I can recall listening intently as a young child as a teacher or rebbe kept me spellbound while recounting the story of Eliezer meeting Rivka at the well or of Yehuda encountering Yosef in the Egyptian palace. The parshiyos centering on the Avos and the Imahos or on the Jews wandering in the desert filled my imagination and nurtured my soul; I learned and re-learned them year after year. And despite the familiarity of the stories, I loved hearing them over and over again.
But as I matured, the focus shifted. I was a yeshivah boy and my days were primarily filled with Gemara study; there was some mussar, even a bit of halachah but Tanach simply faded away.
True, a few of the rebbeim gave us weekly “Chumash and Rashi” tests, demanding that we study on our own. Some of us yeshivah boys did, many of us didn’t. The highly motivated among us set up independent Chumash or Navi sedarim, and plowed ahead on their own. But for many of us, the inevitable happened—our knowledge of Tanach waned.
Years later, I recall being amazed when my daughters started high school. The standards at the Brooklyn all-girls high school they attended were rigorous—and they were learning so much Tanach! Chumash with Ramban and Ibn Ezra, Yirmiyahu and Yeshayah, Koheles and Mishlei, and so much more. One thing seemed clear: the girls’ schools were certainly not overlooking the study of Tanach.
Yeshivos, however, tend to be Gemara-centric, and this is no accident; there are historical and other reasons for why many of the yeshivos stress Gemara study above everything else (see in this issue “Why Isn’t Tanach Studied More?” by Rabbi Eliyahu Krakowski, associate editor of OU Press, on page 48). Yet, despite the fact that for centuries the trend has been to emphasize Gemara, in this issue, we explore an ongoing revolution involving Tanach study, with some yeshivos now offering serious, high-level shiurim on Tanach. The Orthodox world has seen an explosion of Tanach study in recent years, with new Tanach journals, ground-breaking books, and conferences on Tanach attended by thousands. As Jewish Action Book Editor Rabbi Gil Student writes, in reference to the Tanach revolution started by the Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz some decades ago, “there is now a wide variety of Religious Zionist methodologies of Tanach study—some emphasize medieval commentaries; others focus on Israeli geography or botany; still others address the psychology of the Biblical characters; and much more . . . .
“Particularly remarkable about this phenomenon is that it is not limited to scholars. While professors and rabbis join Tanach conferences, the vast majority of attendees are laypeople—men and women, young and old, across all occupations.”
In this issue, you will meet a few of the key proponents of this Tanach revolution—teachers who, as a result of their sophisticated, innovative approach to Tanach study, continue to keep students of all ages spellbound by the timeless stories of Tanach.
You will also get to meet Philip (Paltiel) Birnbaum, editor and translator of the famed “Birnbaum Siddur.” While largely unknown to the contemporary Jewish world, Birnbaum was responsible for publishing one of the most popular English-language machzorim and siddurim in the pre-ArtScroll era. “The New York Times once aptly described him as one of the world’s ‘most obscure best‐selling authors.’ Yet for many decades, in synagogues and Jewish homes throughout North America and even around the world, his was a household name.” So begins David Olivestone’s excellent profile of Birnbaum, a quiet, elegant man whom I knew personally, having spent four summers working at Hebrew Publishing Company (HPC) when I was a teenager (earning $1 an hour). It was at HPC that I developed a deep, lifelong love for the written word and for the world of publishing. Special thanks to David for writing a memorable tribute to a memorable man.
This issue also features Toby Klein Greenwald’s article on the devastating fire that destroyed artist Yoram Raanan’s studio and life work. The article focuses on Raanan and his attempt to rebuild in the aftermath of tragedy, but mostly it’s a story about faith, perseverance and resilience. On a lighter note, food writer Naomi Ross provides readers with a new way to combat the overindulgence and overabundance so common at simchas and during the yamim tovim (think sufganiyot): mindful eating. In this age of “mindfulness,” taking the time to eat carefully and deliberately can serve as the perfect antidote to the fact that “food permeates the fabric of Jewish life and culture.” Finally, this jam-packed issue includes our usual array of thought-provoking book reviews and scrumptious recipes.
Before signing off, I want to remind you that I always enjoy hearing from you. Feel free to send your comments and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee and vice chairman of the OU Board of Governors.