Commentary on the Torah, with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text

By Robertson, Stuart | Shofar, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Commentary on the Torah, with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text


Robertson, Stuart, Shofar


Other reviewers of Friedman's fresh translation and commentary on the Five Books of Moses have already mentioned Rashi in the same breath. It is not without reason. The Jews to whom Rashi explained the Torah were not intentionally so diverse as the Jews for whom Friedman writes. He reports in the "Introduction" that he met with laypersons studying the weekly reading from the Torah led by an orthodox and another by a reform rabbi. Indeed, he did not write for Jews alone; in this ecumenical age Jews, Christians, and others study the Torah together.

His commentary differs from the recent Etz Hayyim, which was prepared specifically for use in the synagogue. It also differs from other recent commentaries in that he does not intentionally engage in conversation with other commentators. Friedman interacts with Rashi while avoiding the "Rashi fundamentalism" that has had an opposite effect than Rashi intended, closing the discussion rather than opening it. Drawing on the wide range of resources that have blossomed in the modern world, both in biblical studies and beyond, Friedman here tries "to offer new explanations for old problems and to address new ones...to open windows through which it shed its light on us" (Introduction, p. viii). He intends to join other classical commentaries that had as their purpose to study the Torah, and to relate it to modern life as Rashi (1040-1105) related the Torah to life in the 11(th) and 12(th) centuries. He intends a distinctly classical commentary.

Friedman's previous books, Who Wrote the Bible (1987), The Hidden Face of God (1995), and The Hidden Book in the Bible (1998), engaged the entire Tanach. In them he amply showed both his participation with other Bible scholars in the community, and how he has made his own way through the stream. This new commentary on the Torah caps (for the moment) his biblical studies.

There are two levels of interest in this commentary: Friedman's fresh translation and his fresh commentary. The Hebrew text appears without the critical apparatus, so that text-critical issues appear only as he introduces them. The Hebrew appears side by side with the English translation, which engages the Hebrew grammar creatively. For example, the sense of participles is often lost in English translations that treat them as finite verbs. But Friedman preserves the elastic sense of participles. The commentary is often philological, that is, alert to nuances of words, as well as explaining significances of the overall syntax of sentences. At times when he explains his view of the significance of passages, Friedman appears to be squarely in the tradition he inherits, and at other times he does not hesitate to depart from the tradition, or perhaps, better put, to add to the tradition, which is alive rather than static.

I wished Friedman interacted more with Christian reading of the Torah. For example, in his discussion of Genesis 18:3, he goes so far as to use Christian terminology: "God, in this conception, can...make Himself known to humans by a sort of emanation from the Godhead that is visible to human eyes. It is a hypostasis, a concrete expression of the divine presence, which is otherwise inexpressible to human beings." Here is a textbook situation to engage an idea that is distinctly different for Jews and Christians. But he did not specifically refer to the Christian doetrine of the Incarnation. Interaction with Christians is an unavoidable part of the developing tradition. I may have missed other places where Friedman does engage Christian interpretations, but this was a golden moment that he avoided.

Friedman's translations are often remarkably sensitive. Genesis 1:1, which Everett Fox's translation begins, "When God began to create. …

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