Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Many Voices, One Voice

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Many Voices, One Voice

Article excerpt

The majestic sweep of the creation story told in Genesis 1:1-2:3 strikes me every time I read it. The power is overwhelming, the simplicity is awe-inspiring, and the orderliness is deeply impressive. There is something beyond-time about this creation narrative. I have read it ritually on Simhat Torah and been moved to tears by its transcendent power.(1)

And yet, the creation narrative is a very complicated text. It is actually more complicated than the text of evolution which is, itself, not simple. So many problems and questions arise: What is the meaning of the grammatical irregularity in the first sentence? Are the waters not created? What exactly happened on the second day? Why does it take two days to do the "work of the waters and the land"? Since the trees were created with their fruits, were fall and spring fruits present at the same time? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What is the difference, if any, between the slithering and the crawling creatures? What is the "image of God" in which humankind is created? Since there are differences between the creation stories in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25, what is the relationship between these two tales? Study is the only way into this narrative; the more one studies, the deeper the text becomes.

The problem is how to translate and comment in a way that captures the depth of the text and the variety of readings thereof. Modern translators, editors, and commentators have adopted two methods. The first proposes a new translation and a brief commentary authored by the translator. Thus, Mitchell,(2) after an introduction, translates anew the Genesis narrative. Alter(3) translates anew with a brief commentary. And Fox(4) introduces and then translates with brief commentary. The same method was used by Sarna(5) and, before him, by Speiser(6) though, Sarna and Speiser are more scholarly, speaking from within the ancient near eastern setting of biblical culture. The problem with this method is that the reader gets the view only of the translator-commentator, learned, literary, and poetic though that may be. The plurality of the readings of the tradition is lost.

The second method for capturing the depth and variety of the text is to present the traditional rabbinic commentaries. This was done in English first under the editorship of the late chief rabbi of England, Dr.J.H. Hertz,(7) who also added his own comments to those of the traditional translators. The Soncino Press, which published the Hertz commentary, seems to have sensed that the traditional commentators had not been given a fair shake, and so they commissioned a work which excerpted the traditional commentaries without additions.(8) Most recently, the Artscroll series(9) returned to the task of presenting the traditional commentaries in a much more expansive manner. The problem with this method is that the medieval commentators (and the midrashic texts) are only summarized; they are not presented in their own voice. Hence, the reader has no direct contact, albeit in translation, with the richness of the readings of the tradition.

There are many traditional commentators but four deserve special attention because they represent four approaches to the text. The most widely read book in rabbinic Jewish culture is not, properly speaking, a book but a commentary, Rashi's commentary to the Tanakh.(10) No one with an education rooted in the tradition finds his or her way into the scriptural text without Rashi (1040-1105, northern Europe). His commentary, which is a mixture of explication and midrash, was and remains the key to the rabbinic understanding of the Tanakh. Another commentator widely read but only by the advanced student is Ibn Ezra (1194-1270, Spain). His commentary is very technical. It is also laconic to the point of being very difficult to understand at many points. Yet a third basic commentary to Genesis is that of Rashbam (1085-1174, northern Europe). He hews very closely to the text yet his commentary to our chapter is omitted from many of the standard editions of rabbinic commentaries; why? …

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