A master scholar will help make Torah more ‘user-friendly’

Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Correspondent

Capping a year-long effort to repair and re-scribe its Torah while celebrating its 10th anniversary, Congregation Kol HaNeshamah will welcome Master Bible scholar and Brandeis University’s Dora Golding professor of biblical studies Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler as its scholar in residence during the last weekend in March.

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler

Brettler, who has written over 40 scholarly books on the Hebrew Bible, was the associate editor of “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Books of the Bible” (Oxford University Press in 2011), and won a National Jewish Book Award in 2004 for his book, “The Jewish Study Bible” (Oxford University) uses the historical-critical method to give readers a sense of place and time.

“I am much more interested in the Bible as story than as history,” Brettler told The Jewish Sound via email from his Waltham, Mass. office. “I think it is a mistake to view much of the Bible as history in our sense.

“My main point is that the Bible has been and should be a central text within Judaism,” he said. “For some this is a spiritual stance, for some, an intellectual one, and for others, both.”

Brettler believes that modern Jews often ignore traditional religious texts and miss the opportunity to better understand themselves, our civilization, and a wider perspective on the evolution of the Jewish religion.

“Too many people have never read the Bible — certainly not beyond the Torah,” said Brettler. “Many Jewish adults whom I have taught over the past decades think that the Torah is the entire Bible and do not understand the importance of the Prophets and the writings, which are as much part of the Bible as the Torah.”

The would-be revivalist and Orthodox Jew is not bent on conversion, nor is he looking to proselytize, but he wants his Seattle message, “Why Should (Modern) Jews Care about the (Ancient) Bible?” to cause his audience to rethink its relationship to the holy tome.

“Even though it is, in places, a deeply problematic book, is not a book in our sense, contains many, many perspectives that conflict, and is a very ancient book,” said Brettler, “it is crucial to read it and engage with it to inform contemporary Jewish life.”

As KHN prepares to dedicate its renovated sacred scroll in June at its West Seattle synagogue, its spiritual leader, Rabbi Zari Weiss, told The Jewish Sound that Brettler’s work can help make the Torah more “user-friendly.”

“Dr. Brettler’s scholarship and approach offer our community an opportunity to find new ways to access the Torah and Prophetic writings with great depth and breadth,” she said.

In his 2005 book “How to Read the Bible,” Brettler garnered editorial accolades for his ability to acquaint readers with often esoteric texts making sense of religious and historical volumes by setting it within the time, history and culture that produced it.

“In certain cases,” wrote Brettler in an article “The Order and the Ordering of Biblical Books” on MyJewishLearning.com, “the scribes put several books in a single scroll—and in a particular order. This was true of the Torah, which needed to be ordered because Jews read it ritually in order, as part of their worship.”

“Similarly,” continued Brettler, “the scribes grouped Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings in sequence since they tell a more or less continuous story in chronological order. However, for the rest of the Bible, even in Rabbinic times, there was a varying order of the Prophets (except for the Minor Prophets) and the writings.”

Weiss has been preparing the Reform congregation for what she hopes will be another milestone in its growth by offering discussion groups and classes on Hebrew language. Congregants grappled with questions concerning the sacredness of the Torah and how to preserve their progressive outlook.

Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, a Torah scribe and rabbi emeritus of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, led the Torah rehabilitation project, helping individual members to painstakingly set down each Hebrew letter.

“It gave us an opportunity to participate in the restoration ourselves, and to learn much more about how the Sefer Torah is written,” Weiss said.

In 2014, six Biblically based films will be released, including “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead,” and the mass-market “Exodus,” leaving Brettler encouraged.

“I believe that approaching the Bible intellectually can enhance an individual’s religious experience,” he said.