On the festival of Shavu’ot, we commemorate the giving of the Torah. Torah was given once, but it is received constantly, and as it is passed along to each subsequent generation, the influence of recipients past becomes part of Torah itself.
In 1936, Rabbi Joseph Hertz introduced an innovative new commentary to the Pentateuch. The Chief Rabbi of England blended contemporary scholarship, including that of non-Jews, with a selection of classical commentators and produced an English-language resource that became the mainstay of conservative synagogues for sixty-five years.
In the interim, the way we read Torah changed. The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel had profound and variegated effects on our understanding of text and theology. Modern archeology, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, feminist scholarship and female rabbis revealed new facets of the ancient text. Three generations of scholars and lay people used Rabbi Hertz’s work as a springboard to new understanding.
The fruits of those influences (and more) have found expression in Etz Hayim, the new chumash and commentary of the Conservative movement. The text of Torah itself is presented in a reverent but contemporary translation, with classical exposition and interpretive applications (p’shat and d’rash) surrounding it in parallel sections. Practical applications of the principles of Torah are included in insets. New commentaries on the haftarot, including discussions of their connections to Torah text and calendar events, follow each portion. And a series of more than forty essays representing a range of exceptional scholarship – some if it traditional, some of it controversial – are appended to the volume.
Our congregation is fortunate to be able to transition to this new chumash and commentary. It will soon replace the familiar Hertz in the pew racks. But if we have learned anything from the experience of evaluating this new volume, it is how much Torah is now available to us in both English and Hebrew. Copies of the Hertz, as well as multiple copies of other commentaries, will appear on mobile library shelves in the Cohen Sanctuary when Etz Hayim appears near your seat. I encourage you to explore the wealth of learning that will be at your fingertips.
Torah may have been given but once, but it is received every day. And in the receiving, each of us affirms both its sacred origins and new fountains of wisdom that are opened by its timeless message.