Imagine reading an English translation of the Humash (Torah – the Five Books of Moses) that allows you to read verse after verse smoothly, without the need to stop to look at exegetical explanations of the meaning of the text as you read, because these aids to understanding are incorporated into the translated text. And, crucial for the translation to be acceptable to the Orthodox community, there is no way to mistake these explanations for part of the verses of the Torah, G-d forbid, because of the clever way the text is printed.
That is what the new Louis Weisfeld English edition of the Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz Humash – published by Koren and the Steinaltz Center just in time for the High Holydays and the new Torah reading cycle that follows Sukkot -- allows the reader to do and it is, to my mind, a brilliant idea.
The Hebrew psukim (verses), including cantillation marks from the Koren Humash, are on the left hand page, with Rashi's commentary underneath in Hebrew. The right hand page facing it has a new, literal English translation of the Torah verses in boldface augmented by Rav Steinsaltz's connecting phrases, explanations and commentaries of choice woven into the verses in non-bold face.
The difference between the words of the Torah and the explanations is clear because of the bold-face. You can read only the bold-face if you wish, but if you read both in continuous fashion, the combined text flows smoothly and seamlessly. When the commentaries and explanations chosen by Rav Shteinsaltz are incorporated into the sentences (some explanations are his own, but a wealth of knowledge of the various exegetes led to his choices) in transparent and almost unnoticed fashion, a tiny footnote number leads to their source in the back of the volume, a much better choice than putting them in parentheses and interfering with visual continuity.
And despite the fact that this is done in modern English, the translation is such that one does not for a moment lose the feeling of a holy text. The translators write that they have tried to "stay as close as possible to the original Hebrew verses and preserve the feeling of holiness" – and they have succeeded. (In the introduction, they even list the rules they used for transliteration).
This, for example, is from the Binding of Isaac in Genesis, Parashat Vayera:
Genesis 22: 3 :Once again Abraham wasted no time. Since he had received the command only at night or just before, he awoke early in the morning and saddled his donkey, to carry the items he required for the journey. He took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt offering, as he could not know if he would find more wood on the way. He arose and he went, striding purposefully to the place that God told him, as he knew where it was.
The non-bold additions are gleaned from various commentaries and rephrased to blend into the verses. In addition, there are words which when placed between other words (like the addition of the word "he" above), make the reading smoother.
This long-awaited English translation of the one-volume Steinsaltz Humash is not, by any means, the first translation of Humash text and commentaries into English by Orthodox scholars. Nor is it a translated anthology of commentaries on the Torah. It is something new.
It was preceded by the much-loved Soncino Books of the Bible, Mesorah's ArtScroll, Arye Kaplan's The Living Torah, to name the most popular, as well as the JPS translation with Rashi in English and others that are less well known – at least to me.
Rashi, Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ohr Hachaim, Baal Haturim, Metsudot and other much-studied exegetes with specific approaches to exegesis, are to be found in the various editions of the Mikraot Gedolot (Great Scriptures, first published in 1516), a form of anthology which places the chosen commentaries, exactly as written, under the text, and alongside it. Aramaic translations, which like all translations, involve interpretation, are also to be found there. There have been many versions of Mikraot Gedolot since then and there is an English translation.
Most medieval and more recent commentaries can also be obtained in separate volumes, exactly as penned by the authors, with or without the relevant Humash texts. Abarbanel, Malbim, Chizkuni for example, all wrote in Hebrew, but are available in translations.
The Sancino Books of the Bible and Art Scroll Humash texts are printed in traditional fashion in both Hebrew and English, in that the text is translated verse by verse, but in contrast to Mikraot Gedolot, and similar to Steinsaltz, only commentaries selected by the editors accompany the text. Unlike Steinsaltz' innovation, they are placed alongside or under the translated text.
While Art Scroll brings Midrashic explanations in many instances. Soncino uses interpretations that attempt to explain the Torah verses literally, not an easy task and one which is open to other exegetes' suggested literal readings. None are definitive. The gap between G-d's intended plain meaning and our human abilities cannot be bridged.
Rabbi Steinsaltz, writing about his own commentary in the newly published Humash, agrees: "The commentary seeks to offer the reader the plain meaning or the peshat...actually the most difficult type of interpretation…It will never be achieved."
Rabbi Steinsaltz, it should be noted, is quite cognizant of the important place Midrash occupies in understanding Torah. During my many years as an educator, when Rosh Hashanah approached, I would read my classes in Jerusalem his beautiful, emotional Hebrew Torah article telling the story of the Binding of Isaac, based on Midrashic insights (sources are given at the end) that reveal the psychological aspects of the tersely written description in the Torah. In fact, that made me turn first to the chapter of the Akedah in the Steinsaltz Humash – and a hint of the article can be seen in the discussion of 22:8: "One powerful aspect of the story of the binding of Isaac is the silence of the Torah with regard to Abraham's thoughts and emotions throughout the ordeal, as well as those of Isaac…"
With that in mind, this work is an entirely different and user friendly approach to making an English speaker feel at home with the Torah text, and is not bound by any exegetical method.
There are other unique innovative aspects to the translated Humash:
First, the Torah portions are divided into units thematically, with an introduction to each. The Haftorahs, too, have an introduction.
Then, and most important, in addition to the running commentary, there are, on the bottom half of the page, fascinating discussions and background material, including cross references, photographs and information as well as things about which we have theories but are in doubt, this most illuminating in the discussions accompanying the Torah Portions listing kosher animals and non kosher birds, the diseases in the Tochacha (Admonitions) and the geographical verses of Matot-Masei.
Full disclosure: Rabbi Steinsaltz, then a young man, was my gentle Mishna teacher in Machon Gold decades ago. Although his brilliance enlightened our understanding of Sanhedrin, we young adults found ourselves more in awe of the fact that he could write on the board unerringly without turning his back to us, continuing to lecture and facing us while he wrote!
His incredible Torah output, since those early years, is the real proof of a G-d given special vision, and with it all, his innate humility shines in the sentence ending the introductory remarks he wrote for the new Humash: "The author's intent is only an attempt to understand, yet the infinite consciousness of the creator is unfathomable and boundless."
As the New Year begins, may I suggest travelling the path of Rabbi Steinsaltz' attempt to understand.