I’m interested in learning more about Judaism and would like to buy the Hebrew Scriptures, but I need something in English. Do you have any recommendations on what to buy?
This may seem like a very practical question, but in fact you raise a number of essential issues in Jewish thought and practice.
Let me provide some context. Soon we will be celebrating Passover. If you go to many Jewish homes around the world, you will hear very similar stories being told around the seder table—all sharing an ancient history dating back to early rabbinic times. And yet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different Haggadot, the storybook of the Passover seder. Judaism is a religious and spiritual tradition that not only allows and encourages but thrives on diversity. This is a blessing, but it can also feel overwhelming and complex. I believe, however, that Judaism is most meaningful to us when we are intellectually and spiritually open to the chorus of its multi-textured voices.
Reading the Bible in Jewish tradition is a little different than reading other books. I strongly recommend reading in hevruta, meaning a learning partnership. You will not only sharpen your understanding of the text, but you will also learn so much more about yourself and your partner through the lens of your joint project.
There is also a long tradition of reading the Bible together with the commentaries of our rabbinic tradition. Many study groups take weeks to get through a mere few verses, as much time is spent on the voices of early rabbinic and medieval scholars, along with the reflections, interpretations and stories of the group’s own lives.
There are many different editions of the Hebrew Bible and I would encourage you to try a few. Having access to different options will allow you to discover interesting differences in translation. These differences are not simply semantic or stylistic; they represent distinct approaches—and sometimes true disagreement—in the nature, purpose and meaning of our foundational stories. Translations are always interpretive and poetic, to some degree.
With no intention of excluding any particular edition, for Torah, the five books of Moses, I recommend “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” and “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary.” And for the full Hebrew Bible, I recommend “The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation” and “The Stone Edition Tanach.”
B’hatzlicha! Good luck and much success.