Newly edited Bible expected to cause some controversy The (re) Written Word

September 13, 1993|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Staff Writer

Mark Powers and Sandy Fried are shouting. Near the "Jesus Made Me Kosher" T-shirts, they're slugging it out over Leviticus and other matters of the Bible. They attract and rouse a small rabble at the Jewish American Festival last weekend in Owings Mills.

Mark: "You want an answer, then shut up and listen."

Sandy: "You're deceived! Read Leviticus 4."

"Leviticus 17 talks about the prohibition of eating blood," one of them says.

The discussion degenerates to the level of Does not! Does so!

Leviticus is hot stuff. The third book of the Old Testament is keeper of the ancient Jewish commandments or priestly Levite code. These laws formed the basis for kosher laws, sabbath observance and self-government -- among other subjects contemplated 4,000 years ago.

If Mark and Sandy argue with such conviction about the old Leviticus, no telling how a forthcoming Leviticus might strike them.

In November, Simon & Schuster will release a book called The Bible: Designed to Be Read as Living Literature. Among other changes, the edition condenses 27 chapters of Leviticus into a ++ three-page "Holiness Code." From the Hebrew scriptures, the code spells out holiness in ordinary life.

The book updates a 57-year-old edition of the Bible that attempted to render the venerable King James Bible a more accessible, graceful and undisturbed narrative. A better read, so to speak.

The Bible's editor, Lodowick Allison, has re-tooled the best-selling 1936 Bible edited by Ernest Sutherland Bates, who "eliminated the genealogies and legal codes so important to the early Jews but irrelevant to anyone but the theologian today," Mr. Allison wrote in the Bible's introduction.

Two universities of thought are at the core of any editing of the Bible or Torah -- what Jews call the first five books of the Bible:

* If people consider the Bible to be the divine infallible word of God, then no one has the right or wisdom to tamper with it.

* If people consider the Bible to be man-made literature, then style renovation and language tidying can be acceptable.

Advance copies of the updated Bible were sent to select publications. Advance opinions on the down-sized Leviticus followed.

"This is gross stupidity, but I think the intent was benign," says Michael Neiditch, director of education at B'nai B'rith in Washington, D.C. "The idea was to produce a snappy, breezy Bible. But it implies if you're not Jewish, then Jewish law is less important to you."

In its three pages, the abridged Leviticus (Bates' idea which was seconded by Mr. Allison) does include many religious regulations: sabbath observance; laws against stealing, lying, taking the Lord's name in vain, and making false idols; offering sacrifices to the Lord to repent for sin; and "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

But gone are the laws about the basis of traditional sexuality (homosexuality outlawed), hygiene, self-government, kosher laws, family purity and disease prevention codes, incest taboos, forgiveness of debt in the seventh year, and the ancient concept of sending the scapegoat off into the woods.

Mr. Allison, a practicing Christian, says the goal was to remove the non-narrative to enable the Bible to be read more easily.

But the original and precise text of Leviticus form the basis of the Jewish faith and remain "a pathway to living because people need sign posts in order to make sense of life," Mr. Neiditch says.

"It was not my intention to slight or offend anyone. It was the furthest thing from my mind," says Mr. Allison.

He admits he was expecting some criticism.

"Some Christians might be offended by the editing of the New Testament," he says.

Among other changes, repetitions in Matthew and Luke were eliminated.

Publishing a more readable version of the Bible, Mr. Allison contends, enables people to rediscover the innate greatness of the King James Bible -- which has been called the most beautiful work ever created by committee.

As Mr. Allison writes in The Bible: Designed to Be Read as Living Literature:

"Freed from the clutter of redundancies, lists and legalisms, the words take on new life, restoring to us once more the unique revelation. . . of timeless language set in service to a timeless message."

Mr. Allison, a contributing editor at the National Review, says he always wanted to read the Bible cover-to-cover but never made it through. He found Mr. Bates' out-of-print Bible and found it "fresh and alive. I loved it."

But at the Jewish Community Center in Baltimore, Joanne and Howard Bleich say they don't know much about Leviticus, but that isn't the point.

The Bible, they say, isn't supposed to be read quickly and easily like a John Grisham novel. The Bible, in all its original language, remains a dog-eared masterpiece people read for a part here, a part there.

"The law is the law. You don't change what is written," says Joanne Bleich.

"Years from now, something else could be taken out of the Bible and before you know it, you won't recognize it," says Howard Bleich.

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