On Writing Torah Commentaries

Hukkat By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 9, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

As I begin my twentieth and final year as Chancellor, I am mindful of the cautionary verse from Proverbs, wisely inserted by our sages in the morning liturgy: “Many are the designs of the human heart, but in the end, it is God’s plan that will prevail.” My hope is that at least one of my efforts, a source of deep personal fulfillment, will accord with God’s favor.

For nearly a decade now I have penned a serious comment – for some too serious – on the weekly Torah portion. I began lightheartedly in response to a donor, newly married, seeking to introduce some Torah into the conversation at his Shabbat dinner table. But the gravity of the project soon took me far beyond generating a few talking points on the parashah. I was captivated by the challenge to study deeply, to think religiously, and to draw unending meaning from the most sacred wellspring of Judaism. It is the same challenge faced by all rabbis faithful to their calling, and I wanted my bully pulpit to offer them a heartening example. Today my international congregation includes some 30,000 kindred spirits who have joined me on my journey and whom I meet wherever I go.

Of all literary genres, commentary is the least appealing to the modern temperament, with its penchant for self-expression and speed-reading. And yet commentary is the key to understanding the unique achievement of Judaism in creating a canon without closure. The authority of a sacred text never reduced Jews to fundamentalists because it never denied them the freedom to interpret. That right kept the text open, supple, and responsive. History confirms theology. The first dated printed Hebrew book (February 18, 1475) is none other than Rashi’s classic commentary to the Torah, and some three hundred years later, Mendelsohn’s Hebrew commentary to the Torah marks the dawn of a new era.

In my own work, I have gained immense admiration for the unbroken creativity embedded in the history of Jewish Bible exegesis. As the sun of a unique solar system, the Torah spawned a vast array of strikingly different planets. Of late, I have even become an avid student of the Zohar and its radical mode of exposition. Though by training a historian, I have come to appreciate the need for imagination to renew the power of Torah. We must never allow repetition to become redundant. Toward that end, no mode of interpretation enjoys a monopoly on meaning. It is precisely the openness to all these readings that feeds my spiritual hunger. Critical scholarship and midrash in our day are no more mutually exclusive than were once the diverse tools of peshat and derash (the plain as opposed to the homiletical reading of the text) in the Middle Ages.

For me, the Torah is a repository of religious experience, a record of divine human encounters as remembered by those who witnessed them and by later generations. What invested the Torah with sanctity is not only its own inherent power, but its acceptance by the Jewish people as its foundation document. Revelation always required the validation of a faith community. Despite our distance from the events narrated by the Torah, we can still sense God’s presence, much like Adam and Eve in the Garden after their fall, in the echoes of its words.

My design, however, has tended to focus less on God than on what resulted from the encounter. The Torah is the prism through which one can observe how Judaism actually works – the interaction of its parts, the constellation of its views and values, the evolution of its halakhic system, and the nature of its ritual language. At Sinai, Israel responded to the intensity of the revelatory experience by signing on without a moment’s hesitation. In the age of the secular Jew, comprehension necessarily precedes commitment. The consequence of serious study, under the best of circumstances, will be a personal decision to renew the covenant.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Hukkat have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.