This summer, Torah Aura Productions was proud to release The Torah Portion-by-Portion, the latest work from Rabbi Seymour Rossel. Seymour, a longtime friend of ours here at Torah Aura, is an accomplished educator, a celebrated teacher, and a prolific author of books for adults and children. The Torah Portion-by-Portion is a triumph for those of us who believe that more (not less) is the key to Jewish education, that students should grapple in sophisticated ways with the Torah’s text, and in the power of merging the best that traditional and modern have to offer.
Here at TAPBB, we know our readers have inquiring minds. So we sat down and asked Seymour some of the big burning questions about his new book.
Here’s our interview with him:
TAPBB: What prompted you to write The Torah Portion-by-Portion?
Seymour Rossel: For many years, as I served as Director of the Department of Education for the Reform movement in North America, I visited many educational settings and found that the need most expressed was for a straightforward and accessible guide to reading the Torah in a modern fashion. The same concern was shared by rabbis and educators in the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements.
While verse-by-verse commentaries such as Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary and the newer Eitz Hayim of the Conservative movement were designed for “reading along” with the Torah and Haftarah during synagogue services, they tend to be less conducive to reading from cover to cover. Without illustrations and somewhat without narrative, they make it difficult for teenagers and most adults to get a grasp on what really happens in the Torah text. On the other extreme was a book like Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? which condenses modern scholarship in a popular fashion, but lacks the depth of a commentary. All of these and many others are valuable tools for Torah study, but none of them answer the immediate need for a study guide that would set the fruits of modern scholarship alongside traditional Jewish commentaries.
When I set out to write this “simple and straightforward commentary” I had no idea that it would require the next seven years of my life to accomplish, but the extent of the available scholarship was such that, even after many years of study under the guidance of many wonderful teachers, drawing it all together required a great deal of effort.
TAPBB: What makes this book different than other Torah texts?
Seymour Rossel: The Torah Portion-by-Portion is essentially a guide to the vast library of interlocking texts that make up the Torah as it has existed since its final redaction. It not only looks at what is written in the Torah, but also at how the Torah itself was collected and edited through hundreds of years. This approach incorporates the last 250 years of scholarship, yet the fact that the Torah was a carefully-edited compilation was already recognized by many traditional commentators — Rashi, Nachmanides, Abarbanel, and others — who sometimes comment on unexpected readings of various words and verses by the Masorites and even go so far as to make suggestions for better placement of this or that incident in the text. Many other Torah commentaries take a single approach by advocating for traditional commentary to the exclusion of any mention of the Documentary Hypothesis or by advocating the Documentary Hypothesis while dismissing the value of traditional midrash and commentary. I wanted to create a book that would be much more evenhanded, creating a balance between what the Documentary Hypothesis could teach us and what we still can learn from traditional Jewish commentaries.
Seymour Rossel: The age range for the book is twelve to one hundred and twenty. I know this sounds a bit presumptuous, but I was guided by the fact that most adults receive their knowledge of the Torah in their religious school years, with many knowing only one portion intimately since it formed the weekly portion of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Through simple translations of the primary text (which I produced in the course of the writing), illustrations, maps, charts, and drawings, I think it is possible for anyone to read this book without feeling that anyone is “talking down” to them on the one hand or “lording it over them” on the other hand. The test of whether I was successful in this effort will come as people read the book. So far, I have been gratified by the responses that I have heard. Some rabbis have already begun using it as a guide for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and other rabbis have made it a part of their weekly adult education classes in Torah study. Some are doing both.
While I was writing the book, I got valuable feedback by testing it on two very different audiences. My wife, Sharon L. Wechter, a fine Jewish educator in her own right, was teaching it week by week to students in her school (first in Stamford, CT, and then in Houston, TX), and I was using it with adults in my scholar-in-residence weekends around the country. This past year, I was also able to test it with both adults and students preparing for Bar and Bat Mitzvah in my own congregation, Jewish Community North, here in Spring, TX. We are both hoping that others will have as positive an experience with the material as we did.
TAPBB: The Torah Portion-by-Portion features a pretty rigorous multi-faceted approach to the biblical text. Why is such a unique approach important?
Seymour Rossel: The Torah Portion-by-Portion is a book dedicated to the new generation of Jews–those who were never “slaves” in any Egypt of the mind — those who are ready to approach the Torah with respect for tradition and respect for modernity. It is presented in the belief that the Torah can be as precious to us today — and as meaningful for us today — as it was for all the generations of Jews before us.
TAPBB: What’s your favorite parsha, and why?
Seymour Rossel: There are so many towering moments in the Torah that it is hard to focus on just one. There are tender human moments, such as when Moses pleads for the people after the sin of the Golden Calf in Ki Tisah, when Abraham bargains for the souls of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Vayeirah. There are touching moments when God consoles people (Vayeitzei) and moments of poetry (B’Shalach, Ha’Azinu). But I suppose that the two portions most precious to me are Kedoshim, which spells out the meaning of “being commanded” and “being holy,” and Nitzavim, which reminds us that “this Torah of ours is not too distant and not too difficult.”
TAPBB: What’s next?
Seymour Rossel: My plan for the future is to work on smaller projects. I think I can safely say that I will not be writing a book like The Talmud: Tractate by Tractate. Hm, that’s an interesting idea…