Who Needs a New Torah Commentary?
Some are content to study Torah with only medieval commentary, but I felt it was time for a modern update.
By Richard Elliott Friedman
The first book to be printed on the printing press in Hebrew was not the Bible. It was the Torah with commentary of Rashi, the pre-eminent exegete. Why? Because the Torah is not to be read. It is to be studied. And at various times during one’s studies, one needs a teacher. Studying the Torah with Rashi’s commentaries is a joy because he shows what questions one can ask of a text. Look here! Is this a contradiction? Look here! This can have two opposite meanings. Which is right? Why does the Torah not tell us this piece of information that we need to understand the text? Why does it give us this fact that seems to be of no significance at first glance?
Rashi wrote his commentary 900 years ago. Commentaries for laypersons in recent times have changed. They have been written as introductory notes to help explain the text. They often collect comments from scholars of the past and from current biblical scholars. This is different from what commentary means classically. The purpose of Rashi’s commentary and of Ibn Ezra’s and Ramban’s was to show the readers new things in the text, problems they had not seen, or to address old problems that had not yet been solved–and then to offer the commentator’s solutions to these problems.
…. Through the archaeological revolution of the last two centuries, we have new knowledge of the biblical world, both of Israel and its neighbors. We know the languages that they spoke and wrote in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic: Akkadian, Caananite (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite), Egyptian, and Summerian. We have hundreds of sites and tens of thousands of ancient texts.
We have manuscripts of the Torah and of the entire Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) that are a thousand years older than those Rashi had. We have use of the Greek version (the Septuagint), which, together with the Qumran texts, gives us more precise knowledge of the original text.
And we have the great commentators themselves. Their thinking and their conclusions are our starting point, already at our fingertips, enabling us to learn from them and then to go farther. And we have the work of great scholars of more recent times as well.
There has developed a kind of Rashi fundamentalism in recent years. Especially in Orthodox communities, it is practically heresy to question whether Rashi was ever wrong.
I think that Rashi himself might have been disappointed that it would come to that. The commentators who immediately followed him–Ibn Ezra and Ramban and Rashi’s grandson Rashbam–knew better. They expressed respect for Rashi, but they disagreed with him and offered alternatives to his comments. Rashi’s commentary served for nearly a millennium. There is still much that is useful in it, and it can be valuable for millennia to come. But we also need new commentary for the coming generations, in the light of a world of knowledge and new questions and new needs.
What Rashi and the other commentators taught us to do was to look at a text critically. They were teaching us to do philology: the art of reading well. Reading with care. Thinking about what the words mean. It is thus ironic that some people have become Rashi fundamentalists. They have learned not to read the Torah critically but to parrot the critical reading of Rashi. And they do not read Rashi critically.
Although Ibn Ezra and Ramban questioned Rashi and pointed our where they thought he was wrong, more recent generations of teachers have lost faith in their own knowledge and judgement, and so they risk failing to relate the Torah to the lives of their people.
But something has happened in the present generation. There have been great scholars, and they have acquired new sources of information: archaeology, knowledge of the ancient Near East, literary sensitivity, and knowledge of the social sciences. And so it is time for new commentaries–not to replace the classical commentators, but to join them.
My commentary is meant to do just that: to be in the tradition of the classical commentaries but to use this new learning. There are many volumes of such new commentary, but they are mainly on single books of the Bible, sometimes gathered in collections of volumes on the Torah or on the whole Bible. There have been few that follow the tradition of being a single scholar’s commentary on the Torah as a whole. Some take the form of introductory footnotes on a translation. I mean to do the opposite: precisely to show how united and connected the whole Torah is, and to try, like the commentators who are our starting point, to relate it to life….
Meforshim is a Hebrew word meaning “(Bible) commentators” (or roughly meaning “exegetes”), Perushim means “(Bible) commentaries”. These terms refer to commentaries on the Torah (five books of Moses), Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, the responsa literature, or even the siddur (Jewish prayerbook), and more.
- Saadia Gaon, 10th century Babylon
- Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki), 12th century France
- Abraham ibn Ezra
- Nahmanides (Moshe ben Nahman)
- Samuel ben Meir, the Rashbam, 12th century France
- Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (known as Ralbag or Gersonides)
- David ben Joseph Kimhi, the Radak, 13th century France
- Joseph ben Isaac, also known as the Bekhor Shor, 12th century France
- Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi, the RaN, 14th century Spain
- Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437–1508)
- Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 16th century Italy