September 1, 2003


A Comparison of the New Conservative Humash, Etz Hayim, with those of Plaut and Hertz

By David Steinberg

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1. The new Conservative humash (the Hebrew term for Pentateuch) Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary by David L. Lieber (Editor), Jules Harlow (Editor) and the Reform Movement's humash The Torah: A Modern Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut  (hereafter Plaut - see here for review of new edition) are the obvious one-volume modern humashim that could be suitable to supplement or replace the venerable The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary by Joseph H. Hertz (hereafter Hertz). Both are greatly superior to Hertz in many key regards (see below for details).


2. Plaut, in its current form, would not be practical for use in traditional services because of its: 

3. Etz Hayim has none of these problems, and has shown itself to be very appropriate for service use. On the other hand, its intellectual shallowness, parochialism and historical naivety make it a poor choice for thoughtful Conservative Jews interested in, ethical, historical and comparative cultural/religious issues.


4. A modified Plaut would be an excellent supplement to Etz Hayim in Conservative synagogues.  Such a modified Plaut should feature the following:

  1. historical and archaeological references brought up to date

  2. One chapter per parashah subdivided to reflect the triennial cycle.  The relevant haftarahs should be at the end of each chapter.

  3. discussions of modern Jewish views and practices centered on those of the conservative movement but not limited to it

  4. heavier paper

  5. haftarah commentaries similar to those in Etz Hayim

  6. bigger English and Hebrew fonts

  7. Hebrew and English in parallel columns





I Two preliminary observations -


 i. Translation of the Torah Text


The earliest translations – Septuagint and later Greek translations varied hugely from being so literal that they were bad Greek to periphrastic.  Any translation is to some extent an exegetical interpretation.  The less literal a translation is the more it becomes a covert commentary. This range is found in modern translations.


 The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) 1917 translation, used in Hertz (known as the Old Jewish Version OJV), is a Jewish revision of the American Revised Version of the late 19th century which, in turn was a revision of the King James Version of the early 17th century.  This translation tradition tends to retain archaic English (e.g. thou) and to be literal to the extent that


 (a) good Hebrew is "translated" into unidiomatic English e.g. he found favour in her eyes i.e. not really English but comprehensible.  Or "translating" hinneh in a dream as "behold" when its proper meaning is "this is what he saw" or translation lemor as "saying" whereas it should be either skipped in the translation or given its proper meaning "quote"


 (b) incomprehensible Hebrew is "translated" into incomprehensible English.


A big positive of this approach is that someone with a foundation in Biblical Hebrew can relate the translation to the original text.


Once you depart from a literal translation you can write the translation in good English.  You may also select some guidelines e.g. (a) try to have the modern reader understand it the way you assume the original readers would have by replacing images, social customs etc with their parallels in the modern world; or, (b) try to have the reader emotionally react to the text as you assume the original readers would have; or, (c) try to ensure that the reader sees the text through the prism of Rabbinic interpretation.  This can be done through entering the interpretations into the text (e.g. The Palestinian Targumim and, perhaps, the Arts Scroll translations) or by providing a commentary e.g. Rashi's commentary.


The New English Bible is a good example of fluid and lucid English renderings made possible through freely emending the text, reliance on often second rate scholarly guess work and the use of paraphrase.  The result is that there is always a lucid English "translation" even for incomprehensible Hebrew text.


The Jewish Publication Society has published essays on the basis for the New Jewish Version (NJV) published starting in the 1960s.  The NJV attempts to translate the Hebrew Text into idiomatic English with minimal resort to emendation or resort to ancient versions.  At many points traditional Jewish interpretations are used if they are compatible with the literal meaning of the text as understood by current scholarship.  The result is a pretty good translation, in good English.  However, the downside of this is that someone with only a foundation in Biblical Hebrew may have difficulty in understanding how the translator understood specific words and phrases of the original Hebrew.  The NJV is the text used in Plaut  and Etz Hayim.


ii. Commentary


 The Hertz Humash was written as a polemic against Higher Criticism. Higher Criticism concluded that the Torah  was not dictated by God to Moses as per Jewish Tradition but rather was written by people and had multiple origins and its composition involved a long and complex process.  It should be stressed that the Conservative Movement has accepted the legitimacy Higher Criticism (see, and, and) and the validity of its main conclusions.  In his  polemic, Hertz drew on traditional Jewish commentators as well as "modern" i.e. Late 19th - early 20th century Jewish and gentile commentators. In my view, his tendentious arguments should convince no one.  I have always been amazed that such a second rate fundamentalist commentary should be used by Conservative synagogues.  It says something that the Conservative Movement, growing out of the European Historical School, was unable to develop its own Torah commentary during the first 150 years of its existence!


 The only Torah commentary known to me that is really effective in bringing in both traditional and modern understandings is the Plaut.


1.      English Translation – Plaut  and Etz Hayim use the JPS NJV dating from the 1960s whereas Hertz uses the JPS 1917 minor revision of the American Revised Version of the late 19th century.


a.      The NJV uses current literary English whereas the JPS 1917 uses “King James” type English.  This makes the NJV easier to understand.


b.      Translators understanding of the background.  Basically, the American Revised Version translators were educated in the 1860s-70s when linguistic knowledge wasn’t bad, sociological understanding of biblical times was poor and archaeological information virtually didn’t exist.  The translators of the NJV were working in the late 1950s and early 1960s after 40 years of archaeology and the discovery and partial publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ugaritic tablets (giving insight into Canaanite religion), and many other important discoveries.


c.      JPS 1917 is a literal, almost word-for-word, translation in the “King James” tradition whereas, NJV is more periphrastic.  This makes it easier to understand the meaning of the text, as understood by the translator, in the NJV but it is harder to see how an individual Hebrew word was understood that is the case with the more literal JPS 1917.




2.      Physical Properties


a.      both Hertz and Etz Hayim use heavier grade paper than my copy of Plaut  and so would likely wear better. 


b.      The binding of Etz Hayim seems disturbingly weak - much the poorest of the three


c.      The size of the print is larger in Etz Hayim than in Plaut .  My impression is that Etz Hayim is by far the easies to read of the three


d.      both Hertz and Etz Hayim have English and Hebrew columns in parallel whereas, my version of Plaut , has the English below the Hebrew.  The parallel column approach makes referring from Hebrew to English much easier


e.      Plaut , unlike Hertz and Etz Hayim, does not highlight the parashah names making fining the place largely dependant on knowing the chapter number




3.      Haftarah CommentariesPlaut  doesn’t have any.  Hertz’s is similar to his Torah commentary. Etz Hayim has a vastly superior commentary notably led off by an introduction to each haftarah showing its links to the parashah


The following was sent to me by a reader of the above

"The Haftarah Commentaries in Etz Hayim are by Michael Fishbane, and summarize a gigantic book of Haftarah Commentaries he wrote which I have worked through. Frankly, Fishbane's commentaries are not so good, in my opinion. His writing is circumlocutious and redundant. He blunts the key issues. He avoids critical and historical interpretation, even though he is commenting on parts of the Tanach (the Neviim) which all Conservative Jews acknowledge to be the product of human authorship and editing. Rabbi Suzanne Lieber put out a Study Guide to the Haftarot to accompany Fishbane's commentary which is okay; it has relevant questions for modern readers.  A far better Haftarah Commentary is the one containing translations by Rabbi Chaim Stern (z"l) and  brilliant commentaries by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut. I should also mention that Mr. Steinberg is wrong about the Hertz Chumash Haftarot. They are not by Dr. Hertz, but instead are from the excellent Soncino commentaries by Rev. A. Cohen (why "Rev."?). The Haftarah Commentaries in Hertz are far better than the Torah Commentaries, although their language is dated. PSJC has the Soncino Chumash, by the way, which is a delightful and succinct compendium of the best comments by the meforshim without a lot of preaching or apologetics."




4.      On-Page notes -

Etz Hayim has 3 on-page commentary sections


(i) Pshat Commentary – this is designed to help the reader to understand the text in its historical-social context. This commentary is culled from the 5 volume JPS Torah Commentary. However, the topical essays, almost all the elements of the JPS Torah Commentary relating to the history of the text and a great deal of interest to serious students has been left out.;


(ii) Drash Commentary – explains the text’s relationship to Jewish tradition and important issues raised; and,


(iii) Halakha Lemaaseh - how the text relates to current Jewish practice.


My comments mainly relate to the Pshat Commentary.  In my view, any explication of the text in its historical-social context should logically cover at least two areas: 

a) the pre-history of the text and the window this gives to the origins of Ancient Israel and its religion.  Etz Hayim neither attempts to cover this important area nor explains why it does not; and,


b) the Pentateuch as an integral whole i.e. as it has been seen by Jews up until the modern period. This is the sole view of Etz hayim.

Plaut  and Hertz each have a single set of on-page notes.  In Plaut  they are sparse but are supposed to be read with reference to the introductions to each section and to the longer notes and discussions at the end of each section.  Hertz’s notes cover a wide range of topics with emphases on: (i) early 20th century Jewish apologetics; (ii) late 19th century Biblical scholarship; and, (iii) a fundamentalist understanding of the Torah min haShmayim i.e. the Torah was authored by God not by people.




5.      Background Essays


a.      Hertz – very little and what there is poor and dated.


b.      Plaut  – Good essays placed mainly at the end of  the relevant short chapters.  Because Plaut  wrote almost the whole thing himself they cohere quite well.  Good bibliography and end notes


c.      Etz Hayim -  the essay section (pp 1339-1503) is virtually a compact course covering most Torah-related issues.  Since it was written by a range of scholars various viewpoints are presented and there is a lack of coherence.  There are two serious defects which will minimize the essays usefulness: (i) lack of cross-referencing - the foot notes should refer the reader to further information in the essays.  This lack of cross-referencing will guarantee that most readers will never look at the essays; and, (ii). lack of bibliography - the commentary is clearly aimed at the non-specialist audience - Amekha in Conservative parlance. The essays are extremely brief and not always clear.  Each essay should have a brief bibliography for further study - there are none.




6.      Relationships and Links to Non-Jewish Traditions Plaut , usually in his Gleanings sections, often brings in this type of material.  There seems to be none in either Hertz or Etz Hayim




7.      Understanding of Text in its Historical Context


a.      Hertz – totally historically naïve as would be expected of a polemic against historical source criticism.


b.      Plaut  – This is a mixed bag. On the positive side, there is an attempt to engage with current historical views. On the negative side, it was seriously out of date even when published. The Plaut Humash is informed throughout by the Albright-Wright/Biblical Archaeology view that the “essential historicity” of the Patriarchal stories in Genesis and the conquest narratives have been verified by archaeology. This view, which held sway in the USA and Israel roughly 1930-1965 started to be undermined by scholarship in the 1960s and had been totally demolished by 1975. Since that time, few serious scholars would suggest that there is any retrievable historic information relating to the period before 1000 BCE, or even later, recoverable from the Pentateuch. Thus, much of the historical interpretive information in the commentary was known to be wrong or misleading well before the publication of the commentary.


c.      Etz Hayim - In the, far too brief, section on Modern Methods of Bible Study (pp1499-1503) they do, very briefly, outline the salient features of Source Criticism (pp1500-1501) and what they term Literary Criticism. It is VERY VERY important to understand the difference –


"In simple terms, source criticism is interested in cutting up the texts to find different layers of tradition; literary criticism considers the text as it stands now, as a whole, not as it may once have been. Literary criticism is both like and unlike traditional Jewish commentary.  It looks at the Bible as a unified whole but has no theological commitment and sees it as the creation of human authors.  Source criticism is interested in history; literary criticism treats historical questions as basically unanswerable and understands texts as literary products or objects, not as windows on historical reality. Literary criticism sees texts as coherent wholes that create meaning through the integration of their elements, irrespective of the authors and their intentions." (pp1501-1502).


The general approach of Etz Hayim seems to be




As a person strongly committed to the study of history I find this approach deeply unsettling and rather pathetic as a product of the "Historical School".  In Avot (chapt 2 mishnah 21) Rabbi Tarfon teaches "You are not obliged to finish the task but neither are you free to neglect it."  Since the Renaissance Western Culture has understood history in a way quite different from the many cultures and civilizations that proceeded it.  I do not believe that it is intellectually honest to ignore our understanding of history in trying to understand Jewish history and pre-history.  Historical source analysis cannot give us sure answers but they certainly can often produce a balance of probabilities and as R Tarfon indicated we are not free to ignore it if we are to be intellectually honest.


In general, I would say, that the treatment is historically naive. The commentary and most of the essays seem to ignore the historical issues raised by historical-source criticism.  Thus they carry on with the traditional assumptions that the material in Genesis really historically proceeds that in the rest of the Torah which, in turn, proceeds that in First Isaiah and Jeremiah.  In fact, a very good case could be, and has been, made that the Genesis material is among the youngest in the Torah and that much of the legal material in the Torah is exilic.  Without saying it this way, the approach is ---- we recognize that the Torah is a human document with a complex past but will largely accept the Torah as is as the basis for discussion and drawing conclusions even where we realize that the result is ahistorical


The following was sent to me by a reader of the above

" On the top of each page's commentary  (the Peshat or plain meaning) is a summary of the lengthier JPS Torah Commentaries for each of the Five Books of the Chumash (Genesis and Exodus by Nahum Sarna, Leviticus by Jacob Milgrom, Numbers by Baruch Halpern, Deuteronomy by Jeffrey Tigay). These are each masterpieces, which combine modern critical scholarship, historical comparisons, with traditional meforshim (ancient and medieval Jewish commentaries).... However, for reasons of space, these were edited down by the late Chaim Potok (z"l) who was indeed the literary editor of the original JPS Torah Commentary Series.... During the course of editing, it does appear to me that Potok deliberately avoided comments explaining the Torah from a critical point of view, so that one may notice that Etz Hayim -- in the body of the commentary -- seems to avoid any discussion of authorship, source criticism, the documentary hypothesis and the like. I would think that this was deliberate, i.e. that Potok was instructed to do so to avoid offense to regular shul-going Conservative laity who like to believe that the Torah was dictated by God and written by Moses and are hostile to source-criticism. This editing is balanced by essays at the back of Etz Hayim which frankly accept human authorship of the Torah, and which immediately drew attack by the Orthodox rabbinate.... "

CONCLUSION – PLAUT  is the only one of the three to deal with this important dimension



8. Key and Embarrassing Ethical Issues    


I decided to look at how each commentary handled what might be called the Torah's 'commandment for genocide.'

In Ethannan, Ekev and Shoftim there are unambiguous divine instructions to wipe out all the Canaanites – men, women and children (see  The operative verses are -

Deuteronomy, chapter 7

1: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves,
2: and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.
3: You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.
4: For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
5: But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.
6: "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.
16: And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them; neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

Deuteronomy, chapter 20

16: But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,
17: but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
18: that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.

Also relevant is the following from Joshua, chapter 11

10: And Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and smote its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was the head of all those kingdoms.
11: And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.
12: And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and smote them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.
13: But none of the cities that stood on mounds did Israel burn, except Hazor only; that Joshua burned.
14: And all the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the people of Israel took for their booty; but every man they smote with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any that breathed.


Given the importance of this issue in the post-Holocaust period, I had expected Etz Hayim to deal with it seriously and at length.  Regrettably the treatment in Etz Hayim is inferior even to that in the old, pre-Holocaust, Hertz. This is astonishing as its prime source for Deuteronomy - the JTS Commentary by Tigai - has a whole excursus (pp. 470-472) on the subject. (It is true that Etz Hayim does deal with the issue in an essay entitled War and Peace (pp. 1385-1387) but this is not indicated in the on-page commentaries and is unlikely to be found by ordinary readers hearing the biblical text read in synagogue.)


Plaut does a rather better job


“The Treatment of Conquered Nations


“The Torah instructs the Israelites to "doom" the idolatrous nations in Canaan and to show them no pity. This provision is in stark contrast to the pervasive humaneness of the book, and therefore attempts of various kinds have been made to explain or defend this harshness and to make clear how a loving and caring God could be seen to issue such edicts.


“An early attempt was made in Talmudic days. The Hebrew for "show them no pity" (lo teHannem) was read as "do not grant them [land]," as if the text read lo taHnem), that is, do not sell real estate to "them-a rendering which leaned on the warning in Exod. 23:33 not to let them dwell "in your land". But even if one would deem this interpretation feasible (which. it is not, in view of the clear Masoretic text), one could not argue away the provision of Deut. 20:16 which, using another word, unequivocally says, "You shall not let a soul remain alive."


“The text has further been defended on the grounds of necessity: unless the native people were done away with, they would ensnare Israel with their idolatrous practices, and the maintenance of the Sinaitic covenant was a task overshadowing all else. God's plans for

humanity could not and cannot be measured by human considerations. To emphasize this point, S. R. Hirsch interpreted the twice issued injunction of verses 2 and 16 to show that repetition was needed because it went so much against the sensibilities of the Israelites. However, no student of history can easily accept such a reading, for all too many humans have fallen victim to inquisitors and crusading warriors who pretended to act out of the highest religious motives. And already in talmudic times the notion was rejected that an Almighty God would agree to wipe idolatry off the face of the earth, though He had the power to do so.


“One comes closer to an understanding of the Torah if one abandons efforts to shield it from criticism and sees it in the light of its own time, its values, and standards.  "The custom to 'dedicate' an enemy to the deity, or to ban him, or after a victory to annihilate

him, is told us of various Near Eastern nations as well as of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Germans. Since the sensitivities of the ancients were not offended by the rigor of this procedure, Moses could use this harsh war practice as a means to shield Israel from

pagan infection" .


“But even this interpretation does not do the text full justice, for it ascribes to Moses a point of view which may not have been his at all. Moreover, and most important: the unyielding tenor of these provisions stands in sharp contrast to the fact that such a policy

of annihilation was ,never carried out-the Canaanites were not annihilated. In fact, in Judg. 3:1, God himself is said to have abrogated His original command (see above, at verse 22). Later, in retrospect-taking Deuteronomy to be a post-settlement and not a Mosaic document-the reader was told that the rampant idolatry which characterized Israel's history for centuries could have been avoided had the native peoples been destroyed. Note that the sermon warns the Israelites not to intermarry with the idolaters -the very idolaters who were supposed to be doomed!


“A proper understanding, then, would view these passages as retrojections of what could and might have been, and the sentiments were acceptable in view of the common practices of the times.”


This last view is well stated by G H Davies in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (Nelson 1962)


“Israelites and their Neighbours - The Levitical preacher returns to his transition theme and takes his hearers back in imagination to the eve of their entry into the promised land. He instructs his people in the duties proper to that situation. They are to destroy their idolatrous neighbours, to have no dealings of any kind such as commerce or matrimony, and they are to destroy the shrines and their contents.

The command to destroy utterly, that is to put to the ban, the different peoples of Canaan seems at first to be a blot upon the humanitarian outlook of Deuteronomy. This command is given in order to prevent idolatry. Now for Deuteronomy idolatry can only have one outcome and

that is the destruction of Israel. It is through idolatry and only through idolatry that Israel can destroy itself and thus bring to naught God's purpose for Israel. The choice before Deuteronomy then was either to live with these peoples of Canaan, which would inevitably bring about

idolatry and so the death of Israel, or to destroy these peoples and so remove the greatest cause of idolatry. It is more evil to be idolatrous than to slay these peoples. Thus the real meaning of idolatry for Deuteronomy begins to be clear for us, even though many moral difficulties in the command remain.


“It must however be remembered that the preacher was only laying down what he considered to be the ideal policy, namely, extermination. In actual fact he was preaching to people who had long settled in the land, had long lived with these groups and had frequently been idolatrous. His words show the situation confronting him. He bids his hearers exterminate idolatry. That is what had not happened. He then bids his hearers to make no covenants or marriages with them. That is what in fact did happen. So Deuteronomy faces the problem of Israel's contemporary idolatry.


Accordingly his second solution is the destruction of Canaanite altars with their accompanying stone and wooden ('asherim) symbols of deity and images. The sanctuaries are the centres of holiness, blessing and life for the Canaanites, and to destroy them is to destroy the life and body of Canaanite religion.”