Interview

Initiator of the Jewish Study Bible: A Modern Day Yitro

TABS Director, Rabbi David Steinberg, Interviews Donald Kraus, Executive Bible Editor at Oxford University Press

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February 6, 2015

RabbiDavid D. Steinberg

Rabbi

David D. Steinberg

Initiator of the Jewish Study Bible: A Modern Day Yitro
Don Kraus has been the OUP Bible editor for 30 years and has also worked with the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jewish Publication Society, the American Bible Society, the German Bible Society, and various Bible publishers in the U.S. in bringing out more than two dozen different translations and a number of annotated, study Bible editions. I graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and studied at the Harvard Divinity School. Kraus is a member of the Diocesan Council of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and has conducted annual workshops for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine in their program for the training of candidates to be Deacons. He has taught Bible study in local churches in New York, Connecticut, and Maine. Kraus’ wife is an Episcopal priest and the rector of their local parish in Maine.

Introduction: The Uniqueness of The Jewish Study Bible

Walk into any synagogue today, and a quick look at the bookshelves and the particular chumashim that are used will identify that synagogue’s denomination. If you find achumash from the Artscroll /Mesorah Publications, you are likely in an Orthodox Shul; an Etz Hayim Humash means you are likely in a synagogue affiliated with the Conservative movement; and you are in a Reform temple if you find Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary.

This chumash litmus test can be taken to another level and be used to identify sub denominations. For example, if you find the Chumash: The Gutnick Edition, you know are in a Chabad house. The Koren Humash likely means the shul is Modern Orthodox. A chumash with no English translation likely suggests you are in haredi or Hasidic beit hamidrash.

Yet, unity as a prerequisite for Torah is emphasized in tradition. Parashat Yitro describes the days leading up to the revelation on Mount Sinai. Rashi famously quotes the Mechilta that, when the Israelites were encamped opposite Mount Sinai, they were “as one person with one heart” – כאיש אחד בלב אחד. In this predictable Jewish world of denominations, one Bible defies this sort of classification: The Jewish Study Bible published by Oxford University Press. It provides a running commentary that, like the columns published in TABS, draws from both traditional and scientific perspectives. It also includes accessible essays from more than fifty scholars from all affiliations. It is a model of scholarship and Jewish unity that is hard to find elsewhere.

This is not, however, the only cue from Parashat Yitro that inspired me to interview the person who initiated The Jewish Study Bible Project. Immediately prior to the description of the Israelites receiving the Decalogue, Exodus 18 records Moses receiving advice from his non-Israelite father-in-law, Yitro, on how to govern and manage his communal affairs. This surprising narrative structure is highlighted by the naming of the whole parasha after Yitro.

The commentary Ohr ha-Hayyim (R. Hayyim ibn Attar of Morocco, later of Israel, 1696-1743) offers the following insight (18:21)

It seems that the reason [that this teaching came from Yitro] is that God wanted to show the Israelites of that generation – and of all generations – that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect [gedolim be-havanah u-ve-haskalah]. The example of this was Yitro: his advice and the way he chose to organize a society. For there are indeed among the nations people who recognize well-authenticated propositions.[1]


Thank you Mr. Kraus for following in Yitro’s footsteps, and for further explicating your role in this project through this interview. As a reader, who owns two copies of The Jewish Study Bible (one for my work desk and one in my dining room bookshelves,) I would like to thank you for initiating and shepherding this project—twice!


1. I know from Marc Brettler that you conceived the idea for The Jewish Study Bible Project, and are interested in, and sympathetic to, Jewish tradition. You strike me as a modern-day Yitro (Jethro), whose advice and input has greatly benefited the Jewish community. How did you come up with the idea for The Jewish Study Bible? What motivated you to do this?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in New York City and Westchester County, NY, in the immediate postwar years (born 1947), so my street friends and school classmates were a varied group, mostly Roman Catholic and Jewish. (I went to the Episcopal Church.) In Westchester, particularly, I had friends who were having bar mitzvahs and I was invited to these. The service was, of course, very different, but it was for that reason perhaps all the more interesting, and the idea of learning to read that amazing-looking text was fascinating.

In college I majored in literature, but I took classical Greek and (when it was offered as a new course) classical (biblical) Hebrew. A local Conservative rabbi also taught a course on Judaism, both history and practice, that introduced me to writers like Franz Rosenzweig (I had already read Martin Buber). When I took courses in biblical studies I became much more interested in the Old Testament (as we called it) than I had been before, and that led to A.J. Heschel’s books on the prophets.

I spent some time in graduate school studying theology, biblical studies, and history. I was privileged to know Dean Krister Stendahl (as he then was –he later became the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm).[2] Dean Stendahl taught New Testament and there was considerable mention of Jewish backgrounds and texts, but not very much direct encounter with them. The Talmud, Mishnah, and other rabbinic collections are difficult to find a way into if you are not brought up with them, and I always felt this as a lack.

When I began to work in religious publishing, I met people from other presses at meetings and professional gatherings. One person I met, and became friendly with, was Ellen Frankel, who was then the head of the Jewish Publication Society and a stellar publishing presence. We would meet periodically to chat. The Jewish Publication Society owns the Tanakh translation, which I knew about; they were very careful about letting other publishers have licenses, and although Oxford University Press had published a number of different translations, we had not licensed that one. As we discussed possible collaboration, we came up with the idea of an annotated edition of the Tanakh. As it turned out, JPS ended up letting Oxford undertake the publication.

So here was my chance to learn about Jewish interpretive tradition!

2. Were there any reactions to the initial publication of The Jewish Study Bible Project, a decade ago, that surprised you?

I think the most pleasant surprise was the reception of the first edition among Christians. I still meet Christian readers who tell me how much they have learned from the JSB – and it is Christians of all kinds, Roman Catholic, evangelical and conservative Protestant, and mainline Protestants like myself.

I have also learned that many Jewish readers have gratefully received this publication as a manageable guide to their own traditions of interpretation, as well as to the meaning of the biblical text.

3. How does the new second edition released in 2014 differ from its predecessor in 2004? What did you find most novel or satisfying about this new edition?

In this new edition, the range of materials covered, particularly in the (more than 40) essays, is much wider. One very important innovation that Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin included was the influence of the Bible on other Scriptures, meaning the New Testament and the Quran. There is also much more on the influence of the Bible in the wider culture, and on issues of current concern like war. There are eighteen new essays and most of the others have been revised or entirely rewritten. Altogether the essay section is a guide to the vast cultural influence of the Bible.

4. What impact do you think The Jewish Study Bible has had? Do you know who is purchasing and reading it?

We don’t know in detail who many of the final purchasers are – we sell to bookstores and on-line venues like Amazon, and most of the final purchasers are not in touch with us. But based on comments that come back to us, for many readers the JSB is an introduction to a world of interpretation they may not have known about, or may have heard of but had not known how to learn about. As suggested in the previous comments, I think one ongoing form of influence is in helping Christians to understand how the Bible of the synagogue is complete in itself, and not a prologue to something that came later.

5. As an Episcopalian, how has Jewish biblical scholarship affected your understanding of the Bible and your personal beliefs?

This is a very interesting but difficult question. I’m going to have to oversimplify a bit in order to answer reasonably succinctly.

As much as Christianity and Judaism are two distinct faiths, Christianity is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible, albeit interpreted quite differently than it is by Judaism. Three theological areas stand out to me in which Christian and Jewish thought have historically diverged:

  • Trinitarian conceptions of God.
  • The doctrine of the incarnation (seeing Jesus of Nazareth not simply as messiah but also as God in human form.)
  • A sacramental approach to creation, in which the material world is seen as a vehicle for conveying spiritual reality (a vague definition, but we’ll have to leave it at that.)

As I have been led into deeper readings of the Hebrew Bible, I have seen more and more how these distinctively Christian ideas, nevertheless, originate with interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible, God is one, but this God has different aspects – kavod (weight/glory; see Exodus 24:16-17), davar (word/utterance; see Isaiah 55:11; Psalm 33:6), ruach(breath/spirit; see Genesis 1:2), and chokhmah (wisdom; see Proverbs 3:19). In various texts, these aspects seem to take on a life of their own. Of course, this is very much constrained by the countervailing pressure to maintain God’s one-ness or unity, but nonetheless, the variety of these “manifestations” is there.[3] Beneath the Greek, perhaps neo-Platonic, language and conceptual world of Christian theology, there is still a kernel of the Hebrew Bible’s idea of God as amazingly complex, far beyond human understanding, operating in ways that we can only dimly perceive.

In the same way, incarnational and sacramental ways of looking at the world have also, I think, grown out of Hebrew thought. My own understanding of the central Christian rite, the celebration of the Eucharistic rite, i.e., the bread-and-wine/body-and-blood offering, has been greatly deepened as I have come to understand the Hebrew Bible’s conceptions of the body as the means of action in the world – when God acts, the text gives God an arm (Exodus 6:6) and when God blesses the text gives God a face (Numbers 6:25) – and blood as the life of each creature (Deut 12:23) that ultimately comes from God. When we Christians say that we receive body and blood in the Eucharist, therefore, we are affirming that we will act with our bodies to make real God’s actions of love in the world, and that we will pour out our lives in service to the world and to those in it as the blood of the sacrifice is poured out to God. Thus bread and wine come to convey much more than their mere materiality would suggest.

And similarly the way Christians see it, the human life of Jesus of Nazareth can be the vehicle of meaning larger than itself. I am aware now, as I was not before I began to learn about Judaism in some depth, that “messiah/mashiach” has a different meaning for Jews and Christians. Many Christians think that there is only one messiah, and the difference between Judaism and Christianity is a disagreement about whether Jesus of Nazareth is that messiah. It comes as new information to Christians that, in Jewish interpretation, “messiah/annointed” can apply to different persons at different times.

Likewise, the phrase “son of God” has a meaning in Judaism (as a royal title; see Psalm 2:7). Interestingly, this is echoed in the gospel of John (1:49), the most Christological of the gospels, when Nathanael says to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Christian definitions of “Son of God” are much more concerned with the essence of Jesus’ nature. Once again, I am not saying that this is anything like what Judaism teaches, but rather that the concepts lying within the Hebrew Bible are an energizing source of meaning for Christians in coming to a deeper understanding of their own beliefs.

This is a very much simplified view, but it is nonetheless the case that my faith has been greatly deepened and broadened by an understanding of Jewish faith and the Hebrew Bible’s teachings.

6. I see that you have written a number of books yourself, including one called Choosing a Bible. When would you choose the Jewish Study Bible, and when would you choose other Bibles?

“Choosing a Bible” was mostly about how to choose translations, and it touched only briefly on study Bibles. Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend the NJPS Tanakh translation to Christian readers to help them overcome the stereotypical idea of Judaism as a “religion of law,” since Tanakh clearly favors translating “torah” as “teaching” rather than, as in most Christian Bibles, as “law.”

7. You also wrote a monograph on the biblical book of Job, called The Book of Job: Annotated and Explained. What motivated you to write about this difficult book from all of the books of the Jewish and Christian Bible?

My book on Job was not a scholarly work, and I wrote about it because I was asked to. The book was written as a guide for small Bible study groups, mostly in churches, who want to explore this challenging and forbidding book. It is part of a series from Skylight Paths that treats various sacred or significant texts, not only those in the Bible. It therefore had to accomplish a couple of goals that are very different from the kinds of things that a scholarly commentary would do. It had to make sense of the structure of the book as it now exists, whereas a scholarly treatment would clarify where passages might have been added or gotten out of order. And it had to make sense of the book on a spiritual level. I was greatly helped by scholarly commentaries, but what I was doing was somewhat different.

8. How is this project different from and similar to other Bibles you edited, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible or the Catholic Study Bible?

On one hand, like the religiously minded Catholic Study Bible, the JSB presents ideas or interpretations of one particular religious tradition. Like the more academic New Oxford Annotated Bible, on the other hand, it offers guidance to the reader into the plain sense of the text by means of annotations and other ancillary materials. But the JSB is far more expansive than either of those books because the text on which it is based is shorter (just the Hebrew Bible), and, therefore, there is more room for comment. Moreover, it is a portal to an entire tradition of interpretation and discussion that has been not so readily available to anyone not brought up in Jewish traditions.

9. What do you see as the difference that the Hebrew Bible plays within the Jewish community to the role the Bible plays in the Christian community in the U.S.?

Once again, an interesting question, and one that I’ll have to give an overly simplistic answer to. I think that Christians in general tend to spiritualize more than Jews do. The whole tradition, prominent among Orthodox Christians, of seeing the Conquest narrative in the Book of Joshua as an account of the individual soul’s triumph over sin is one example. Another is in the view of Jerusalem. Although many Christians have of course traveled to Israel and have walked in Jerusalem, it is nevertheless interesting to me that a Christian congregation would see Jerusalem as by and large a synonym for “heaven.” When a Christian congregation sings hymns such as “Jerusalem the Golden” or “Jerusalem, my happy home,” they are not thinking of the physical city itself, but of life with God in the hereafter. Even Christian musical settings of Psalms, such as Ps 122, emphasize the spiritual nature of Jerusalem. I suspect that it is very different in synagogue worship.

I also think that many Christians grant to the Bible an authority that is definitive for their faith and becomes a controlling presence, despite the fact that the Bible is not entirely consistent within itself. Among Jews, I see that there is much more willingness to engage with the text and even use it to argue against God as part of the interpretive tradition. See the account in the Talmud (b. Baba Metzia 59b) where the assembled rabbis argue a point against the voice from heaven, and God later remarks to Elijah, “My sons have won against me.”

I must add, however, that I do not know traditional Orthodox Jews very well and they may have a different kind of relationship with the biblical text. Nevertheless, for Jews in general the Bible always comes with an interpretive tradition attached, whether in the Talmud or in a Talmudic tradition that is mediated through a particular rabbinic school. Protestant Christians, in contrast, would claim that the Bible and the Bible alone is their authority; Catholic Christians would instance a teaching authority – the official Vatican pronouncements known as the Magisterium – that helps the individual come to terms with the sacred text.

10. What do you think the impact of the internet and various electronic media will be upon the study of the Bible?

I think that there will be increasing access to commentary and other information about the biblical text, some of it quite extensive, but as with other materials on the Internet, the main issue will be guidance for the inexpert reader on which sources can be trusted to provide quality information. Much of what is on the Internet now is dubious, and that includes a lot of the information about the Bible. People will have to learn, or be instructed about, which sources can be trusted. That said, those who know what they are doing will have vast amounts of information to consult about the biblical text.

Rabbi David D. Steinberg is the co-founder and director of Project TABS. He learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva, and Mir Yeshiva. Steinberg took the Ner Le’Elef Rabbinical Outreach training course and moved to Huntington, NY to work as an outreach rabbi for the Mesorah Center. In 2007 he joined Aish Hatorah NY as a Programs Director, managing their Yeshiva in Passaic and serving as a rabbi in their Executive Learning program.

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