Conservative rabbi to discuss new Torah commentary in Oakland Appearance

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Rabbi Joseph Hertz's 60-year-old commentary on the Torah is so familiar to Conservative Jews that many refer to it simply as the "Hertz Chumash."

But Conservative rabbis and Jewish scholars are actively assembling a mix of voices for a new commentary that aims to tackle what today are considered apologetics, sexism and anti-gay views sprinkled throughout Hertz's work.

Slated for publication in 1998, the new book will likely replace the Hertz Chumash as the standard at Saturday morning services. The force behind the coup is Rabbi David Lieber, who is vice president of the Conservative movement's international Rabbinical Assembly and expected to become president of the 1,500-member group in the spring.

Lieber, who is general editor of the upcoming text, will bring his views on Torah commentary to Oakland this weekend as Temple Beth Abraham's scholar-in-residence.

"Hertz's commentary has become obsolete," said Lieber during a telephone interview last week from his office at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "The style is beautiful. It's very worthwhile. But it's simply dated."

To compile this new commentary, Lieber has brought together leading scholars who include Rabbi Chaim Potok, Rabbi Harold Kushner and University of Maryland Professor Adele Berlin, whom Lieber called "one of the foremost women Bible scholars in the world."

Four other Bible scholars are acting as consultants. About 30 scholars and rabbis are writing short articles that will appear at the back of the book; topics include revelation, God's covenant with Israel, ancient criminal and civil law, and biblical ecology.

The new interpretations will reflect advances in biblical scholarship and archeological discoveries during the second half of the 20th century, Lieber said. The commentary also will reflect the views of Conservative leadership, which recognizes "the sanctity of the Torah" but not the literal authorship by God.

Though they'll try to avoid apologetics, Lieber said the commentators will acknowledge centuries-old problems created by commandments such as "Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live."

In many ways, this publication will differ noticeably from its predecessor created by Hertz, whose influence on the Conservative movement has been profound.

Born in Slovakia in 1872, Hertz became the first graduate of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1894. He served as England's chief rabbi for more than three decades.

He spent seven years writing his commentary on the Torah, finishing it in 1936. Temple Beth Abraham, like most Conservative congregations, continues to use it today.

"It's a testimony to this work that it has lasted as long as it has," said Rabbi Mark Diamond of Beth Abraham. "Sixty years is pretty amazing for a Jewish book."

Yet his congregants are looking for something more today, Diamond said. Most are university educated and accept modern biblical scholarship, which asserts the Torah is comprised of various narratives woven together. They also want biblical critiques to take into account such factors as archaeology, history, and literary and linguistic analysis.

"Modern commentary needs to weigh all these factors," Diamond said.

Lieber, who became a rabbi in 1948 and served as University of Judaism's president from 1963 to 1993, has been suggesting that the Conservative movement compile a new commentary since the 1960s.

Among the shortcomings in Hertz's effort, Lieber said, is its tendency toward apologetics.

Reacting to German biblical criticism of the time, which often devalued the Hebrew Bible, Hertz tried to show that the Torah "is every bit as good as the Christian Scripture." For example, Hertz wanted to prove that "an eye for an eye" — often cited by Christians to show a lack of mercy in Judaism — was never meant to be taken literally.

The chief rabbi was also trying to convince a younger, more educated generation of Jews that Torah was still relevant.

"The younger Jews in England…felt the Bible represented an earlier age that was superseded by science," said Lieber, who has a doctorate in Hebrew literature.

This led to passages such as one explaining that each day of creation wasn't actually 24 hours. "With Him, a thousand years, nay a thousand thousand ages are but as a day that is past," Hertz wrote.

In addition, Lieber said, Hertz's remarks on a number of issuesreflect the consciousness of another age. He comments, for example, on the biblical ban on gay sex by labeling the act "this unnatural vice" and one of the "unnatural abominations."

Hertz's views toward the laws of the niddah (menstruating woman) that prohibit husbands and wives from having sex during her period include: "They have fostered racial sanity and well-being, and have proved as favourable to hygiene as to morals. The overwhelming majority of Jewish women still live, thank God, under the `yoke' of these laws–to their own good and the biologic good of the Jewish people."

Lieber cautioned that the new commentary obviously will not alter the Torah, adding that he doesn't know yet how the rabbis and scholars will deal with the now-controversial verses regarding male homosexuality.

"We're not going to change the biblical text," he said. "But we'll try to reinterpret it in the light of what we know today."