hope, or fulfillment postponed, and has always looked to some this-worldly expression of progress toward its long-range hopes.” The Zionism that informs the commentary is, quite appropriately, a religious Zionism; and so in reflecting on the issue of Jewish singularity raised by the words of Balaam’s prophecy, “A people that dwells apart,” Rabbi Plaut envisages a more portentous national destiny than the realization of mere “normalization”: “Yet both in Israel and in the Diaspora there remains the overwhelming conviction that political nationhood is only a device for security and survival and that the fate of the people of Israel in all their habitations is ultimately tied to the mysteries of a suprahistoric will.”

The fact remains, of course, that the leading impulse of modern Zionism has been secular in character, often associated with an explicit rebellion against religious authority, and today religious Zionism is only one element—in some of its manifestations, a highly problematic element—of the Jewish national revival. Rabbi Plaut is keenly aware of this situation, and he is able as a religious Zionist to accommodate the secularists without condescension. It is one of the most crucial reflections of that sense of klal yisrael, of Jewish peoplehood, which undergirds the whole commentary, and it shows how far Reform Judaism has come from its restrictive definition of the Jews as members of a religious confession. Here is an exemplary instance, the concluding paragraph of the comment on the promise of the Land to Abraham in Genesis 13:

In the course of centuries, and especially in modern times, many Jews came to feel that God’s role no longer needed to be considered in their relationship to the land. They were satisfied that history had forged an indissoluble bond between land and people and that as homeland and as the cultural and political center of Jewry it remained the focus of the age-old dreams. Thus, religion and history became intertwined for Zion’s children: believers and non-believers alike took the land to heart in their own way and made it the object of their hopes.

The key emphasis on the Torah as a record of the experience of the Jewish people provides a bridge of sorts between believer and nonbeliever. The Torah, as the commentary puts it at one point, is an authentic expression of “internal history”—the account of God’s acts and wonders, His promises and commands, as they were seen and understood by the people of Israel, or by the leaders who shaped its consciousness. Until modern times, the overwhelming consensus of the people saw and understood and cherished what the founding generations had seen and understood, through the eyes of belief. Now there are many who believe in far less literal, more ambiguous ways. There are many others still who can no longer honestly affirm any version of the old beliefs. But neither group is obliged by the distance it has moved from the traditional religious outlook to renounce its sense of compelling connection with three millennia of Jewish experience. The commentary continuously assumes that the Torah, as the fountainhead of that experience, remains the special possession of the whole Jewish people, not only of those who believe it is the literal word of God.

There is a consequent double emphasis in the presentation of the Torah text here. It is firmly set in its original historical context as a document that reflects the concrete experience of the Israelite nation some three thousand years ago; and it is repeatedly seen overlaid by the fine laminations of subsequent commentary and practice—with pride of place accorded to the formative views of the early rabbis—because the commentary assumes that the Jewish people possesses the Torah by living in a constant, shifting dialectic relation with it.

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I would like to offer a final reflection on a possible link between the scrupulous effort of the commentary to restore the reality of the ancient setting and its central stress on peoplehood. The unembarrassed Zionism, the unsectarian affirmation of national existence and of the link between faith and political history, are all developments that had been immanently evolving within the Reform movement. Nevertheless, I am led to wonder whether such developments have not been reinforced and perhaps even accelerated in this remarkable exegetical project by the sharpened focus on ancient reality made possible through modern biblical research aided by burgeoning archeological inquiry.

The literal and figurative unearthing of fabled antiquity has clearly affected our relation as moderns to the past, our sense of historical time. No one has commented on this more brilliantly than Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era, where he notes the revolution in literary imagination brought about in part by the first flowering of modern archeology in the last decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Until that point, Kenner observes, the general literary tendency had been to hold the past at a distance, representing it—for example, in the translation of Homer—in a conventionalized archaic literary English that kept the past under heavy glass, at a long remove from the contemporary world. Schliemann’s digs at Troy, the discovery of the extraordinary cave drawings in southern France, and other archeological revelations of the early modern period, made such decorous distancing of the past increasingly difficult. A characteristic 19th-century sensibility, Kenner contends, was dissolved by “the growing awareness that since about 1870 men had held in their hands the actual objects Homer’s sounding words name. A pin, a cup, which you can handle like a safety pin tends to resist being archaized.” What resulted from this shock of discovery was a new sense of the present interpenetrated by different strata of the past, and, on a literary level, the collage-like techniques and the shuttling between times in the poetry of Eliot and Pound, the prose of Joyce.

There is something that puts one in mind of this analysis in the fine attention of the Plaut commentary to biblical weights and measures, implements and garments, architecture and geographical deployments. The Torah is now no longer seen by Reform as a repository of eternal ethical verities which are descried from afar and confidently discriminated from a hazy circumambience of “primitive” elements to be excluded from “the views and habits of modern civilization.” Instead, there is a repeated effort to recover the concrete reality of Israelite life—material, verbal, and conceptual—in the 13th century B.C.E. and later. The monotheistic vision so conceived is not an edifying abstract idea but a binding compact carried into the treacherous medium of history by a living, quirky people with social institutions, material needs, and political as well as religious purposes.

It is a long road from the 19th-century ethical meliorism of classical Reform, with its sense that the formative past could be held at arm’s length while wheat was separated from chaff, to this notion of the past stubbornly embedded in the present, challenging the present, inviting the present to imagine it in its complex vital density. With the publication of this commentary, American Reform Judaism has come fully of age, maintaining the independence of its own viewpoints but proffering an imagination of sacred text and national existence that invites the participation of all modern Jews.


Footnotes

1 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1,787 pp., $25.00.

2 In Hebrew characters in the original.

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