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David Lieber; edited a new Torah commentary

RABBI DAVID L. LIEBER RABBI DAVID L. LIEBER
By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times / December 20, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Rabbi David L. Lieber, president emeritus of what is now American Jewish University and the guiding force behind a modern Torah commentary for Conservative Judaism, died of a lung ailment Monday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 83.

Rabbi Lieber was president for 29 years of the University of Judaism, which last year was renamed American Jewish University after merging with Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

As the university's first full-time president, Rabbi Lieber oversaw its expansion from a tiny campus that concentrated on training Hebrew teachers to a more comprehensive institution that encompasses programs for undergraduates, graduates, and adult learners.

He also started its rabbinic program, the first on the West Coast for Conservative Judaism, and an MBA program for nonprofit management.

Rabbi Lieber was one of the nation's longest-serving college presidents when he stepped down in 1993. A biblical scholar, he returned full-time to teaching and was elected in 1996 to a two-year term as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

He also devoted himself to a project he had wanted to pursue for more than two decades: the creation of a new interpretive text for Judaism's Conservative branch to reflect contemporary beliefs and modern scholarship. When the idea was approved by the movement's Rabbinical Assembly in 1987, Rabbi Lieber became general editor.

Unveiled in 2001, the 1,560-page volume called Etz Hayim, or "Tree of Life," replaced a Torah translation and commentary that had been used in Conservative synagogues since the late 1930s. The older commentary, written by J.H. Hertz, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Britain, was "antiquated and apologetic," Rabbi Lieber said, particularly on matters related to sex and gender.

The new commentary, issued by the Jewish Publication Society of America, takes a less literal approach to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Reflecting recent archeological finds, it questions some biblical narratives, such as whether Joshua conquered Canaan and whether Moses was a real person or a folk hero. It also avoids references to God as he and softens the interpretation of passages concerning homosexuality, which the Hertz commentary had described as an "abyss of depravity."

"There's a need always for a new Torah commentary to reflect the age in which it is made," Rabbi Lieber told the Jewish magazine Forward in 1999. "If the Torah is to speak to every age, every age has to read out of it its own point of view."

Rabbi Lieber was born in Poland and moved to the United States when he was 2. After graduating from City College of New York in 1944, he received his rabbinical training and a doctorate in Hebrew literature at Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He also had a master's degree from Columbia University.

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