Leaders of Conservative Judaism have argued from their pulpits for more than 50 years that the Torah is a divinely inspired document that evolved over centuries, rather than the product of a single encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Starting this month, their congregants will finally be able to follow along in the pews with a Conservative Bible commentary that says the same thing.
Conservative synagogues across the country are receiving shipments of "Etz Hayim," or Tree of Life, the first one-volume, annotated version of the Five Books of Moses ever put out by the movement. Until now, most of the movement's 800 congregations have relied on the 65-year-old Hertz Chumash, named for its editor, the late J.H. Hertz, chief rabbi of England, who spiritedly insisted that the Torah was revealed in its entirety to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. The new commentary comes at a time when many of the Conservative movement's leading academics and pulpit rabbis are attempting to close a yawning religious gap between themselves and their followers. More so than any other synagogue movement in America, Conservative Judaism has been dogged by the claim that its ideology -- a hybrid of religious innovation and adherence to traditional rabbinic law -- is rarely followed, if even understood, by the bulk of its members.
While Conservative congregants generally practice a far less stringent brand of Judaism than their religious leaders, one Los Angeles rabbi, David Wolpe, sparked a major brouhaha last Passover with a sermon challenging the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt. Such challenges to the theory of Mosaic authorship, however, are ideological staples at the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
"For the first time in over a generation, we have a Chumash that reflects the ideology of the Conservative movement," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which published the new commentary this month in partnership with the movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the non-denominational Jewish Publication Society (JPS).
So far, Epstein said, several hundred congregations have ordered a total of 80,000 copies of the new commentary -- sight unseen. The list price is $72.50, he said, but synagogues received significant discounts for prepublication and bulk orders.
Several observers said that early sales had been helped by the participation of a pair of renowned author-rabbis, Chaim Potok and Harold Kushner, who edited two of the main commentaries that run through the work beneath the Hebrew text and English translation.
A former JPS editor and author of "The Chosen," Potok edited the p'shat section, which attempts to explain the literal meaning of the biblical text as understood by the ancient Israelites. It is actually a condensed version of a five-volume commentary published in stages by JPS since 1989 put together by four scholars with historic ties to the Conservative movement: Nahum Sarna, Baruch Levine, Jacob Milgrom and Jeffrey Tigay.
In the d'rash section, Kushner and his contributors draw on talmudic, medieval, Chassidic and modern Jewish commentators to elaborate on the text's deeper meaning. "I wanted the average synagogue-goer or bar-mitzvah guest to see the reading of the Torah as an encounter with a source of moral guidance," said Rabbi Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." "I wanted them to see the moral depths of the Torah that a simple reading of the text might not give them."
The third running commentary on the Torah -- co-edited by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism(UJ), the Conservative movement's West Coast rabbinical seminary, and Rabbi Susan Grossman, of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md. -- attempts to show how various biblical verses served as the basis for later Jewish laws and Conservative practices. "Etz Hayim" also contains 41 essays in the back by leading Conservative rabbis and scholars, in addition to each week's haftorah reading and a corresponding commentary edited by Michael Fishbane.
Just as important as any of these features, said several Conservative congregants and pulpit rabbis, will be the chance to read from a modern English translation first published by JPS in 1985. Even while hyping "Etz Hayim," Conservative leaders were quick to praise Hertz, the first graduate of JTS, describing his commentary as venerable and sometimes brilliant. But, they said, the seminal work is outdated in terms of its scholarship and apologetics.
Several observers said Hertz wrote his commentary at a time when Christian scholars were not only rejecting the notion of Mosaic authorship, but dismissing traditional Jewish commentators, attacking the morality of the ancient Israelites and accusing the rabbis of the talmudic era of perverting the biblical tradition by failing to accept Jesus. Today, however, American Jews occupy a much more secure rung on the societal ladder than the Yiddish-speaking immigrants of the first half of the 20th century.
"We have no interest in apologetics," said Rabbi David Lieber, senior editor of "Etz Hayim" and former UJ president. He noted that the new commentary does not attempt to sugarcoat aspects of the Torah that might offend modern sensibilities, such as its countenance of slavery, unequal treatment of women or elaborate system of animal sacrifice. Unlike Hertz, who often defended Israelite society by presenting it as more progressive than the surrounding ancient world, contributors to "Etz Hayim" do not shy away from criticizing the religion of the early Hebrews.
"We make no bones about the fact that slavery is something that cannot be justified," Lieber said. "At the same time, we say that the Jewish tradition eventually eliminated slavery because of the spirit of the Torah."
In his defense of Judaism and the Torah, Hertz rejected the fundamental premise of the emerging field of biblical criticism: that the Pentateuch was really a compilation of several different documents woven together by human "redactors" over hundreds of years. And yet he never hesitated to cull other findings from the field when they supported his belief in a direct revelation at Sinai, the historical accuracy of the Five Books of Moses and the moral superiority of the ancient Israelites.
The editors of "Etz Hayim," on the other hand, fully embrace the deeper implications of biblical criticism, including the notion of an evolved Torah. In fact, they not only accept this view but consider it vital to understanding the text and the Jewish faith.
"I believe that this commentary does very much underscore and support the things that I was preaching about earlier this year," said Wolpe, who contributed an essay to "Etz Hayim." "This commentary embraces the idea that the Torah yields wisdom when examined by both ancient and modern methodologies."
This embrace of biblical criticism is significant, several contributors said, but should be understood as a means toward providing synagogue-goers with a commentary that will inspire them. "It's designed to help Jews improve the quality of their lives," Grossman said.
Grossman and other contributors noted that congregants will now be able to study from a commentary that takes into account the Holocaust, Israel's founding, technological advances and Western civilization's elevation of women. For example, the new commentary compares the Egyptian midwives of Exodus who refuse to kill first-born Israelite males to the righteous gentiles of World War II.
While the new commentary serves to highlight Conservative Judaism's leading scholars and pulpit rabbis, it also provides a rare instance of the movement speaking in a loud, unified, theological voice.
"It's a good feeling," said Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, president of the Rabbinical Assembly. "Especially for a movement that is very often not always on the same path theologically, religiously or even programmatically."