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Ru Benhamou Edits Forthcoming Torah Commentary

As part of their education and training to be Modern Orthodox leaders of the future, Straus Scholars are encouraged to take summer jobs, internships, and fellowships that allow them to build on their Straus Center studies. Many Scholars spent this past summer participating in programs where they study aspects of public policy and philosophy relevant to their academic and personal interests. We continue to highlight Scholars who have taken advantage of such programming this summer, many of whom have produced novel and important research and analysis in areas of particular concern to American Jews. In this installment, we hear about Ruchama (Ru) Benhamou’s (SCW '24) work editing a forthcoming book by Rabbi Shimon Maged. The book, a commentary on the Torah that draws widely from many fields and figures, has provided Benhamou the opportunity to develop editing skills, such as standardizing the spelling, style, and sourcing of the vast array of ideas Rabbi Maged draws upon. It has also given her a window into the substance of the book: new ways of thinking about the Jewish tradition’s ancient wisdom, and how we can learn from it with the aid of a fresh eye and insights from inside and outside the rabbinic tradition.

How did you spend your summer?

This summer I had the immense privilege to work with Rabbi Shimon Maged on his novel and philosophical commentary on the weekly Torah portions. For his book, tentatively called Shnayim Mikra: Re-Reading the Weekly Torah Portion, I am the primary editor to ensure each chapter aligns with the publishing guidelines set by Maggid Press and Koren Publishers, as well as confirming and altering sources and transliterations woven throughout the text. 

What got you interested in the program?

I have always been humbled by the sheer depth of the Torah and the possibilities of synthesizing its study with Western philosophical traditions. Along with my passion for writing and editing, which I have cultivated in my capacity as an editor with the Observer (Stern College’s student newspaper), I was intrigued when I heard of this opportunity. That intrigue was well-placed, because this summer allowed me to hone my editing skills and learn a ton about the substance. I am beyond grateful to have participated in the process of this book's completion and eventual publication. 

Tell us a little more about the content of the book. What is Rabbi Maged’s work adding to the landscape of Torah analysis?

At a basic level, the book is one more in a long line of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, drawing out new applications for its timeless wisdom. But at another level, this book tries to do something more ambitious, by simultaneously taking the text seriously, trying to address questions that are relevant to pressing moral questions, and incorporating knowledge gleaned from other fields, such as literature, law, archaeology, linguistics, and philosophy -- even popular culture. To do that while drawing on the rabbinic tradition, from the Talmud through modern movements like chasidut, is challenging, but it is also fresh, provocative, and makes the book interesting and readable.

You worked closely with Rabbi Maged, who enjoys a great reputation as scholar and mentor. What have you learned from him?

Rabbi Maged has made my experience unforgettable and full of growth. His unique and detailed ideas about particular topics in the Torah and how to read the Torah as a whole have stirred newly inspired intellectual interests and pursuits in Jewish thought and philosophy -- particularly commentaries on the Talmud and Tanach. I have also learned the importance of constant chazara (review) as well as diving into a multitude of opinions to gain a comprehensive view of an idea. The editing process, mediating between author and publication standards, has also been instrumental in providing me with practical skills of how to master the process of bringing an idea from theory to fruition.

What kinds of topics have you dealt with that stand out?

We have tackled some of the most puzzling questions of major events in the Torah -- what’s really going on when Moshe hits the rock? -- to the seemingly minute questions of how different spellings of a word provided in similar contexts can yield variant meanings and vice versa. We also dove into classical Western ideas tangent from Orwell to Arendt, to monumental case law, business analytics, and studies within the social sciences. These sources, which we aimed to use to amplify the ancient wisdom of the Torah, are rich with ways to help us understand our great text.

You mentioned that this experience has been full of growth for you. How has it changed the way you engage with the text of the Torah?

Through the editing process, I now view the parshiyot (weekly Torah-reading portions) in a completely different light. Rather than simply following along during the Torah reading on Shabbat each week, I now analyze the text more carefully and look for parallels between it and other familiar texts, or overarching concepts in Jewish thought.

How has the experience of working on this book cohered with your Straus Center education?

This opportunity has reflected the core ideas and beliefs of the Straus Center, in that it puts Western thought in conversation with the accent traditions and texts of Judaism. Whether about the Torah’s text or Talmudic passages, I find we are always grappling with the contemporary world of philosophy and morality and what the Jewish tradition has to tell us about how we see the world. To continue examining the intersections of Torah and the Western world is an honor and a privilege. I thank Rabbi Maged and the Straus Center for allowing me to be a part of it.

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