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November 29, 2003
Column #1,161

The Perfect Chanukah Gift

     Jews are often called "people of the book," people of the Bible. But few Jews read it outside of synagogue. Professor Marc Zvi Brettler of Brandeis University explains: "People have tried to read the Bible. It starts out easy in Genesis. Then you need guidance."

     Therefore he and Prof. Adele Berlin at the University of Maryland created the first "Jewish Study Bible" (JSB) published by Oxford University Press. It is a monumental achievement that combines historical introductions to each book of the Bible, along with interpretive essays and detailed footnotes that make each chapter vividly relevant to the modern Jew.

     There have been many commentaries on the Torah (or "teaching"), the first five books of the Bible attributed to Moses, read every Sabbath in synagogue. What's been missing is a similar attention to the rest of the Hebrew Bible - and in packaged in a single volume.

     Christian study bibles began appearing in the 1970s which made the Bible exciting. They had commentaries, footnotes on important or confusing verses, and a Concordance making it easy to find a particular verse. But all were Christian in focus.

     Jews have had nothing comparable until now, which combines a guide to the meaning of the biblical text and to the history of the Jewish interpretation of it over 2,500 years with an explanation from the text of central Jewish festivals such as Passover.

     The Introduction quotes a rabbi who says, "There are seventy faces to the Torah," or 70 different interpretations, or no official Jewish interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, the scholarly content of the commentaries often contradict each other rather than harmonize.

     There are even 300 pages of essays of Jewish biblical interpretation, in chronological order with a flavor from each age. Jewish humor can be seen in the first sentences:

     "The interpretation of the Bible begins in the Bible itself. Biblical authors frequently commented on other biblical texts; they revised them, they argued with them, and they alluded to them....These reader-writers understood older texts in original ways, applied their principles to new situations or borrowed from their prestige. In this respect the biblical authors resemble later Jewish (and Christian) writers, who constantly look back to biblical models as they create new texts, ideas and practices. Thus the religion that (ital) generated (close ital) the Bible foreshadows the religions (ital) generated by (close ital) the Bible."

     For example I Kings 15.5 originally praised David as doing "what was pleasing to the Lord and never turned throughout his life." But a later scribe added the phrase "except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite," a reference to 2 Sam. Ch. 11, in which David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and then sent him into battle where he died. The scribe found the fulsome praise of David inconsistent with that incident.

     The Hebrew Bible is perceived as complete in itself - not part of a larger Bible (with a New Testament). It is arranged differently from what Christians call "The Old Testament." Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets appear after the historical books of Samuel and Kings, rather than at the end of the Bible.

     The translation by the Jewish Publication Society often differs from Christian editions. For example, the sixth commandment is "You shall not murder." The insightful commentary reads, "This refers to illicit killing. The King James Version, "thou shalt not kill" is too broad; it implies that even capital punishment and war are prohibited."

     Similarly, Christians often wonder why Jews do not see Jesus in Messianic prophesies. However, words and interpretation may differ. JSB's Psalm 22:17 reads "...a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions (they maul) my hands and feet," not "they have pierced my hands and feet," which Christians see as a description of the crucifixion of Jesus. JSB's explanation for v. 15-19: "A graphic description of mortal illness. The psalmist feels his body stop working and disintegrate."

     The American Jewish Committee's Stephen Bayme whose doctorate is in Jewish history, says the volume is "sorely needed as two things converge. One there is an enormous interest in the Jewish community being the people of the book again. They are incredibly well educated by American standards, but by Jewish standards, they are content with the most minimal standards."

     The book "is meant to give well-educated, non-specialists a sense of what the Bible says, and what do we make of it. It dovetails with the Conservative movement which says that every Jew should study a Bible chapter a night. This is a great tool to do so."

     It would be a superb Chanukah gift.

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