The Grammar of God
by Aviya Kushner
(Spiegel and Grau, 2015)
Books choose their writers, I now believe, and not the other way around.
Translation, like scholarship, has long been a life-threatening enterprise. Making something understandable to the general public has meant risking everything.
The journey of the Bible, both its scholarship and its translations, is full of sacrifices and hardships, torture and death, even disgrace after death.
It is equally impossible to read even a little bit of the story of the translation of the Bible into English without understanding that that enterprise, too, was often interwoven with great danger.
In the house I grew up in, the Bible was and is a topic of constant conversation: both the big questions and issues, like how the world began, and the more particular - the roots of what is male and what is female, the names of God, and how various verbs, prepositions, and phrases function.
The commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is not nearly as straightforward in Hebrew as it is in English.
When life starts and what murder means are moral questions but also questions of language, because they involve defining the exact boundaries of individual words.
The relative slowness of Genesis in English amazed me; the change of pace changed meaning, from the creation of the world onward. The changes intone, too, were frequently astounding.
The Hebrew text I grew up with is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.
Just because an event is written about after another one does not mean it chronologically follows it.
There is an arc to a Christian reading, and to many English translations, and a search for foreshadowing and “parallels” that are not always there in the original Hebrew.
For Rabbi Yitzchak, the story of the Bible truly begins with nationhood - not with the creation of the world. This is part of the centuries-old discussion of what kind of a book the Bible is: a book about the history of the world, a book of law, or the story of a particular nation.
With an ancient text that repeats and sometimes seems to contradict itself, a willingness to consider various possibilities is essential.
Although Christians read Isaiah as a foreshadowing of Jesus, whose name appears nowhere in the book of Isaiah, the language of Isaiah actually echoes the language of Genesis. For Jews, the experience of reading is probably more of a going back, not a going forward, and sometimes it is a going around.
In the same way that modern art often includes the viewer, the Bible in Hebrew, read closely and with attention, can include the reader to an astonishing extent.
Translation always calls upon the translator t make a judgment call, and what the reader hears, then, is a judgment.
Most of the differences come down to grammar. English and Hebrew have different rules of sentence structure and divergent means of word structure, which is not what surprising, because Hebrew is a Semitic language and English is Indo-European.
The Hebrew Bible and the English Bible differ in verse length, punctuation, and sound.
Grammar … is a window into how a group speaks to itself, structures its own thoughts, and defines its world.
The cyclical nature of the Jewish reading of the Bible is an intimate part of how the Hebrew Bible is experienced.
My goal was, to the best of my ability, to recreate the conversation of home. This liveliness matters because the entire long story of the Hebrew Bible is, in part, about the tie between story and how to live, and quite plainly between reading and staying alive.
Over two thousand years, additional forms of Hebrew developed alongside biblical Hebrew, such as medieval Hebrew.
About 130 years ago, despite the usual pattern f ancient languages evaporating along with their speakers, Hebrew began to revive as a spoken language. It is the only example in all of history of an unspoken language becoming a mother tongue again.
By basing speech in the far past, these new generations of Hebrew speakers created a deep sense of home.
The first major biblical translation, the Septuagint, was commissioned by the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, because they were worried that future generations would not be able to read and understand the Torah in Hebrew. In fact they themselves may have already had limited or no knowledge of Hebrew; whether Philo (c. 20 B.C.E. – c. 50 C.E.) could read the Bible in Hebrew at all is a matte of scholarly dispute.
Om Hebrew, vowels - dots and dashes located above, beneath, and inside letters - frequently determine meaning.
Written vowels were added to the text only in the eighth century, and before that, the reading of the text was passed along orally, from teacher to student, parent to child.
Chassidim are adherents of a movement that began in the eighteenth century, with the Ba’al Shem Tov - whose name literally means “bearer of a good name” - a rabbi who promoted the idea that emotions matter more than scholarship. This radical concept meant that a devout shoemaker could hold the same status as an erudite rabbinical student.
Ancient Hebrew has no period, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks, question marks, or quotation marks.
The King James Bible, on the other hand, has a lot of punctuation. It affects tense, sound, and sense, but it also makes everything read slower. Way slower.
The King James Version is taking me longer to read because it is longer.
I read Genesis 1 out loud in both Hebrew and English. The English definitely has more words and syllables, but it also has more stops and starts.
There’s no capitalization in Hebrew. … Capitalization makes everything look confident, definite, just as the period does; here, this is where it starts, this is where it tends. Capitalization helps close the door on doubt.
The appearance of the bible in Hebrew and English is dramatically different.
In the Hebrew Bible, a verb often appears before a noun; the common biblical phrase “and God said” is actually “and said God” in Hebrew. …. Once the order of a sentence is altered, the meaning can be up for grabs, too.
Hebrew is a Semitic language, and therefore its words come form trilateral - that is, tghree-letter - roots.
In Hebrew, Moses is beaming; in Christian Europe, Moses is devilish, horned like an animal. If Moses could be transformed in translation, so could God
The power of looking and not looking, and knowledge and the lack thereof, are connected.
God sees … in a way that often implies judgment. After creation, God sees that it is good, but here, God’s sight is powerful and wide - and also frightening.
For centuries, the Bible was an aural experience, a text read out loud, in public. It still is read out loud today.
Genesis is about what will lead to what, what will give birth to what.
The rabbis frequently point out that what is repeated in the bible is significant.
Hebrew is a gendered language, and all nouns are either masculine or feminine.
In Hebrew, aretz, “earth,” is feminine. … The reader of the English may not realize that even if the trees and the grass are male, the earth itself, to which they belong, is female.
God does not say that all that God created on the third day is good: instead, God sees it.
Some of the Bible’s most resonant moments are depicted by gesture instead of speech. God sees; Eve eats the apple; Lot’s wife turns back; and Sarah memorably laughs.
What matters to God, the Talmud suggests, is that Abraham and Sarah get along.
Chava, as Eve is named in Hebrew, comes from the word chayim, which means “life” in Hebrew. We know this because Adam, who names Eve in Genesis 3:20, explains that Chava is em kol chai - the mother of all life.
It is difficult if not impossible to hear the link between “Eve” and “life” in translation. In the King James Version, for instance, the verse reads: “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.” The logic here must befuddle the reader of English.
To a Hebrew reader, the Bible’s names are a big part of its meaning. From Adam onward, at nearly every turn in the Bible, the names of men, women, and children have clear meanings, and they often represent physical reality and emotional destiny.
Consider the patriarchs. Their names often reflect one or two essential moments in their lives - the circumstances of their birth, as in the case of Isaac, who is named for his mother’s laughter, or their encounter with God.
Jacob didn’t just fight with the angel, as many translations insist; he overcame the angel, and so ruled over a creature more powerful than he.
Adam’s punishment is to work hard, to struggle with the unresponsive earth, al l he days of his life, until he dies - in other words, he has to work himself to death.
The body, it seems, is a battleground in translation. The ancient Bible often relies on body parts in its metaphors and descriptions, which is not necessarily a contemporary way of viewing the world. Translated literally, these metaphors can seem awkward, bizarre, or overly dramatic in English. And yet in dropping these body parts from their translations, the translators may be losing an important component of the ancient world’s understanding of the body: the physical as a reference point for the world around it.
The wrong reading is often more exciting than the right owe. … Maybe there is something in us that loves our own mistakes, something human.
Throughout the Bible, the body is often the signpost of emotion - for God and man.
The body also often acts as an indicator of physical placement. In both Hebrew and English, bodily position often involves prepositions, but in Hebrew, most prepositions actually are body parts.
The body in the Bible is specific, and the degree of bodily detail makes the narrative more intimate, more personal, more deeply human.
The Bible was originally intended for ancient ears. And so the language of the body is employed for the most essential situations: blessing, promise, curse, vocation.
In Hebrew, the beginning of slavery involves animalistic imagery that sears the soul; in English, this is toned way down, made much less disturbing, less cruel and visceral.
Slavery in Hebrew begins with a tax. This tax, in Exodus 1:11, is a most unpleasant one. It is a tax so high it cannot be paid in money; it must be paid in bodily labor.
The Egyptians focused on destroying the bodies of the Israelites, breaking them physically, getting as much out of their bodies as possible.
The name of God is never written out by religious Jews. Instead, it’s changed slightly, so that elohim becomes elokim. … In Jewish tradition, any paper with God’s name on it must be treated with respect, as if it were a part of a human body.
In Hebrew the four letters that spell this version of God’s name are completely unpronounceable, sort of like cuxz. Orthodox Jews just say Hashem, “the Name.” No one I know from the Jewish community says Yahweh.
Every language has a path of respect such as the way a small child would address an adult. And in Hebrew, the path of respect is to address the great one - God - in the plural form. Biblical Hebrew isn’t the only language that does this. Modern languages from French to Hindi use plural words like vous and aap as a form of respect.
A writer who has labored on a character for a long time can feel a lofe for the invented being, perhaps a love not far from what the idol worshipper feels toward the god he has made with his own hands.
Supercessionism … the Christian habit of treating the old as subordinate.
The man of faith is always at war with himself.
Language is not simply words; it is an opening into a way of thinking.
Just a few centuries after the Septuagint, Greek was going out of style, too. The language of the streets at that time was Aramaic; and so the next major Jewish translation of the Bible was the Targum - literally, “translation,” but referring to the translation into Aramaic.
Having a version of the Bible in English - the vernacular - was considered a challenge to both the Roman Catholic Church and English laws to maintain church rulings.
The idea that ordinary people would be able to read the Bible in their own language, and to make their own decisions about what it meant, was viewed as a threatening possibility.
For centuries, translating a text signified that it was essential, that someone thought it was worth preserving. The story of the Bible in translation is far wider than just Hebrew and English, or Hebrew and Aramaic, or Hebrew and Greek and Latin.
The reading of the Bible is a struggle, but it is also a pleasure. It has always been like this: a joy and a war.
Jewish history is all about that: one idea battling another, and one unusual thinker pressing on, despite the dangers.
It is incredible that Hebrew, alone among all the ancient languages, was revived. That surprise is the unexpected subtext of the story of biblical translation: for twenty-two hundred years, there has been an effort to translate Hebrew texts because no one expected Hebrew to lie again, as it has.
There is darkness in avoiding your task. The rabbis are right\; it may not be your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to shirk it.
Reading so much about God reminds a human reader of her limitations, and of the difference between the human and the divine.
The result of that man-God wrestling match becomes law.
The Hebrew Bible is a lived text, and in the community I grew up in, it was never read alone. Instead, the Bible is part of a constellation of texts; Jewish law, too, comes not only from the Bible itself, but from the various texts discussing what the Bible actually means. Conversation, then, is an integral part of law, even to Jews who believe the Bible is the word of God dictated to Moses.
The Hebrew Bible itself refers to the Ten Commandments simply as aseret ha’dvarim - “ten sayings” or “ten statements” or “ten things.” … The phrase “the Ten Commandments” appears nowhere in the Hebrew.
The Geneva Bible seems to be the first Bible to use the phrase “the tenne commandments,” an idea that is then preserved in the King James Version.
Every word has a body and a soul.
There are differences of opinion between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews on what count as “the ten,” and there are further differences between thinkers in each of these traditions.
Again and again, the Hebrew commentators zero in on grammar. Then they move on to ways of reading.
For Maimonides, “I am God” and “Thou shalt not have other Gods before me” are the very essence of Judaism.
However the commandments are introduced, whether to children or adults, the introduction matters because it helps the reader imagine the character of God.
By changing the look of the neighborhood of the Ten Commandments, many translations relocate key laws, which affects their tone and perhaps their meaning.
The choice in translation to render “murder” as “kill” in English, as is done in the King James and many other translations that re influenced by it,, misstates the legal position of the Hebrew Bible.
Klal, or reading rule, of smichut: that words and ideas that are neighbors are often situated near each other for a reason.
Respecting a person requires time.
Shabbat … starts with the setting of the sun and ends only after three stars can be seen in the sky the following evening. In the winter, Shabbat is short, energetic, young. The day moves fast. In the summer, like all summer days, it is lazy, long, almost endless. The stars are slow to arrive, showing up around nine P.M. in mid-May, later as the summer yawns on.
What Shabbat is about is a commandment to respect time - to let time also have a prime place in your life.
The reward of reading is the experience of reading.
Judaism expects a person to repent, to change on the inside, to develop an internal sense of justice. This is the opposite of the harshness some readers hear in the Bible; it is a call for personal responsibility.
What Jewish law wants is an ongoing conversation between man and God, and between man and man - but most of all, between man and himself.
In the yeshiva world, Talmud is far more prestigious than Torah. Talmud is the gold standard, the “real thing,” and it took a lot of hours.
The questions “When will I see God” - as opposed to “Where is they God?” or “When will your God show up?” - is one that appears in various forms throughout the Bible. In the beginning, the Bible presents God as the asker of questions. In the Garden of Eden, god asks Adam, “Where are you?” God asks Cain a version of the same question - “Where is your brother?” And then, as the Bible continues, the situation flips. Man asks God questions. Job confronts God; Isaiah has some tough questions for God. So does Jeremiah.
In Jewish tradition, bread is often invoked as a symbol of what God promises man.
Being human is about having limits, about not being able to reach all we want to reach. Being human is about craving. It is, at its essence, a state of thirst.
What is worth singing about is deciding to live in a certain way despite all evidence to the contrary, despite all the knowledge that comes with time: this is what it is to be human, to hope, to believe to be a repeater of psalms and a singer of them.
I need to look at them every so often to feel alive.
In Hebrew, words and things are synonyms.
The Bible is the most read and talked-about book in human history; and since the conversation moved across languages, it is the most translated as well.
The difference in language is not just about vocabulary and grammar, it is also about culture, about a way of viewing the world.
Sometimes, translations of the Bible become essential works in their own right, great works influencing every corner of literature and thought in their own language, as the King James Bible has done.
Every translation attempts to keep a book alive.
Translations not only impart an understanding of the Bible, they tell us how people of the past read the world in their time: what they thought and what they believed.