The publication of the "Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary" points to a significant achievement for the Los Angeles Jewish community. The Chumash is the first Torah and Haftarah commentary published by the Conservative movement.
"The Conservative movement doesn’t begin and end in New York City," said Rabbi David Lieber, senior editor of "Etz Hayim" and president emeritus of the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles. "It is clear that we’re dealing with a worldwide movement," says Lieber, who served as UJ’s president for 29 years before he retired in 1993, and was the first West Coast president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm, from 1996-1998. He was also instrumental in the 1996 founding of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies — the first place outside of New York to ordain Conservative rabbis.
"It is clear that in the last 20-odd years, Los Angeles has come of age in terms of Judaism generally and certainly in terms of the Conservative movement," Lieber says.
In taking the leadership of the "Etz Hayim" project, Lieber committed himself to assuring that the diversity of the movement be reflected in the 1,560-page volume, which is expected to replace the Hertz Chumash in Conservative congregations.
"My intention was that "Etz Hayim" really, truly be representative of the Conservative movement. That is why we cast our net very broadly. Among our writers we have women; we have people from Israel, from Europe, from all over the United States and Canada representing the right wing, the left wing and the center of the Conservative movement," Lieber says.
One of the first tasks Lieber faced when the Rabbinical Assembly conceived the project in 1987 was to bring together the different arms of the movement. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for congregations, took charge of publicity and marketing. The Jewish Publication Society (JPS), which is not officially connected to the Conservative movement, provided the biblical text in Hebrew and English, as well as its five-volume Torah commentary, which was published in stages beginning in 1989. The Rabbinical Assembly was in charge of the rest.
The project cost $2 million, some of which was raised through dedication pages at the beginning of the book — at a cost of $250,000 per dedication. Bruce and Shelly Whizin, who founded the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at UJ, dedicated the book in memory of their parents, Shirley and Arthur Whizin.
By 1991, Lieber had assembled a team of editors and contributors.
"I was very fortunate in being able to get two of my close friends to be major editors — Chaim Potok and Harold Kushner," Lieber says.
Potok, a Conservative rabbi and author of "The Chosen," was responsible for taking the JPS Torah commentary and whittling it down to one-tenth of its size for the p’shat portion of the commentary, which elucidates the simple meaning of the text. Kushner compiled the more esoteric d’rash section, using material from Midrash and Chassidic sources as well as contemporary authors. Professor Michael Fishbane of the University of Chicago wrote the Haftarah commentary, and Rabbi Jules Harlow, editor of the "Sim Shalom Siddur," came out of retirement to serve as literary editor.
Rabbi Susan Grossman, who leads a congregation in Maryland, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at University of Judaism, collaborated to put together the Halakhah l’Ma-aseh section, which connects the text to Jewish law.
Among the 41 essays at the back of the book are several by Los Angeles rabbis, including: UJ president Robert Wexler on Ancient Near Easter Mythology; Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom on the matriarchs and patriarchs; and Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi Joel Rembaum on relations with gentiles. UJ’s Dorff contributed three essays on theories of revelation, justice and halacha; Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe writes on Midrash; UJ professor of rabbinic literature Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman, on civil and criminal law; Lieber, on covenant; and Rabbi Daniel Gordis and Hanan Alexander, both formerly of UJ and now living in Israel, on ecology and education.
"It was a labor of love, and the most wonderful thing about this was the cooperation of everybody who participated. It was really quite extraordinary," Lieber says.
Lieber believes the new volume will make a significant contribution to Jewish life.
"This is the first commentary officially published by the Conservative movement, and if you study the commentary you’ll get a direct picture of what Conservative Judaism is all about," Lieber says. "Aside from that, I think this is an important contribution to the study of Chumash generally. It will be of interest to some Reform congregations, and I’m sure a number of Orthodox rabbis will be reading it, because it is the most up-to-date commentary on the Chumash that is in existence."
Rabbi Harold Kushner will be the featured guest at a reception celebrating the publication of "Etz Hayim" Tuesday, Oct. 30, 7:15 p.m. at the Gindi Auditorium at UJ. $15. For more information call (310) 440-1246.