May 1, 2006


The New Plaut

A Missed opportunity

by David Steinberg

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The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (Hardcover)
by W. Gunther Plaut (editor and author of most of the commentaries), David E. S. Stein (Editor) Publisher:
Union for Reform Judaism; Revised edition (February 28, 2005) ISBN: 0807408832


First edition - URJ Press (June 1, 1981) ISBN: 0807400556


The original 1981 edition of the Plaut commentary on the Torah marked a dramatic improvement over the fundamentalist Hertz Torah commentary (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary by Joseph H. Hertz) which it replaced in Reform Jewish congregations. It attempted to give both a traditional Jewish and a modern historical view of the text. In this connection, the frequent references to the widely recognized sources (J, E, D, P) is particularly welcomed in a Jewish study Pentateuch.  However, it did have a number of weaknesses only some of which have been addressed in this new edition. These weaknesses included:


1. It was 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. (See, for example, Shifting Sands : The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology by Thomas W. Davis). 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.


2. Its occasional egregious errors such as transliteration of the divine name “YHVH” (see new edition p. 36) when the virtual universal scholarly opinion is, and has been for at least a century, that the third letter of the name was pronounced similarly to the English letter “w”.


3. No attempt was made to make use of gender-neutral language where possible.


4. Its layout was suitable for study but not for synagogue liturgical use (subdivision of parashot into short chapters, placement of supplementary essays, placement of haftarot together at the end of each book of the Torah);


5. Its lack of commentaries on the haftarot.


6. The complete lack of drawings from Karaite (Jewish but not rabbinic) and Samaritan (Israelite but not Jewish) texts in the otherwise excellent “gleanings” sections which included abundant Christian and occasional Muslim, Babylonian etc. texts.


7. Positioning of the English translation below the Hebrew which made parallel reading of the Hebrew and English difficult.


8. Its very thin paper, small Hebrew type, lack of accent signs (te'amim) in the Hebrew text.


This new edition should have been an opportunity to correct these problems which, to a certain extent, has been done. Taking the above points item by item -


1. The reliance on the invalid Albright-Wright/Biblical Archaeology historic reconstruction is unchanged. In the original edition this reliance showed a lack of awareness of current research. Twenty four years later it must be considered a serious reproach to the scholarly credentials of the publishers and editors. One glance at the bibliography (pp. 1568-1569) pointedly shows the datedness of the materials. Of great importance is the lack of any reference of the great strides over the last decades in understanding the historic nature of early Israelite history and religion (e.g. the work of Smith, Zevit and Dever).


2. Its occasional egregious errors – uncorrected.


3. Gender-neutral language – this is one area where the new edition strikingly excels.  The use of the term “Eternal” for the divine name is to be especially commended.


4. Layout – layout by parashah followed by haftarah improve its usability in synagogue while making it less easy to use as a tool for private study.


5. Haftaraot now include very basic commentary although I consider them inferior to that included in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary.


6. Lack of drawings from Karaite and Samaritan traditions – unchanged.


7. Positioning of the English translation below the Hebrew – now changed to the traditional, and useful, parallel layout


8. Its very thin paper, small Hebrew type, lack of accent signs (te'amim) in the Hebrew text – these problems have all been addressed.


I did notice one additional problem with this new edition. In the first edition the titles of the topical essays were included in the table of contents thus increasing their findability.  The new edition does not do this thus effectively burying them in 1600 pages of text.