Mount Everest of Torah commentary finally scaled

NEW YORK — After 15 years of preparation, the first modern English translation and commentary to focus exclusively on the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets will be published next week by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"People ask me why I wrote `The Haftarah Commentary.' It's like Mount Everest. It had to be done. It had to be scaled," said Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, the author and editor of the new work.

Plaut is rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.

The 928-page commentary, to be released June 6 by the central body of the Reform movement, covers the complete cycle of 85 prophetic selections and some alternative readings from a portion of the Bible known as the Writings (Ketuvim).

The Hebrew Bible is made up of the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings.

The haftorot are chanted weekly in synagogue on Shabbat as well as on holidays. They are also often a central element for boys and girls as they become bar and bat mitzvahs.

The haftorah, which is derived from the Hebrew root meaning "conclusion" and is read after the Torah reading, was compiled about 200 B.C.E., when the Syrians conquered Israel and prohibited the reading of the Torah.

Jewish scholars of the time composed readings from the prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as a substitute.

After the Syrian prohibition ended, the haftorah readings were kept as part of the liturgy.

In the UAHC publication, each haftorah reading is accompanied by four types of commentary. The haftorah is preceded by an introduction that relates the portion to the corresponding Torah portion, places it in a contextual setting and outlines its message. Beneath the text and translation, a commentary explains certain words or phrases from the portion.

Following the text are short essays about the prophets or questions on religious, social, moral and ethical issues raised in the portion. There are also gleanings, or "words to remember," that expand on the haftorah's theme, written by Jewish and non-Jewish, ancient and modern sources.

Previous commentaries focused exclusively on the haftorah were written in German by Ludwig Philippson in 1859 and by Mendel Hirsch in 1896, and in Hebrew by Issachar Jacobson in 1959.

Part of the impetus for this book, Plaut said at a news conference last week, is that the previous works are "not very useful for our time."

Rabbi Chaim Stern, a co-editor of the work who translated the text from the Hebrew, called the previous works "too confusing" and "too hard for [readers] to grasp."

Stern is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, N.Y.

"The Haftarah Commentary" is written in gender-neutral, modern English, "replacing the stilted, arcane and sexist translations previously used," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president-elect of the UAHC, wrote in the forward of the work.

The Divine's name, for example, is translated as "Eternal One" instead of "Lord."

Another example of the modern sensibility brought to the text can be found in the reading of 2 Kings. In it, the prophet Elisha was said to have brought a dead boy back to life by placing his mouth over that of the child.

In previous interpretations, this act was considered a divine miracle after praying for God's help.

In the new commentary, the act is described as an early example of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

The interpretations in "The Haftarah Commentary" are based on the latest findings in archaeology, history, linguistics and literature, according to those involved in its publication.

The work is "a combination of new discoveries and reliable versions of traditional material," said S. David Sperling, a Bible professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who served as the book's consulting editor.

Scholars and archaeologists have been discovering information that have "made the prophets come alive," he said. "The trick is how do you get this to the public.

"`The Haftarah Commentary' is a way of getting to an intelligent audience the results of the scholars in a way they can understand."