Chumash Mesoras HaRav

I’ve recently (as a birthday gift, and with thanks to Mrs. Secular Jew) come into possession the first volume of a new Torah commentary, Chumash Mesoras Ha-Rav, which is Hebrew Torah/English Translation + Targum Onkelos + Rashi + (and this is the selling point) a kind of cumulative and redacted commentary from the works and speeches of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik was rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, among other things, and as much as modern Orthodox Judaism of the latter half of the 20th Century has had a central philosophical voice, that voice was his. (He’s known as “The Rav” in many Orthodox circles–hence Chumash Mesoras HaRav, or “The Chumash of the Rav’s Tradition.”)

The volume is nicely printed. The Hebrew and Aramaic texts are crisp and clear, including the Rashi script for Rashi’s commentary (clear Rashi script anywhere is greatly appreciated). It’s easier to use for a parshah-by-parshah study aid than as a continuous commentary, given how things are divided up; it’s easy to miss chapter divisions within the chapters of an individual parshah.

But on to the “good stuff.”

If you’ve been reading here for a bit, you know I’m not about to agree with everything Rabbi Soloveitchik had to say. Setting aside the differences I would obviously have with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought, I think the Chumash project here is interesting and worthwhile, but somewhat uneven. I think this is a function of the nature of the commentary, pieced together, as it is, from many, many different sources. An example suffices, I think, to get across my concerns.

Looking to Gen. 4 (most of the Hebrew in the volume is Ashkenazic yeshiva-style, so the book shows this as Bereishis), I started reading the story of Cain and Abel. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s commentary is…interesting. In one piece of commentary, we are told that “Abel’s very name implies vanity or foolishness,” as a non-firstborn that Abel’s role was to help Cain, and that Abel’s decision to become a shepherd was a violation of the social order. In another, we learn that Abel was weak because of his lifestyle–that is, he was unrooted and nomadic, and thus had no reciprocal relationship with the world upon which he could build and seek protection–and thus Cain was easily able to kill him. (Chumash Mesoras HaRav pp. 35-36.)

And this is where I think some of the unevenness lives. Naturally, the commentary goes on to acknowledge that Cain’s murder of Abel was a crime warranting punishment, and, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, that punishment–having the entire world, but no home–was apt for Cain, because it uprooted him from the strength he abused. (Chumash Mesoras HaRav pp. 36-37.) But, one has to ask: would Rabbi Soloveitchik, if personally pressed, have agreed that the commentary should be arranged so one very plausible interpretation of the comments together with the plain sense of the text was that Abel…well, sort of invited Cain’s treatment?

I’m not so sure of that. And I think the problem is that the first bit of commentary–about Abel’s voluntary disenfranchisement–is from a different source (presumably a bit of derasha given in Boston), at a different time (in 1972), than the second bit of commentary (from an article in a Yeshiva University journal in 1966).

I recognize, of course, that midrashic collections routinely mix and muddle approaches and intepretations. Taken in too unified a fashion, reading a classical work of commentary would likely result in some very wild results. But calling the commentary Mesoras HaRav – the tradition of the Rav–pushes this boundary a bit far. Perhaps it’s just a bit of bad billing; perhaps it should have been Mesoros HaRav–the traditions of the Rav? I’m not sure. As a lengthy meditation on sin, it’s certainly an interesting proposition–but it’s not a unifying one.

That said, would I recommend this? And will I continue to use it? Well, we’re fast approaching the end of the traditional reading cycle on Genesis, so if you’re looking to buy now, this is more a future than a present investment. As an entry into the sheer scope and variety of Soloveitchik’s work, it’s a good choice. But I’m not sure it would present a helpful, unified view of many of his philosophic works: the commentary grabs bits from not only articles and individual sermons, but also from book-length works of philosophical religious thought like Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith.

Put another way, I wouldn’t use this to teach a seminar on Soloveitchik’s thought. But for those already part of the “in” group–who have already read and are familiar with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s works, or who are accustomed to reading the variety of Torah commentaries as they are for what they are, it’s a useful source of insight in a form that can be routinely revisited over the years and with a more modern, worldly tone than many traditional commentaries. If only for that reason, it will likely find a spot in my messenger bag from time to time.

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