The JPS Rashi Torah Discussion Commentary: An Interview with Steven & Sarah Levy
The following interview was first published in the Jewish Publication Society’s newsletter and can also be found on JPS’s website. Steven Levy is an attorney and director of a real estate investment fund. Sarah Levy is a licensed neuropsychologist who lectures and works with children and families. The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary (January 2018) is now available.
Steven & Sarah Levy introduce Rashi study to a new audience
Why did you choose to write a book about the Rashi Commentary instead of other commentators?
Rashi is regarded as the biblical commentator par excellence. For over 900 years, his commentary has served as an indispensable companion for studying the Torah, providing both the scholar and beginner with the key to unlock the Torah’s text. While millions of people study the Bible, few do it through the prism of Rashi’s commentary, and still fewer take the time to contemplate Rashi’s commentary for the insights they can apply to their own lives, which is one of the goals of this book.
While every classical Torah commentator is worthy of study, Rashi’s commentary is a good place to start for a few reasons: it focuses on text’s plain meaning (peshat) rather than more esoteric understandings; it focuses on a single verse (or even a single word), and can thus be digested more readily than commentaries that address overarching themes; and it assists the reader in developing textual skills, such as vocabulary and grammar, that can lay the foundation for further textual study.
Who is the intended audience for the book?
This book is intended for anyone—from adolescent to adult—who seeks to gain a better understanding of the Torah and its relevance to our lives and times. While the Torah is intended to serve as a guide for humanity at all times and in all circumstances, contemporary society may need new tools for accessing its timeless messages. This book endeavors to provide such tools through a unique question-and-answer format that draws out the personal relevance of themes addressed by Rashi.
This book is for you if you are engaged by questions such as: “In what ways have the challenges you have faced enabled you to become the person you are?” “If you had to leave your home suddenly without the ability to return and could bring along only what you could carry, what would you take?”, and “What do you consider the most significant legacy left to you by your parents or grandparents?”. This book contains more than 450 such questions, with three questions on each of the three essays concerning the weekly Torah portion. In reading this book and engaging with its questions, the reader will develop a more profound understanding of not only the Torah, but also of oneself and others. The discussion format of this book makes it ideal for bar or bat mitzvah preparation, study groups, the Shabbat table, or a family setting.
As partners in life and writing, how did you work together on creating this book?
Sarah and I have found various ways to work together as opportunities have presented themselves during our marriage. For example, when our children were infants we agreed that Sarah would be in charge of input (nursing) and I would be in charge of output (changing diapers). During the year that we wrote the initial manuscript, I would read each week’s Torah portion with Rashi’s commentary, and come up with a list of Rashi’s comments that could form the basis for potential essays. Sarah and I would then whittle this list down to three essays that we believed had universal relevance and lent themselves to engaging questions. Perhaps surprisingly, writing the questions took as much time and effort as the essays. We spent many Thursday nights working until the wee hours of the morning so that we would have essays to share with friends at the synagogue on Shabbat.
Working on this project together proved to be a bonding experience for us as a couple. As we drew on our respective backgrounds, interests, and life experiences, we learned more about each other. As we wrote the manuscript, I remarked to her more than once, “If we’re going to disagree, it should at least be in matters of Torah.”
The collaboration of writing this book as a husband wife team was particularly interesting. Steve and I come from different Jewish backgrounds. I was raised in a traditional Orthodox setting and attended an all girls Jewish school. Steve was raised in a Conservative congregation and attended public school. Professionally, we also come from diverse perspectives. Steve is a lawyer who holds a Masters in Business Administration, while my educational background and professional experience includes education, biobehavioral studies and psychology/neuropsychology. We found that working together allowed us each to contribute different ideas and outlooks to the essays and questions. Our different backgrounds helped us relate the essays to a wider range of religious backgrounds, and allowed for a broader range of topics and perspectives to be addressed in the essays.
Practically speaking, during the first round of writing the essays, we met each week (often at the local kosher diner in Atlanta), chose topics that we thought would be appropriate for the essays and formulated the questions for discussion. There were, at times, disagreements and time pressures to have the essays written each week in time for that particular weekly Torah reading so that we could share the ideas with our friends and family. We thank our five young daughters for allowing us more time together to work on this project and thus less time spent with them.
Despite these sacrifices, working together was a bonding experience for us as a couple and we certainly learned more about one another in the process. We hope our daughters forgive us for the time allocated to writing and that having a user-friendly Torah book to promote lively discussion on the weekly Torah portion at our Shabbat table more than makes up for it.