Review of “The Grammar of God” by Aviya Kushner

As Kushner notes, the Bible occupies a large place in world culture. It is not only a source of moral guidance for many, but also, as she points out, “Some of the most politically charged issues of our times are rooted in biblical translation.”

Kushner grew up reading the Bible in Hebrew, and she was surprised by many differences in the Bible she encountered when first reading it in English. She therefore decided to study the history and content of various translations stemming from the ancient Hebrew, and she quotes from a number of them to compare and contrast verses she has selected to highlight. In this book, she picked out eight short passages for analysis on the themes of creation, love, laughter, man, God, law, song, and memory. Her observations are fascinating.

Her biggest surprise, she relates, is that the Bible in English is reported in just one voice, and is presented as definitive. By contrast, the text of the Jewish Bible is presented in a plurality of voices. Segments of ancient text are surrounded by commentary by rabbis throughout the ages, spanning at least twelve centuries, in different languages, scripts, and fonts: “The Hebrew text I grew up with is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down . . .” She writes of what she learned from this early education in scripture:

“Everything was up for discussion, and from my earliest memory I was taught to demand a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth, to cross borders of time and language in order to hear those multiple voices.”

Jewish tradition eschews certainty, teaching that the Bible is a document from which understanding must be created through the human activity of debate and consensus. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement.

One of the most famous stories from Hebrew commentary dates from the 2nd century CE and is known as “The Oven of Akhnai.” A acrimonious debate takes place over the meaning of a law, and is solved by the recognition that God has created all of these disparate voices and philosophies, so one of them cannot necessarily be considered more legitimate than any other. Specifically, the text of the story reads: “[T]hese and these [both] are the words of the Living God.” The story teaches that “God entrusted the Torah [the first five books of the Hebrew Bible] to the sages to administer and interpret, and they must render decisions according to the legal process, namely the decision of the majority.” (“Encircling the Law: The Legal Boundaries of Rabbinic Judaism” by Chaya Halberstam, Jewish Studies Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2009), pp. 396-424, online here.). But the Talmud replicates even rejected opinions, signaling they too are worthy of study. As the Jewish historian Gershom Sholem pointed out, “It is precisely the wealth of contradictions, of differing views, which is encompassed and unqualifiedly affirmed by [the Jewish] tradition.” (Gershom Scholem, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism,” 1971.]

Kushner tells us about one of the earliest Bible translations into English, the 1560 Geneva Bible. This Bible, that preceded the King James Version by 51 years, was the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism. It was important for several reasons. It was the first time a mechanically-printed, mass-produced Bible was made available directly to the general public, and was used by William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, and John Knox among others. More significantly, it had a mix of text plus commentaries and marginalia, including verse citations that allowed the reader to cross-reference one verse with numerous relevant verses in the rest of the Bible. But subsequent political and religious conflicts resulted in a desire for a “definitive” text with meaning approved from the powers in charge.

This was not even possible with the early Hebrew Bible, because written vowels were only added to the text in the eighth century. Ancient Hebrew also has no periods, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks, questions marks, or quotation marks. Certain verb forms look identical without vowels distinguishing them. Thus, for example, in the Ancient Hebrew Bible, the words for sight and fear look the same without vowels. The only way to figure it out, the author avers, is through context: “This is what so many of the rabbinic commentators try to provide – a map of how to read a verse within a neighborhood of other verses.” Importantly, that very verb shows up differently today in different translations, resulting in radically divergent meanings for passages.

There is also the matter of what happens to Hebrew idioms in translation, as well as Hebrew names. The Hebrew name for Eve, the author explains, is Chava, which means “life.” It is difficult, she writes, to see the link between “Eve” and “life” in translation. The same is true of many of the names in the Bible – they often represent physical reality and emotional destiny. In translation, however, the names are usually simply transliterated, so their original meaning is lost, as well as their metaphorical import. [Whether intentional or not, this change served to undermine the views of philosophers like Spinoza who saw the Bible as a work of “literature” rather than as “divine.”]

Analogously, there are words that don’t carry the same meaning in English as they do in Hebrew. “Thou shalt not kill,” she notes, is actually “Thou shalt not murder” in Hebrew. “Killing” is justified in certain circumstances; “murder” is not.

Kushner explains many such discrepancies in this short but informative look at the perils of translation, especially with modern Bibles representing translations of translations. We would do well to keep in mind, she cautions, that all translation is interpretation. Language is not only about grammar and vocabulary, which can supply their own ambiguities. It is also about nuance and culture, values and perceptions, and local and contemporary references. [In our time, consider the word “welfare.” It may mean something positive to one group of interpreters, and something negative to another.] Context helps dispel misunderstandings, but the political agendas of translators may perpetuate them.

Evaluation: This book conveys so much that is intriguing and revelatory, one can only regret it is so short. And yet, from the amount of scholarship necessary just for the few passages Kushner analyzes, it is clear it would take years to add more. But for what she does include, it should not be missed. The book is hard to find, but worth the effort.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Spiegel & Grau, 2015

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