A select group of Philadelphia suburbanites is putting the Jewish Bible to the test by reviewing an as-yet unreleased new version with a broad-based commentary as part of their regular Torah study sessions.

When he first heard of The Book – a modern English rendering of the Torah that is accompanied by an anthology of classic commentaries that span the range of Jewish scholarship – Chabad-Lubavitch of Bucks County director Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov wanted to share it with his community. He’s been test-driving the volume in 90-minue preview sessions in the northern borough of Newtown.

The Book is such a springboard for so many topics that sometimes we discuss only six lines of the actual text over two classes,” explained Shemtov. “It connects to people because it’s profound but simple, and provides a very holistic approach to the Bible. It takes you on a journey from the simplest interpretation of a verse to the deepest insights, and weaves it all together.”

Alex Yampolsky, an advertising professor at Temple University, is among those who are showering the project with praise.

“The book is very interesting visually, and the overall design is very different from everything that I’ve seen until now,” said Yampolsky. “The most valuable, though, are the interpretations and comments, which give me a deeper understanding of what the words actually mean [and] help me go beyond a simple reading. Many times, that understanding is very different from what you would think without the commentary.”

For Yampolsky, who is learning Torah for the first time in this class, The Book has given him a greater appreciation for such topics as the creation of the universe and Adam’s original naming of all that he saw in that creation.

This is exactly what Rabbi Yanki Tauber, editor at the Judaism website Chabad.org and The Book’s editor-in-chief, had in mind when he initiated the project. Over time, it will include an innovative online component featuring interactive discussions and the complete Hebrew and English commentaries.

Copies of The Book
Copies of The Book

“Our aim is to make Torah accessible to anyone who wants to study,” said Tauber, who is planning to publish the first volume this summer. “We want to give the English reader the same kind of learning experience as someone who is studying in the original Hebrew, without having to rely on a second- or third-party interpretation of the text.”

Others involved in the project include creative director Baruch Gorkin and associate editor Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, and a team of contributing editors and researchers. A group similar to the study circle in Newtown, Pa., takes place in Yorba Linda, Calif., and others are forming across the United States.

Among the project’s accomplishments, explained Gorkin, was the creation of a new Hebrew typeface that would allow full printing of the traditional cantillation marks without compromising on legibility.

“The typographic design is first and foremost focused on presenting a complex layering of information in the most accessible way, with multiple access points to the material,” said Gorkin. “But we also set out to invest our volume with a distinctive look. The new font plays an important role in achieving this goal.”

Mitch Gerson, a business attorney, considers The Book to be a permanent addition to his home library mainly because of the way it has recast his view of life.

“This book has enabled my Jewish imagination, helped me think as a Jew,” said Gerson, who has attended other Torah classes in the past. “It also provides the more mystical views of Torah, which are less legalistic, and really helps me to be reminded constantly that there’s something other than the regular day-to-day, nine-to-five; that there’s something higher to be considered behind it all. The commentaries in The Book really emphasize this.”

And for Ellen Gutman, a research scientist who emigrated from Russia when she was 13 years old, the discussions enable her to study Torah in a way that was forbidden to her in her earlier years.

“Torah studies are new to me completely, so examining every verse is very meaningful for me,” said Gutman, who attends the class with her husband. “I’ve been inspired from the first lesson.”