Thursday, January 24, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yitro 5779 - Bubble Bursting and a Potential Heresy

Ah, the frustrations of translation. Would that all of our students (and all of us) were versed and skilled enough in biblical and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic to attempt to parse words and meanings for ourselves. As I have told many students over the years, this alone, is a good enough reason to want to learn Hebrew. However it can take years, decades even, to achieve even reasonably facile skill at this (and it still will require referencing the translations of others, and other resources that may help contribute to understanding the meanings of a piece of text. This is true whether it is in the context of the (theoretical) historical period in which the text was written/created/given/discovered, the context of some hermeneutical system (literal, moral, allegorical, mystical), the context of Talmudic hermeneutics, the context of contemporary reader response (which I list separately only because it differs from the other standard forms of hermeneutics in that it does not presuppose, require, or insist upon any objective meaning of the text), or some non-biblical hermeneutic (ranging from Folk Etymology to any one of the dozens of modern philosophical hermeneutical systems from folks like Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Dilthey, Gadamer, Benjamin, Bloch, Derrida, Popper et al.)

Given this, some reliance upon the translations of others is almost unavoidable for many, if not most people attempting to interpret biblical text. Our history, sadly, is replete with poor translation. Why, to this day, do so many translations still insist in the inaccurate translation of “In the beginning” when the grammar and syntax of the text more correctly reads “In a beginning” ? (The rest of the verse is generally translated equally inaccurately. If we are as literal as possible, it reads “In a beginning, G”d had created the heavens and the earth.” See the width and breadth of possibilities that opens? (Yes, scholars can quibble about “created” vs “had created” but the verb bara is in qal perfect form (meaning completed action) and to me “had created” is truer to conveying the meaning of the binyan (what we call “conjugation.”)

We’ll get sidetracked if we continue to quibble about this one verse. It is one among many which have common translations that are problematic, inaccurate, or confusing.

I also feel compelled to point out that, when coming at this from a Jewish perspective, it is perfectly reasonable to insist upon some reference to Talmudic hermeneutics. After all, we do have a millennia old tradition of how we understand and interpret the text. Whether you place particular value in the “oral Torah” and the form in which it became semi-fixed by the rabbis of old (and of today) or not, I do believe it is somewhat disingenuous to completely divorce interpretation of the text from this long history. While I might want to embrace systems like “reader response”,  and to some extent feel it may be the only way that some contemporary (and future) Jews might have to find some meaning and value in the biblical text, I am not yet ready to walk away that fully from the idea that, even if we can’t truly discern “original intent” we can at least value the millennia of effort put into that task and grapple with it, if for no other reason (and I believe there are other good reasons) than out of respect for the effort.

All of which has been a rather roundabout journey to what led me to this musing today. It being parashat Yitro this week, I have been discussing with students this (first version of) the aseret ha-d’varim (the term used in the Torah) or the aseret hadibrot (as used in rabbinical writings) which reasonably translates as the ten speakings, the ten sayings, the ten declarations, the ten statements,  the ten words, the ten things, or as we know them, the Ten Commandments.

According to some popular rabbinical understandings (and with the help of a lot of squishing and stretching and morphing) the Ten Commandments are really ten super-categories into which all the other commandments found in the Torah fit. (Now you can see why I qualified this.)  In other understandings, parts of each of the ten find their way into one or more categories.

Parts of each of the ten? Sigh. Here again, though it should be obvious as we hear and read through the commandments (both here and later in Deuteronomy,) except for a few really word-economical commandments, there’s more to each of the ten than we generally think there is. (That’s also another reason with the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant versions of the Ten Commandments differ. )

We tend to shorten them a bit to make t easier for our students to learn them, but I’m not sure that, in the end, we’ve done them any favor if we haven’t also made it clear to them that these are are shortened versions and there’s more to them. Here are the Ten Commandments as they appear in Exodus 20. Yeah, you forgot about some of that, didn’t you? That’s okay.

Oy, getting off-track yet again. So I’m discussing the Ten Commandments with students, and some of them, knowing that I often like to harp on seeming textual inconsistencies, decided to ask me about one.

[Please note that as I move on, I am writing here in an adult context for you, my readers, not necessarily in the terms or terminology that I was using with my students. Though as I have often remarked, I am not a fan of pediatric Judaism, I do strive to be age appropriate in how I phrase and explain things.]

“Why,” the student asked, “are we commanded to not be jealous of the things that other have, yet G”d is described as being a jealous G”d?” They were so sure they had gotten me with a zinger and I’d run off on some tangent about it. well, they were right that they got me on to a tangent, but it wasn’t the one they were expecting.

“Where,” I asked, “does it say that G”d is jealous?”

“It’s part of the second commandment.”

“Really?,” I asked. “Are you sure about that? Let’s look it up in our chumashim (Plaut, Torah: A Modern Commentary, translation based on new JPS.)  Exodus 20, starting at verse 3, I think.  Let’s read it.”


לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ

You shall have no other gods besides Me.


לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ ׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֙יִם֙ ׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתַָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בַּמַּ֖֣יִם ׀ מִתַּ֥֣חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.


לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֺ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י׃

You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,


וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֺתָֽי׃ (ס)

but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

“I see ‘an impassioned G”d.’ So, where, exactly, does it say that G”d is jealous?”

“Well I know I’ve read or heard that somewhere before.”

“You’re right, you probably have. Where this translation says ‘an impassioned G”d’ many bibles say ‘For I the Lord Your G”d is a jealous G”d.’ The King James version, for one. But not just Christian bibles. The older version of the Jewish Publication Society bible, the one with all the thee and thou shalts that we used before this newer version, says ‘jealous.’ Many more traditional versions used by Orthodox Jews say “jealous” although even many of those don’t use that translation anymore.”

I told the students that the Hebrew word in verse 20:5 that was being translated by many as jealous is the word  קַנָּ֔א “kana.” The root of the word is thought to mean jealous or zealous (and in other conjugations envy, and even annoy or hurt.) This form of the word is an adjective. Based on how it is used elsewhere in the bible, scholars believe it to mean zealous, envious, or even fanatical.

Getting off on what I knew was a tangent, I discussed the difference between envy and jealousy Plenty, I suggested, and then again, not so much, as language evolves.  I explained that envy can be defined as

“A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck. 'she felt a twinge of envy for the people on board' 'Some may even feel envy in that they wish they could feel the same way.' “ Oxford Dictionaries Online.

Jealous is similarly defined, (ibid)

Feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages. ‘he grew jealous of her success’

but also has these meanings:

Feeling or showing suspicion of someone's unfaithfulness in a relationship. a jealous boyfriend’

Fiercely protective or vigilant of one's rights or possessions. ‘Howard is still a little jealous of his authority’ ‘they kept a jealous eye over their interests’

(of God) demanding faithfulness and exclusive worship.

Modern English-language usage guides, while acknowledging that Jealously is coming into more frequent use to mean the same as envy, seek to maintain different conditions for the use of each. Jealously, they suggest, is more generally applicable in situation of love interest, or, in the even older uses of the word, related to the Deity, faithfulness and exclusivity of worship. To me, it feels a bit circular to define jealous by using envy. There’s something very ouroboros here.

Some commentaries and articles I have read suggest that jealously has another component to it. They suggest that one can only be jealous of something one has known or has already had, owned, or experienced. In other words, you can be jealous of the new boyfriend that your old girlfriend has. You can be jealous of the family that now lives in your old house/ You can’t be jealous if you have an iPhone 6 and your friend has an iPhone X. You can be envious of them, not jealous, because you have never known what it is to actually own an iPhone X. Though these same commentaries and articles still tend to argue that jealousy is really reserved for people and relationships, and not objects. Objects are, if you’ll forgive the circularity, objects of desire or envy.

However, this is again, a digression. To get us back on point, I asked the students again, where does us command us to not be jealous?

“Well, we’re not supposed to covet stuff. That means we shouldn’t be jealous of what other people have, right?”

“But you said ‘covet.’ Is coveting really the same as jealousy? Let’s look at the text again. Verse 14.”

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃ (פ)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

The Hebrew word here is entirely different. It’s תַחְמֹ֖ד “takhmod.”  It comes from the Hebrew root that means “to desire and try to obtain.” It is desire that is the kind that harms a person’s character, rather than a positive desire.

There are other biblical Hebrew word roots that can mean desire. One of them is a negative or even lustful desire like “takhmod.”  Another root has both positive and negative viewpoints of desire. Yet another root views desire in a positive light as a yearning for, with great favor or respect.

Yes, there’s a connection between desire and envy, between desire and jealousy. How they relate is complicated. Must one be jealous or envious to covet something, or can one simply covet or desire something just because it exists?  Is it possible to be envious or jealous of something without having a (negative connotation form of) desire or coveting?

Yes, this particular commandment does start out by speaking of coveting your neighbor’s wife. That means, perhaps, lustfully desiring her. However, in the same verse it goes on to speak of not coveting their male and female slaves (yes, we could make much more of just what that means in terms of coveting,) houses, work animals, and ending with the catch-all of pretty much anything else that belongs to your neighbor and not you. So now the question arises again, can one be jealous or envious yet still not covet or desire? Does one ultimately and invariably lead to the other?

So after all that, I’m sorry to disappoint you. There’s no inconsistency here. I know you want me to find something to rant about here.  Is there maybe a loophole here, since the text isn’t specific about not coveting something that doesn’t belong to a stranger, or someone not your neighbor? That all depends on what “neighbor” means and we could spend hours, if not days or weeks just discussing that. Not to mention the plenty of places in the Torah that remind us that we should treat the strangers among us the same way we treat our fellow Jews.

So again I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but I don’t find an inconsistency here between G”d being described as jealous and our being commanded not to be covetous of that which is not ours. There is plenty of inconsistency in the Torah to go around, but this isn’t one  of them, as far as I am concerned. This is about the importance of translation. This is about recognizing how language evolves, how words in any language can have a multitude of meanings, and why we need to be careful when we are dependent on the translations and interpretations of others.

Learning Hebrew will help. It won’t solve everything, but it will provide some insight. Tzei ulemad – go and learn!

Oh, but wait, dear reader. I’ve one last heresy to hurl your way. Yes, I’ve studied biblical Hebrew at an advanced level. Nevertheless, it is not my native language. At some level, everything I have learned about it gets turned into English in my brain. (Yes, to some limited degree, I can think in Hebrew, however I know my brain is still unconsciously linking that ability to my initially acquired English skills.) So, try hard as I may, I’ll never be able to quite read and understand it in the same way as those who wrote it and for whom it was written. In addition, with each passing year, we continue to acquire knowledge to add to what we already know, believe, and understand about the text. Some day, every scrap of that may be available in our own native languages. Yes, it will still be subject to the vagaries of translation, but, ultimately, aren’t we all subject to that, and won’t we be forever (unless we invent time travel?) So perhaps one day, soon, we will have access to all the relevant material ever written about the Torah in our native languages. Will that totally obviate the need to learn Hebrew? Personally, I think not, as I still believe that will prove useful. However, a solid case could be made that studies in one’s native language might be wholly adequate for both deep scholarly and even religious understanding. Most of the world’s Christians don’t know Aramaic or Koine Greek or Latin. By their religious standards, that is not a handicap to full understanding of the bible. On the other hand, Islam says that the Quran is best read and understood only in its classical Quranic Arabic – this is the mustahab, the preferred religious way to do it. Reading Quran in other languages is not haram – forbidden, but it does not earn one the religious merit of reading it in Quranic Arabic.  (This form of Arabic is considered by some scholars a purposefully basic form using simple words, vocabulary, grammar, and concepts, so that even a non-Arabic-speaking Muslim, say, a Farsi-speaking Persian, or an English-speaking American, can learn it.) Judaism has a more interesting history. The Torah was translated into Koine Greek for the Alexandrian Jewish community in the 3rd century BCE! It was later translated into Aramaic (probably in the 1st century BCE) and Syriac in the 3rd century CE. The Septuagint, the version reportedly translated in 72 days from Hebrew to Koine Greek by a group of 72 Jewish tribal elders appointed by the High Priest in Jerusalem and sent to work in Alexandria (on the island of Pharos with its newly completed lighthouse) was from the time of the reign of Ptolemy II in Egypt (285-246 BCE.)

The Book of Joshua suggests there were public Torah readings during that time but we have no evidence of that. There is evidence of public readings of the Torah in synagogues during the period of the Second Temple though we do not know with certainty if these readings were exclusively in Hebrew. The existence of the Septuagint and other Greek translation made at the request of the Alexandrian Jewish community at least suggest or hint at readings in languages other than Hebrew. We also have the Aramaic targums (translations.)The rabbis, in reconfiguring Judaism after the destruction of the Second temple in 70CE instituted readings only in Hebrew (though there is some evidence that some communities resisted.) During the period from about 500-1100CE,  the geonim who ran the academies in Babylon, providing a period of enlightenment and new scholarship for Judaism while Europe descended into the dark ages,  ruled that as all translations involved making choices, translations were not permitted.  However, during public readings, live translations into the local language were provided to the congregation, as had been done for centuries as Aramaic had become the prevalent language among Jews. In the 8th century CE the need for Arabic translations arose as territories we conquered by Islamists, but they were few and far between. By the 13th century there is evidence of Jewish vernacular translations into Spanish, starting with Megillat Esther. Italian translations date back about as far. German translations (for Jews) can be dated back to the 15th century.  A French version was first published in the 1830s. An English version for use by Jews became available in the 1840s.

It seems to me, based on this history, that Judaism has long recognized that many Jews do not know (and may never learn) Hebrew, and translations (whether live or in print) are necessary. As imperfect as translations can be, why, in this day and age do we insist that the Torah can only be read and understood in the original (?- really? Original? Like we can be sure of that?) Hebrew.

We continue to hold on to the belief, as do our Muslim brothers and sisters, that only in the holy tongue can the very religious essence of our sacred text can be received and understood in all its glory, nuance, and holiness. There’s a part of me that still clings to that idea, but there’s another part of me that wonders if it is past time to give up on that sort of narishkeit?

That heretical enough for you?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yitro 5778 - B'khol HaMakom Revisited
Yitro 5777 - Holy Seeds Don't Produce Identical Plants
Yitro 5776 - Top Ten (Revised and Redux 5766)
Yitro 5774 - The Rest of the Ten Commandments (Revisted and Revised)
Yitro 5773 - From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 - Why I Won't Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 - Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 - Special Effects
Yitro 5769 - Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B'Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad"nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders

No comments: