Canon With­out Clo­sure: Torah Commentaries

Ismar Schorsch
  • Review
By – November 14, 2011

This is a book to savor Sab­bath by Sab­bath. It is dif­fi­cult to absorb in a few sit­tings. As Chan­cel­lor of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary for eigh­teen years and the nom­i­nal head of the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment, Pro­fes­sor Schorsch had a bul­ly pul­pit to expound his views. For many years he wrote a week­ly col­umn on the Torah read­ings and they are gath­ered here togeth­er in one vol­ume. By now, such col­lec­tions con­sti­tute a genre of Bib­li­cal com­men­tary. Many oth­ers (reviewed in these pages) who wrote week­ly columns have also pub­lished them in book form. 

The rumi­na­tions, obser­va­tions, and inter­pre­ta­tions con­tained in this book are the reflec­tions of a mature schol­ar. He blends clas­si­cal com­men­taries with con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ings, breathes new life and mean­ing into the text, and occa­sion­al­ly laps­es into gen­tle polemics. Schorsch’s use of lan­guage is almost poet­ic, which makes these short essays emi­nent­ly readable. 

He shows how the Exo­dus start­ed and end­ed in water (Moses in the Nile and the Egyp­tians in the Red Sea) and makes a case for his­to­ry replac­ing nature as the basic cat­e­go­ry of reli­gious expe­ri­ence. Occa­sion­al ref­er­ences to his own upbring­ing add a folksy aspect to this col­lec­tion. Describ­ing his moth­er as mak­ing rit­u­al into fine art is such an exam­ple. His adap­ta­tion of Heschel’s sacred time is also nice­ly phrased: The Shab­bat is our coun­try home which we can reach with­out hours of hard dri­ving.” Over the years his analy­ses includ­ed his­to­ry, cur­rent events, Con­ser­v­a­tive the­ol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and more than a few dia­tribes launched at polit­i­cal move­ments or the foibles of Amer­i­can society. 

Most often the com­men­tary offers tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ings of the Torah por­tion, couched in an almost lyri­cal prose. How­ev­er there are times when ten­sion between the tra­di­tion­al and the mod­ern come into con­flict. Schorsch admits to a fas­ci­na­tion with Leviti­cus since he has to work hard­er to find mean­ing and rel­e­vance. Yet at the same time he defends the Con­ser­v­a­tive movement’s elim­i­na­tion of all ref­er­ences to the sac­ri­fi­cial sys­tem in their prayer books. For him the Tem­ple is mem­o­ry with no expec­ta­tion for a mes­sian­ic rebuilding. 

Canon With­out Clo­sure implies an ope­nend­ed approach illus­trat­ed by the fact that there are sev­er­al essays on each Torah por­tion. Those seek­ing an under­stand­ing of the Torah read­ings from a mod­ern yet tra­di­tion­al per­spec­tive will not be dis­ap­point­ed. Those seek­ing to gain an insight into how our com­men­ta­tors over the gen­er­a­tions under­stood the text will also be sat­is­fied. Those who want to relax on the Sab­bath with an avun­cu­lar com­pan­ion will find him here as well.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions