By: Dr. Aaron Koller  | 

Review: Koren’s Bold New Modern Orthodox Tanakh Commentary

The publication of the gorgeous first volume of “The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel” is cause for celebration and reflection. The first installment is The Susan and Roger Hertog Edition of Exodus, and gratitude is due to the Hertogs and to Koren for this project, which clearly reflects years of work and large investments of capital and time. Reminiscent of the Olam ha-Tanakh series published in Israel by Davidson-Ittai more than 25 years ago, the Koren Land of Israel Tanakh contains hundreds of beautiful images that really do illuminate the text, and dozens of short articles by way of commentary, usually signed (with initials) by one of the contributors to the volume listed in the back.

Readers of the volume will learn how many fields of contemporary scholarship can help us  understand the book of Shemot better. Essays draw on research in Egyptology and ancient Near Eastern studies, archaeology and the languages of the ancient world and the natural world of the Bible. The series is explicitly Orthodox, and the introduction to the series (pp. xii-xvii) asserts that it “assumes the Divine authorship of the Torah, rejecting theories of multiple authorship which disregard its fundamental unity.”

The volume does not, then, engage with this aspect of biblical scholarship, but it is otherwise deeply enlightening on how modern research and knowledge can enhance the study of Torah. Scenes of Philistine altars, Egyptian gold, and cuneiform tablets make regular appearances, allowing the reader to visualize the text, as do reconstructions of the vessels and vestments from the mishkan (some from a partnership with The Temple Institute in Jerusalem). The discussions of the story of Moshe’s birth in light of Sargon’s birth story, the structure of the Ten Commandments in light of Hittite treaties and the layout of the mishkan in light of Ramesses’ battle tent at Kadesh pull no punches in their engagement with the wide range of available data and analysis. In each case, the reader is treated not only to new information, but to the results and benefits of this new information. The differences between the birth stories of Moses and Sargon are highlighted, the theological meaning of the structure of the Ten Commandments is elaborated, and so on. Thus, all this learning is seen to be quite centrally important in our understanding of Torah.

The historicity of the Exodus is asserted, but not vigorously defended. The date of the Exodus, set by many modern scholars in the thirteenth century BCE (the time of Ramesses II or his son Merenptah), is explicitly avoided (p. 69: “there is no way to know the exact time period of the Israelites’ slavery and redemption”), although the thirteenth century is given as the earliest possible time, because of the mention of the city of Pi-Ra’amses, named for the king, in Exodus 1:11. This discussion is quickly followed by “tefillin in archaeology” and “tefillin in halakha” (p. 72), drawing on findings from the Judean Desert 2000 years ago. Thus, the book chooses not to argue about questions of historicity, instead taking it for granted and focusing on matters that can be discussed with more data.

The intellectual and religious profile of the book seems to reflect something of an Israeli sensibility. Professor Adam Ferziger has recently documented the gulf separating the Modern Orthodox community of North America from the Religious Zionist community of Israel when it comes to biblical scholarship, despite the profound similarities between the communities otherwise. In North America, mainstream Modern Orthodox institutions publish symposia on Tanakh where the question of archaeology is never raised, much less advocated. In an interview published in the Orthodox Union’s quarterly magazine Jewish Action, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, the general editor of ArtScroll, was asked, “Did you ever consult with Bible scholars, historians, or archaeologists regarding the translation of Tanach?” And his answer was short and to the point: “No, we avoid that completely.” What is remarkable is that ArtScroll’s publications on Tanakh are mainstream in many North American Modern Orthodox communities, indicating that this repudiation of all of modern knowledge about Tanakh does not offend broadly. In Israel, on the other hand, engagement with the historical, political and geographic realities relevant to biblical history is commonplace, and of course, the academy is the home of the scholars who study these fields. Thus, biblical archaeology is something of a national pastime in Israel, while it continues to be ignored by broad swaths of the Orthodox community in North America.

From my perspective, this is depressing, as Modern Orthodoxy has always said that it takes the best of the general world and incorporates it into a Jewish framework. In the case of Tanakh, however, contemporary Modern Orthodoxy mostly ignores what the rest of the world is doing — to our own detriment in understanding Torah. But of course, the lines between the North American and Israeli communities are fluid, and Koren — based in Israel but with a growing publishing presence in North America — is Commercial Exhibit A right now. One can hope that the publication of the Land of Israel Tanakh will help to increase the flow of ideas from Israel to here, and help bring the North American Orthodox study of Tanakh to the levels it has reached in the Israeli community.

Because there is no running commentary in the volume, the reader will not find anything here about some of the problems raised by the text to a modern reader. When the text reports that there were 600,000 adult men traveling from Egypt (12:37), implying a total population in the millions, the commentary has nothing to say, although in the volume introduction, the editor writes somewhat enigmatically, “Certain idiomatic elements of biblical language, such as numbers, cannot be read literally” (xvi). The troubling and enigmatic episode of the ḥatan damim elicits no comment at all, nor does the depiction of God sitting on a throne above Mt. Sinai as Moses and the elders feast. This volume can only complement other commentaries, then, and the student will still have to have the Mikraot Gedolot (ideally at and the JPS Torah Commentary open as well. 

Two last notes about the center of the Land of Israel Tanakh – the biblical text itself. First, the text is, of course, the eclectic text of Tanakh produced by committee for Koren decades ago. This is unfortunate, but not tragically so. I wish Koren would strike a deal to utilize Breuer’s reconstruction of the Aleppo Codex, but perhaps this is just wishful thinking.

Second, the English translation is a new one, by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and is part of a translation project of the entire Tanakh undertaken by Rabbi Sacks to be published by Koren. Rabbi Sacks is an immensely talented individual, and one of our community’s leading lights. In translating, he has made some interesting choices. For example, he sometimes resorts to paraphrasing rather than translating directly. Rather than a stilted “He looked here and (t)here, and saw that there was no person, so he struck down the Egyptian” at 2:12, Rabbi Sacks turns the first two clauses into subordinate clauses: “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian.” Exodus 21:31, literally, “If it gores a son or it gores a daughter, the same law shall be applied to it,” is rendered, “This rule also applies if the ox gores a minor son or daughter.” (Incidentally, this verse is clearly a repudiation of the principle reflected in Laws of Hammurabi §230, in a slightly different context: “If it kill the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death. This is not noted in the commentary here.) My own preference is for a more literal translation, allowing the target language to reflect the structure of the source language to allow the Hebrew to shine through, but this is a millennia-old debate about translation and the boldness of the formulations here can be admired.

There are times that the notes and essays disagree with the translation, and the notes and essays are almost always correct. For example, tannin is translated as “snake,” although Dr. Zohar Amar’s note on the page explains that it is likely a crocodile. Pharaoh’s heart, which is kaved in Hebrew, is said to be “unyielding” in the translation, but the essay on p. 41 by Dr. Racheli Shalomi-Hen elaborates on the Egyptian notion of a “heavy heart” as an indication that the person will be condemned in the afterlife, which suggests that the literal meaning of kaved would have been preferable here. The pavement under God’s throne is said to be “sapphire” in the translation, although Dr. Yigal Bloch explains in the note that the Hebrew word sappir was the stunning lapis lazuli.

In other cases, the translation is simply not accurate. This may be true for 1:18, where we read that Shifra and Puah are “midwives of the Hebrews,” although the Hebrew (with the definite article on the word “midwives”) leaves little room for doubt that they are “Hebrew midwives” (although see Shadal). The translation is certainly wrong at 15:6, where it has, “Your right hand, Lord, is majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord, shatters the enemy.” Scholars since Rashbam have noted that the adjective “majestic” must take “Lord” as its subject, since it is masculine, not feminine (as “hand” is), and that the poetry is what is today called “staircase parallelism” (first identified by Rashbam in his commentary on this verse), and so the translation ought to be: “Your right hand – O Lord, majestic in power – your right hand shatters the enemy!”

This reader is curious about how this volume portends, or does not portend, what we will find in future volumes. For example, not all books of the Bible are as photogenic as Exodus is, so the aesthetic magic of this volume may be harder to replicate. Further, what are the theological positions that will be taken outside of the Torah itself? Will the Isaiah volume assert single authorship for that book, against the scholarly consensus which holds the book to be the product of multiple nevi’im? In this case, many Religious Zionist writers have followed the scholarly view, as none of the traditional principles of faith are violated, assuming that the veracity of prophecy is not being questioned.

In sum, Koren is to be applauded for the vision that led to this book and wished well for the completion of the rest of the series. It is a monumental undertaking, with the potential to profoundly affect the way Tanakh is studied in Modern Orthodox homes and institutions in North America. If this series serves to blur the current chasm between Israeli and American approaches to Tanakh study, it will be an everlasting credit to the project.

Dr. Koller is a professor of Near Eastern Studies and the Chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College.

Photo caption: Readers of the volume will learn how many fields of contemporary scholarship can help us understand the book of Shemot better.
Photo credit: Koren Publishers