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Jewish Journal

Critic Turns Commentator

by Julie G Fax

December 6, 2001 | 7:00 pm

At first glance, one might think Richard Elliott Friedman would be the last person to write a traditional Torah commentary. Friedman is, after all, one of the world's leading scholars in biblical criticism, and the man who brought the notion of the four authors of the Bible into popular parlance.

But a look at his newly published "Commentary on the Torah With a New English Translation," (Harper San Francisco, $35) and a talk with Friedman reveal that this author of "Who Wrote the Bible?" is following a natural path motivated by a love of -- and fascination with -- the Bible that has driven all of his work for the last 30 years.

Friedman is best-known for bringing J, P, D and E -- biblical criticism's four authors of the Bible -- out of academic obscurity and into the public eye with his 1987 best seller, "Who Wrote the Bible?" (Harper San Fransisco). In that book, as in his other two, "The Hidden Face of God" and "The Hidden Book in the Bible" (Harper San Francisco, 1995 and 1999), Friedman acts as a sleuth, taking the reader through biblical narratives to come to his novel conclusions. His style has made his books popular both in college courses and with general readers.

Now he has taken that expertise and applied it in the most classical mode of Bible study -- commentary.

He says that writing it has been the high point of his career. "All of my other books seem like practice for the commentary," he says. "When people ask me how long it took me to do the commentary, I say that while it came out just three years after my last book, this couldn't be done in three years. My whole life is the correct answer."

Friedman says he is in awe of the startling brilliance and enduring value of the Bible, and he endeavors to study all of its facets to develop a comprehensive and cohesive understanding.

That means studying not only its authorship and its broad history -- as he has done in his other books -- but looking at the beauty and intricacy of individual words and passages to reveal how the Bible continues to influence humanity.

"Studies by literary scholars who only look at the Bible in it finished form feel to me like they have a big black hole in the middle, because they aren't in touch with how the book came to exist. On the other hand, I'm also disappointed with Bible scholars who only look at the pieces without ever getting back to where it all ended up," Friedman said in a phone interview from San Diego, where he is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC San Diego.

Using archaeology, etymology and other scholarly tools, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the biblical text, Friedman weaves a commentary that presents a unified and interconnected whole.

"This is funny coming from me -- I wrote 'Who Wrote the Bible?' about the many different authors and editors of the Bible who didn't know each other. It shouldn't work as well as it does, but it's fabulous. It just takes my breath away," he says.

His ability to pick out common words that appear in seemingly unconnected passages and tie them together not only linguistically, but in terms of the message or the value they convey, allows the reader to get a broad picture of the Bible, and at the same time pick out the details.

"What I mean to do in this commentary ... is to interpret and shed light on individual words and passages -- to try to find new solutions for classic problems, show cases of beauty of wording and profundity of thought -- but also to show how intricately, how essentially connected all of it is, how logical its progression is, how essential the early stories are to what follows them, and how essential the later stories are to what precedes them," he writes in the introduction.

What his holistic approach does not include, somewhat surprisingly, is any but a few references to the Bible's authorship. Friedman says those interested in that aspect of his work can read his other book, while this commentary serves a different purpose.

"The question for this commentary is: Now that [the Bible] has been written, what does it mean to us?" he writes in the introduction.

"I deal with it all, but not all on the same day," he says. "The Torah is more than the sum of its parts. When all the pieces are put together, we came out with a greater Torah."

His work differs from other contemporary commentaries in that it relies more on his own interpretation than repeating the classical midrashim and commentaries.

His insights came not only from decades of academic scholarship, but from two weekly Torah study groups he attended -- one Reform, one Orthodox.

He grew up in a Conservative home, and spent three years studying to be a rabbi at the Conservative Jewish Theological seminary before he dropped out to work toward his doctorate at Harvard.

Friedman says he tried to be objective in the commentary, striving to elucidate the peshat, the simple meaning, of the text, rather than using the commentary as a soapbox for his own views.

"If you're honest, you're supposed to be commenting on what the Torah is saying, not use the Torah as an excuse for teaching what you want to teach. Writing a commentary is having power over the text. Somebody is going to read it through your eyes, and you can't abuse that," Friedman says.

That doesn't mean he refrained from bringing in contemporary ideas. On the verse in the opening chapters of Genesis that commands humans to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the land," Friedman comments that overpopulation of the world indicates that we have already fulfilled this commandment.

But, he says, he does not try to explain away the Torah's support of capital punishment simply because he himself is against it.

Friedman says he tried to use contemporary language in his translation while remaining faithful to the original tone of the Hebrew and its expressions. He tries to make the translation readable and understandable, but does not pander to common sensibilities. God, for instance, is not referred to in gender-neutral terms, since the Hebrew Bible consistently presents God in male terms.

He also utilizes the Bible's own language to address the question of the veracity of Bible stories, such as the Exodus story. Friedman says that looking merely to archaeology does not provide a complete picture of whether events in the Bible happened.

"The first question I would ask as a historian is, who would make this up?" he says, adding that someone contriving a national history would be more likely to say his ancestors were kings or Gods, not slaves.

So while details such as the number of Israelites who left Egypt are up for debate, Friedman believes the core of the story to be true. "Archaeologically we don't have evidence, but what are you going to find, a tree with 'Moses loves Zipporah' carved into it?"

He hopes his commentary will help people use the growing body of information about biblical history to further appreciate the moral and human complexity of the Bible.

"I think we have been overwhelmed with our new tools," he wrote in a recent article. "We have informed people of parallels between Genesis and the Babylonian creation story, or points of law in the Nuzi tablets. We've reported meanings of words that we've learned from Ugaritic or Akkadian. But, we haven't succeeded in making our new knowledge known to people in ways that matter to our lives."

Richard Elliott Friedman will be speaking Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; for information, call Rabbi Karen Fox's office at (213) 388-2401. Friedman will also be the scholar-in-residence at Temple Judea on Dec. 8 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. 5429 Lindley Ave. in Tarzana; and Dec 9, 9:30 a.m. -11 a.m. at 6601 Valley Circle in West Hills. For information, call (818) 758-3800. There is no charge for any of the events.

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