New Chumash making its way to Conservative synagogues

Like all those studying for the rabbinate, Stuart Kelman spent a year in Israel during rabbinical school. But unlike his colleagues, Kelman spent two nights a week in the fervently Orthodox enclave of Mea Sha'arim, learning how to become a sofer, or scribe.

Kelman is one of only a handful of Conservative rabbis trained as a sofer. Calling his interest just a hobby, Kelman has not written any Torahs, but has penned several scrolls for mezuzot as well as invitations for various weddings and b'nai mitvah.

Because of his expertise, though, he was asked to write an essay on how a Torah scroll is made for "Etz Hayim," the new Chumash of the Conservative movement.

"One of the wonderful things about this commentary is the fact that it is all done and produced by the Conservative movement," said Kelman, whose Berkeley congregation, Netivot Shalom, ordered 150 copies of the new book.

The maroon-covered "Etz Hayim" Chumash, a joint project of the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Publication Society, took almost a decade to complete.

Conservative leaders report similar positive reactions around the country as synagogues start to replace the outdated Hertz Chumash. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, completed his commentary on the Pentateuch in 1936, while serving as the chief rabbi of England.

"The Hertz was around for more than 50 years, but it's been obsolete for the last 25," said Rabbi David Lieber, senior editor of "Etz Hayim." "It was a great commentary for its time and it served us very well, but it was addressed to a different age and a different audience."

In particular, Conservative leaders say they are uncomfortable with Hertz's reliance on non-Jewish writers to praise Judaism, as well as his apologetics for certain outdated Israelite practices.

On the other hand, they say, the new commentary, which incorporates the latest biblical scholarship, truly reflects the viewpoint of today's movement.

"While it's not completely gender-sensitive, I still value the fact that it is written in 21st century English," said Kelman. "The English is readable and accessible to the modern reader."

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, spiritual leader of Palo Alto's Congregation Kol Emeth, said the commentaries "are both more accessible and richer. Hertz was a tremendous contribution in its time, and it endures, but it was from a different era."

Furthermore, said Kelman, the influence of women rabbis and Jews-by-choice is reflected in the commentaries, as is the fact that it was written in the post-Holocaust era.

"The philosophy that undergirds 'Etz Hayim' is that the tradition continues to grow, that there is a difference between 'Torah' and 'the Torah,'" said Lieber. "'The Torah' is the five books of Moses. 'Torah' is the understanding of the whole range of Jewish tradition down to our day."

For example, biblical scholars in the last century have learned a lot about the relationship between God and Israel from the study of ancient Near Eastern texts, according to Rabbi Jeffrey Tigay, author of the pshat ("straight") commentary on Deuteronomy.

Take the phrase, "You shall love the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 6:5), which opens the Veyahavtah prayer that is recited after the Sh'ma, he said. Rashi, a leading biblical commentator of the Middle Ages, suggests that "it means fulfill of his commandments out of love, rather than out of fear."

But Tigay, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, points out in a footnote that "love," in Near Eastern political terminology, generally refers to the loyalty of a subject or a vassal. "Rashi would not have been aware of that because the ancient treaties were not known in his day," said Tigay. Through such scholarship, "we can find deeper understanding of even some of the most basic concepts of Judaism."

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the USCJ, agrees. "The desire out there — the thirst for something like this — is overwhelming," he said.

According to Epstein, 80,000 copies of the new Chumash have already been sold. About 45 to 50 percent of the movement's congregations have placed some sort of order, he said.

Kol Emeth ordered 400 copies, and has been using it since Simchat Torah. "We kept many copies of the Hertz, so people can draw on that too," said Lewis.

Kelman pointed out that at Netivot Shalom, even though they are engaged in a fund-raising campaign to get their own building, congregants came up with enough money to buy 150 copies of the new Chumash.

"People usually say 'focus on one thing at a time,' but here is a congregation that decided they would focus on two things at a time," he said. "They would not sacrifice the spiritual growth and life of a shul to build a building, but that both work hand in hand."

In time, however, Conservative leaders expect "Etz Hayim" to fill almost all the pews in the movement's synagogues.

"I believe that every generation has to produce its own siddur and its own Torah commentary," said Kelman, "because generations change and that's how we learn."

And how long does Lieber expect it will be before people start demanding a new, more up-to-date model? "I would say, 'please God, at least 25 years.'"