NEW YORK, Oct. 11, 2001, (AP) - As the annual cycle of synagogue Scripture readings begins this weekend, many worshippers across the United States and Canada will be using Conservative Judaism's first official commentary on the Torah, the Bible's first five books.

The text, called ``Etz Hayim''--Hebrew for ``Tree of Life''--is a joint project of the Conservative branch's Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue.

Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, executive vice president of the rabbinical organization founded in 1901, said the new book is one of a half-dozen pivotal events in the history of Conservative Judaism.

There are some 800 Conservative synagogues with a reported 1.5 million members in the United States and Canada. Conservative Judaism's views on the Torah and tradition fall between Reform, to its left, and Orthodoxy, to its right.

Most Conservative synagogues provide commentaries, including the Torah text, for congregants to use. The new commentary was kept to 1,560 pages to fit into pew racks. Many Jews also own commentaries for private study.

Until now, Conservative synagogues have used a 1937 book by the late J.H. Hertz, who was Britain's chief rabbi. The same volume is also used in Orthodox synagogues and includes an old-fashioned 1917 English translation of the full Bible.

Like Reform Judaism's official Torah commentary of 1981, the new Conservative commentary uses the Jewish Publication Society English translation of 1967, incorporating 1999 revisions.

The pages of ``Etz Hayim'' have three sections running below the scriptural text itself.

First is a commentary on textual details, condensed by Chaim Potok, author of ``The Chosen,'' from a 1996 version produced by JPS. A second commentary follows with ``midrash'' - or explanations - from millennia of Jewish tradition. That was compiled by Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of ``When Bad Things Happen to Good People.'' A third layer of material explains Conservative applications of Jewish law.

The chief editor was Rabbi David L. Lieber, president emeritus of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. The literary editor was Rabbi Jules Harlow, who also edited the Conservative synagogue prayer book.

Besides the Torah material, the book has related readings from biblical prophets with commentary by Michael Fishbane of the University of Chicago, and 41 essays on biblical topics.

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