History, Language, Scriptures, Writings

Jewish writings and translations for our era

The Thousand-Year View shows how the ideas of great Jewish philosophers apply to modern society and offers writings the author wrote for the Jewish Journal.

Dual language Hebrew and English keyboard

In Translating the Bible for Our Era he looks at the book which is the foundational text of our identity as Jews. For sure this is a book when we want to see it in other languages than Hebrew we want to get it right. Lots of people may think all Jews speak Hebrew, but they are mistaken. Some may speak Yiddish and the language where they reside. Also when they have some knowledge of Hebrew they often lack the knowledge required to interpret Biblical passages. By many this lack of insight is there because they don’t know the historical context, so that they might miss references to ideas, people, and events that were obvious to people in Biblical times.

https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/8edf755fdd2fc8cd88ec4afd4af3db74The above mentioned author, American mathematician N.S. Palmer, notices

Like the archaeologists, we often must guess at the conventions in the Biblical text that were obvious to people of that era. Note that in this case, it makes no difference whether God gave the Torah to Moses or it was assembled by human editors. To communicate the message adequately, either source would have used conventions and references familiar to the people of the time. {Translating the Bible for Our Era}

Jewish Studies scholar Shaul Magid observes that in the Torah, God’s speech has two main functions: creation and revelation. Interestingly, the Torah refers to creative speech by one word and revelatory speech by another:

“… in the story of creation Gen. 1:1-31, the word ‘va-yomer’ (‘And God said”) appears ten times … this word ‘va-yomer’ [is not addressed to anyone] … it appears, then, that the intransitive nature of the term in creation is not used as a tool of communication, but almost as a vehicle for productivity …” {God’s Silent Speech — and Ours}

The Torah uses a different word when God speaks at Sinai:

“… in Ex. 20 with the verse, God spoke all these words, saying I am the Lord your God … here the divine word is not ‘va-yomer’ (God said) as in Genesis, but ‘va-yidaber’ (God spoke) … In the case of revelation there are those who hear, whereas in the former case the utterance is not meant to be heard but to initiate activity.” {God’s Silent Speech — and Ours}

And yet, says Magid, the two kinds of speech are connected.

Creation is the first moment of existence, but the Torah starts with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet:

“Bereshit bara Elohim …” Where did the first letter – “the missing aleph” – go? It went to the first moment of revelation: “’I (Anoki) am LORD your God …” (Ex. 20:2) {God’s Silent Speech — and Ours}

Thus, the two kinds of speech link the two dimensions of creation: physical and then moral. Various sages say that both kinds of speech are also silent: one kind of silence creates reality, while the other kind directs action. {God’s Silent Speech — and Ours}

Today we want to speak about what the Most High is planning with this world. Throughout the ages lots of words where spend to give others some idea.

In the hundred years since the publication of the 1917 JPS translation, whose goal was

“to combine the Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern.”

the goal hasn’t changed but many other things have. New discoveries have confirmed our challenged our copies of the text. Before the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest Torah manuscripts dated from the Middle Ages. Dating from a thousand years earlier, the scrolls often confirmed and sometimes challenged our existing text. {Translating the Bible for Our Era} these days we can look at more Jewish translations and have a lot of Christian Bible translations also at our disposal.

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps from Tunisia, found in Iraq: part of the Schøyen Collection.

Zev Farber, editor of TheTorah.com, shows in a 2016 article that alternative translations make a lot of difference. {Chaos and Creation, from Genesis to Today} Not only are there the idioms or figures of speech from the old times we do have to take into account, so many centuries after those texts where written we encounter changed social and religious attitudes which make us ask new questions about the text.

When the text says “man,” does it mean males specifically, or people in general? How should we translate passages that we find morally unsettling? {Translating the Bible for Our Era}

One approach to troubling passages is “converse translation,” which changes or even reverses the meaning of the original text. It was used as long ago as the Septuagint and ancient Targums (interpretive retellings of the Biblical text). In spite of its historical pedigree, converse translation had few fans at the  JPS symposium, “The Future of American Jewish Bible Translation,” held 2017 April 30 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.  {Translating the Bible for Our Era}

“The classical rabbis often read against the text to offer an ethical ideal unsupported by a ‘plain reading’ of the Bible,” {Translating the Bible for Our Era}

said Leonard Greenspoon, one of the conference speakers. However, he added,

“Bible translators have a responsibility to call attention to morally difficult passages. Notes can be effective for that.” {Translating the Bible for Our Era}

the only thing is people may never take such notes as being part of God’s Words.

In the past people when wanting to tell about the word of God or His Plan just in an liberal or free way (how they could remember it), often with own words declaimed a passage from the Scrolls.

If you wanted to refer to a passage, you just quoted it and hoped that your listeners knew its origin. You might have told them which book of the Bible you were talking about, but that was as much as you could do. {Organizing the Bible and the Talmud}

writes the American mathematician N.S. Palmer

People needed a certain level of Biblical literacy to understand what you were talking about. Some of them, like most people today, just didn’t have it. They were left out of the conversation. {Organizing the Bible and the Talmud}

He looks further at our history and writes

Plaster maquette of Stephen Langton by John Thomas at Canterbury Heritage Museum

That got easier in the 13th century CE, thanks to the efforts of Stephen Langton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. He worked through both the Tanakh and the Christian scriptures, and divided the text into the chapters and verses we (both Jews and Christians) use today. Now, if we want to refer to a Bible passage, we need only give the book, chapter, and verse.

Langton is better known in history for his role in forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta, which limited the powers of the king and gave rights to the people. Back then, “the people” meant mainly the landed nobility. However, the idea evolved over the centuries to mean that ordinary people had rights the government should not violate.

Therefore, Langton changed history in two ways: He gave us a new way of looking at the Bible, and he gave us a new way of looking at the relationship between people and their government. Langton’s principled stands got him into trouble first with King John and then with the Pope.

Despite his scholarship, Langton’s parsing of the Biblical text is not perfect. One strange division occurs between the two creation stories given by the Book of Genesis. The first creation story occupies all of Chapter 1 and the first three verses of Chapter 2. It has a cosmic viewpoint and refers to God as “Elohim.”

The second story occupies the rest of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. It has a ground-level viewpoint and adds the Tetragrammaton to God’s name. Langton knew it, but for some reason decided not to put the chapter break at the end of the first story.

Bomberg-TalmudThe Talmud also benefited from Gentile assistance. The page layout we use today originated in the 16th century with a Catholic printer in Venice, Italy. Before then, the text of the Talmud and the text of commentaries often appeared in separate documents copied by hand. That made it more difficult to flip between them for reference and study.

Venice did not allow Jews to own printing presses, so we had to depend on Christian printers to print the Talmud and other books. Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer from Belgium, printed a complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud and used the layout that is now familiar. The Talmud text is the middle column, Rashi’s commentary is on one side of it, and additional commentaries (Tosafot) are on the other side. {Organizing the Bible and the Talmud}

Study room of Spinoza
Study room of Spinoza (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Low Countries (coastal region of northwestern Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and part of the North of France) there are still some printers who produce translations of Jewish works, but only keep it to certain Jewish groups. Or when such groups may use them for themselves they do not get permission to bring the work in public, like for using it on the internet, which is a pity.  That makes that certain Jewish insights do not come into the hand of Christians who could learn a lot from those Jewish writings. (We too did not get permission to use the very good Jewish Dutch Jitschak Dasberg 1970-2016 translation of the Torah – De Pentateuch met haftaroth.)

A picture of Moses Mendelssohn displayed in th...
A picture of Moses Mendelssohn displayed in the Jewish Museum, Berlin, based on an oil portrait (1771) by Anton Graff in the collection of the University of Leipzig. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For that reason it is not bad some people like Mr. Palmer tries to reveal and explain little-known insights from thinkers such as Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, Baruch Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. We do hope more people, like him, shall bring Jewish knowledge also to a wider public, Jews and goyim, non-Jews or people from other faiths as well as atheists.


Preceding article

Starting from a point in time when two elements existed


Additional articles

  1. Old and newer King James Versions and other translations #7 Jewish versions
  2. Dr. Miller looking at Jews in France
  3. Silencing Women – Of God or Men ?
  4. Organizing the Bible and the Talmud


Further reading

  1. Truth in translation
  2. Bible Translations
  3. Worship – English Bible Translations
  4. Bible Translations and Hermeneutics
  5. And Churchcentral’s Favourite Sunday Morning Bible Translation Is…
  6. Can Modern Bible Translations Be Trusted?


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