Local rabbi contributes to Torah commentary

Beth Shalom's Susan Grossman lone female editor

Columbia

October 22, 2001|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many Conservative Jewish congregations are celebrating the arrival this month of an updated Conservative Movement Torah and commentary, Etz Hayim. But members of Beth Shalom in Columbia are particularly eager to get a copy - their rabbi was an influential editor of the 1,500-plus- page tome.

At a dedication at the synagogue yesterday, Rabbi Susan Grossman, 46, discussed the significance of the updated edition and her involvement in the project. She was the lone female rabbi on the editorial board and the only editor with a congregation.

Until now, most Conservative Jews have referred to commentaries, which enhance their understanding of five books of Moses, in the Hertz Pentateuch, written by Joseph H. Hertz in the 1930s. Although the book, commonly referred to as "The Hertz," is considered a classic, "it reflects the concerns and values of the early 20th century," said Grossman, a Bronx, N.Y., native who lives near the village of Hickory Ridge. The English text can be difficult to comprehend as well. "It was written in the dramatic style of King's English," she said.

The title, Etz Hayim, means "Tree of Life." Grossman told her congregation yesterday that the main goal of the updated commentaries is to help Conservative Jews "connect with the text" of the Torah. The book, which she refers to as a "guidebook," incorporates the most current English translation of the Hebrew text, and modern applications and interpretations of the stories and lessons. Grossman said her input attempts to lend a "gender sensitive" touch that reflects modern times.

"I think this is very important," said Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University, who called Etz Hayim a landmark achievement.

"The Hertz was the work of one man. Congregants may feel nostalgia and respect for the venerable Hertz Pentateuch, ... but the time had clearly come for a 21st-century perspective on Judaism's most holy and most familiar book," she said.

Grossman, who has been at Beth Shalom for four years, began work on the project in 1996, while serving a congregation in Westchester, N.Y. The undertaking had begun four years earlier under the auspices of the Rabbinical Assembly in New York City, she said.

She became involved after a draft of the updated commentaries was presented at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in 1996. She and others noticed two glaring omissions. "No women were involved," Grossman said. Also, the Holocaust was not mentioned.

Within days of the convention, Grossman, a former journalist and previous director of Holocaust programming for the National Jewish Resource Center, was invited to join the editorial team. "We asked Rabbi Grossman to participate in the section that deals with contemporary legal issues," said Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

She also contributed to the D'rash commentary section under Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the best seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Grossman suggested the addition of a "practical application" section, called Halakhah l'Ma-aseh, to help Conservative Jews interpret and follow traditional Jewish laws, with a particular emphasis on how they apply to today's issues, such as bioethics, divorce and infertility.

She co-edited that section with Rabbi Elliot Dorf, an ethicist and scholar from Los Angeles.

Besides offering a feminine voice on issues facing Jews today, Grossman, ordained in 1989 after studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, also received inspiration from the 325 families at Beth Shalom.

"Over the years, their questions and comments became fodder for input to the commentary," she said.

Her monthly "Ask the Rabbi" evenings kept her abreast of questions and issues that concerned her congregants, which she tried to address in her commentaries.

Grossman's 12-year-old son, Yonatan Grossman-Boder, also influenced his mother's work. "I would run things by him for a youthful perspective," she said, noting that he and her husband, Dave Boder, were "incredibly supportive" during her years of constant phoning, e-mailing and writing on her "one day off" each week.

Grossman noted the importance of updating Hertz's commentaries accompanying the Torah. "The words of the Torah have not changed. The understanding has changed over time," she said.

"Life is different today than it was a few months ago, let alone a few years ago." But, she adds, "this is a text for the future that must withstand the test of time."

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