How was this project born, and what was it like to live with it for the past 17 years?
The project got started more than a year before it was “born.” My wife (a physical therapist and physical anthropologist) got a National Science Foundation grant to spend July 2000 at the University of Alabama and wanted me to come with her. I had to think of something to do to keep myself occupied in Tuscaloosa for a month. I had a more-or-less antique laptop computer that JPS (for whom I’d done some freelance work) had retired from service, and took the commentaries to Genesis 22, the Akedah or Binding of Isaac, along with me. When we got back to Philadelphia I used a page-layout program to mock up something that resembled a traditional Jewish Bible page, but in English. I dropped it off at JPS to show Ellen Frankel and forgot about it.
But that fall, I heard from her — “We want to do it.” Now I had to give it some serious thought. I was busy with teaching and didn’t have the time to get organized to begin it until the next summer. Penn’s Center for Jewish Studies (now the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies) was focused for the 2001-2002 school year on “Biblical Exegesis in a Comparative Context,” and Ellen persuaded them to let me sit in on the group. (David Ruderman, the Center’s director at the time, actually let me spend an extra year on site using the Center’s facilities.) Having gotten ready for the new semester at Penn, I began the project on September 11, 2001 — an eerie moment at which to plant this seed of Torah.
Scholarship (as opposed to teaching) is a lonely profession, but translators have a built-in companion, and I had four of them, plus others who would drop by from time to time. When I told my wife I’d spent all day with “the guys,” she knew I hadn’t been drinking or playing poker, but learning Torah and thinking about how to solve the problems of understanding and translation that each day would bring. Sometimes I would spend all morning working on a single word — in the original Hebrew or in my English — and end up deciding to leave it as it was.
When I first began, I was still on the job market, but eventually I realized that this project was my job (sans salary or benefits). It was a tremendously satisfying balance of general learning about the great Jewish exegetical tradition, specific study of particular words and phrases in the Torah, and the challenge of asking my learned medieval friends to reframe their comments for a modern, English-speaking audience. I never thought of myself as an actor, but I had to become one to channel each of the commentators as an individual.
What is the best way to utilize this work for personal and for communal Torah study?
That totally depends on YOU. As I say in the Frequently Asked Questions section at the front of each volume, different approaches will work better for some people and groups than others. Because this book is so different from the kind of books we normally see nowadays, I suggested a few possible approaches:
• Compare the two English translations (with the Hebrew, if you can). When the two translations disagree, check to see how the commentators resolve the question.
• Read a whole chapter at a time, in Hebrew or in either translation. Then read Abarbanel’s questions about the chapter and think about them. Read the chapter again—perhaps in the other translation—to see whether you can think of answers to his questions.
• Pick a particular commentator as your guide, and follow all of his comments to the text as you read along.
• Read until you find a word or a verse that raises a question in your mind. Then check to see what each of the commentators has to say about it. Be sure to check the Additional Comments to see whether there’s another comment on your question there.
• Follow any, or all, of the commentators through an entire subject, or a complete story. Think about the implications of a particular commentator’s approach for interpreting other biblical passages.
• Dip into each page as you like until you find a thread you want to pursue.
And … if this kind of page looks strange to you, DO read through the FAQs before you get started to get a feel for what’s going on. The important thing is to realize that there’s a conversation happening. Look for a way to study that will make it possible for YOU to join the conversation.
Do you have a favorite commentator and why?
See what I have to say on this subject in the FAQs. But I’ll add this:
When Paris was asked to decide which goddess was the most beautiful, it started the Trojan War. So rather than pick a favorite I’ll describe the main characters for you from my perspective:
Rashi — He is most well-known of all the commentators. In the old days, he was the ordinary Jew’s guide to understanding the Bible (and, for that matter, the Talmud). It goes without saying that he was learned, but you can also tell from reading him that he was a kind man, who cared tremendously about learning and about teaching. His commentary is largely based on traditional sources, but he was never afraid to say what he himself thought.
Rashbam — He seems to have had the confidence you might expect of someone who grew up as Rashi’s grandson. He had no problem contradicting Jewish tradition, even the legal tradition, because he too had a command of Talmud and halakhah and was, in his Jewish practice, unfailingly observant. He often writes in praise of Rashi; when he thinks Rashi’s interpretation is idiotic, he’ll say so without mentioning that his grandfather is the one who explained it that way.
Ibn Ezra — It’s obvious to me even from his commentary that he was a difficult man, and his peripatetic life after leaving Muslim Spain for Christian Europe suggests that others saw him that way as well. He was the smartest man in the room and wanted to make sure you knew it. Whether it was grammar or science, he had a complete command of it. But he did not have the social standing to argue against Jewish tradition as his contemporary Rashbam had.
Kimhi — His commentary is on the main page only for Genesis; his comments on the rest of the Torah are drawn from his language books. So I only had the last couple of years to get to know him. He was thoughtful and learned, but I did not manage to get close to him even once Genesis came along.
Nahmanides — If I had needed a lawyer at any time during the Middle Ages, I’d have wanted Nahmanides to argue my case. (And you can watch his disputation with Pablo Christiani about the truth of Judaism in a BBC film version.) His arguments are always detailed and thorough. Yet he was not a lawyer but a doctor, and a mystic to boot. In fact, this ultra-rational scholar believed the most important meaning of Torah was its insight into the otherworldly nature of God. I will add that I greatly admire his scrupulous intellectual honesty. See his comment to Exod 30:13 for the famous comment where he explains just how wrong Rashi was about the value of a shekel—and then sent a revision of his comment back from Israel to Spain when he got new information suggesting that Rashi had been right all along.
Let me know whom YOU like by posting a comment on the Commentators’ Bible Facebook page: