Who Needs a New Torah Commentary?

Some are content to study Torah with only medieval commentary, but I felt it was time for a modern update.

The first book to be printed on the printing press in Hebrew was not the Bible. It was the Torah with commentary of Rashi, the pre-eminent exegete. Why? Because the Torah is not to be read. It is to be studied. And at various times during one's studies, one needs a teacher.

Studying the Torah with Rashi's commentaries is a joy because he shows what questions one can ask of a text. Look here! Is this a contradiction? Look here! This can have two opposite meanings. Which is right? Why does the Torah not tell us this piece of information that we need to understand the text? Why does it give us this fact that seems to be of no significance at first glance?

Rashi wrote his commentary 900 years ago. Commentaries for laypersons in recent times have changed. They have been written as introductory notes to help explain the text. They often collect comments from scholars of the past and from current biblical scholars. This is different from what commentary means classically. The purpose of Rashi's commentary and of Ibn Ezra's and Ramban's was to show the readers new things in the text, problems they had not seen, or to address old problems that had not yet been solved--and then to offer the commentator's solutions to these problems.

In this commentary, I mean to return to the classical purpose. I shall have some basic explanatory comments to be helpful to the new student, but above all, I mean to try to offer explanations for old problems and to address new ones. I aim to shed new light on the Torah, and more important, to open windows through which it sheds light on us.

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The idea is to address these kinds of things that we treat in academic scholarship but in a manner that is accessible and interesting to laypersons as well. I still cling to the belief that has governed my last several books: that serious biblical scholarship is not over the heads of nonscholars. It is possible to discuss our findings in a way that intelligent people understand--and that shows them how interesting and valuable this learning is.

In this purpose, my fellow biblical scholars and I have new sources that were not available to great medieval commentators. Through the archaeological revolution of the last two centuries, we have new knowledge of the biblical world, both of Israel and its neighbors. We know the languages that they spoke and wrote in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic: Akkadian, Caananite (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite), Egyptian, and Summerian. We have hundreds of sites and tens of thousands of ancient texts.

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