Al Naharot Bavel

In the spirit of Av, spent some time exploring music for Psalm 137 and share here some of the links, with related notes scheduled for next week. We plan to discuss some of these pieces and their backgrounds, as well much more about the psalm, at Psalms Study Group at Temple Micah (DC). All are welcome. Come if you’re in the neighborhood, Tuesday, August 20, 1:30 – 3 p.m.

Meanwhile, some music for the season:

From “Bible Songs”

Paul Robeson singing Dvorak‘s setting for Psalm 137:1-5.

To help in following this, here is a Czech translation of Psalm 137 from BibleHub.com:

1) Při řekách Babylonských tam jsme sedávali, a plakávali, rozpomínajíce se na Sion.
2) Na vrbí v té zemi zavěšovali jsme citary své.
3) A když se tam dotazovali nás ti, kteříž nás zajali, na slova písničky, (ješto jsme zavěsili byli veselí), říkajíce: Zpívejte nám některou píseň Sionskou:
4) Kterakž bychom měli zpívati píseň Hospodinovu v zemi cizozemců?
5) Jestliže se zapomenu na tebe, ó Jeruzaléme, zapomeniž i pravice má….

Rivers of Babylon

The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”
1970, Composer credit: Brent Dowe (1949-2006) and Trevor McNaughton (1940-2018); more next page.

Jimmy Cliff (Melodians’) “Rivers of Babylon” (“Rivers” starts at 2:56)

Sweet Honey in the Rock (Melodians’ version, minus the Rasta-infused lyrics)

Waters of Babylon

Don McLean tune for 137:1, “Waters of Babylon, from 1971 “American Pie”

Closing scene of Mad Men (S1, E6), using McLean’s tune anachronistically and to good effect

Hebrew version of the McLean tune (Anyone have information about “Shooky & Dorit”?)

Choral Babylon

Three choral pieces, versions of which were performed as part of “The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem” concert from Kolot Halev in 2009:

Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon) — Salamone Rossi (Hebrew)

Super Flumina Babilonis – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestina (Latin)

Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from Nabucco) – Giuseppi Verdi (Italian)

Three Prophets, Three Crises, Three Cries

Sometimes I look at a Torah commentary, whether ancient or contemporary or somewhere in between and my main thought is: “Whoa! That’s a lot of weight to put on one word.”

…I think of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice — while she is Through the Looking-Glass — that he always pays words extra when he makes them do a lot of work, like when he uses the word “impenetrability” to mean a full paragraph beginning, “we’ve had enough of that subject…”

As it is, though, words in the Torah regularly work pretty hard, anyway. Numbers Rabbah tells us, after all, that there are 70 modes of expounding every word. And it’s not uncommon for extended commentaries to hinge largely on one word.

Still I find myself hoping that the word “devarim” and colleagues have negotiated extra pay for all the overtime expected in the weeks ahead and that eichah has lots of seasonal bonus pay coming.

I was originally planning to discuss the word davar, which plays such an important role in the Book of Deuteronomy beginning with this week’s portion. (Some early notes on Davar and Devarim here in PDF.)

But I decided to give davar and put the word eichah/how to work instead. Here’s more on the word itself, and here’s a midrash linking three eichah verses: an ancient version, from Eichah Rabbah; one from the 15th Century, Akeidat Yitzchak; and my attempt at less gendered imagery.

Three Eichah Verses

The first verse is from today’s Torah reading. It appears in a passage (Deut. 1:9ff) in which Moses describes feeling beleaguered, stuck in an untenable situation. In the midst of this story, he recalls telling the People: “Eichah/How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” Using the clunky 1917 JPS here purposely, to highlight the weirdness of the word טֹרַח [torach, cumbrance] which appears only in this verse and in the first chapter of Isaiah. (More on torach here.)

His recollection appears to conflate two previous incidents:

The first is in Exodus 18, when Yitro asks his son-in-law: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Yitro then suggests, and Moses implements, a system of 70 judges to share judicial burden.

The second is in Numbers 11, when the People complain about lacking meat and Moses tells God: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God commands a system of 70 elders to receive some of the spirit previously upon Moses, saying: “they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t mention either Yitro’s suggestion or God’s command, instead describing a system of captains and officers that appears to be his own invention.

This shift in the cast of characters has many implications, but today I want to hone in on the trouble in the community represented by that one word Moses uses in describing his frustration.

To the ancient Rabbis, the desperate-sounding “eichah” that Moses employs in the desert resonated with later experiences in Isaiah’s time and in Jeremiah’s. The Rabbis arranged three readings, over less than a week in the Jewish calendar, using that same cry.

As the midrash suggests the three eichahs indicate escalating disaster:

  • from the People — and Moses, in his own way — behaving badly enough in the desert that a breaking point threatens,
  • to the People in Jerusalem behaving so badly that God is ready to snap; and finally,
  • to complete loss of the central community institution, with destruction of the Temple and exile of the People, and the related loss of social order.

Although the midrash does not add this, we know that what looks like total destruction is not the end. Destruction of the First Temple resulted in a Judaism built on the experience of Exile, and then, after destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice today. The eichah in our three texts suggests a “how” of transformation to be learned from each stage — as well as messages for each stage to be found in reading them together.

Escalating Disaster

In Deut 1:12, Moses moves pretty quickly from perception of a problem to solution. But the eichah points to an element of the situation we might otherwise miss: mutual despair, with Moses and the People together in turmoil. Things sound pretty dire, at one point, but there is a turn-around. How? The People and Moses must refocus on basic principles: justice and organizing for sharing of burdens.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, the eichah hints at despair as the community and its systems are in peril. This time God seems to have reached a breaking point, declaring through Isaiah that the People are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers, while rituals have become so empty that God is hurt to the very quick. The remedy, the People are told again, is a refocusing on basic principles: How to avoid disaster? Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, atone for wrongs, clean up the mess.

The eichah of Lamentations however, is a breaking point without apparent remedy. The closest thing to repair we hear is that final plea: “Bring us back to You, HASHEM, and we shall return as in days of old.” How will this occur? On Tisha B’av, we don’t know yet. The author of Lamentations, and its original listeners, had not yet moved on from disaster and mourning to the period of betweenness and then transformation.

By asking us to read all three eichahs in short order — all on one weekend, as it happens, this year [5779] — we prepare for Tisha B’av’s “don’t know yet” with Shabbat Hazon’s “hows” of previous transformations. But it also, I think, warns us to be willing to sit with that “don’t know yet” in the other stages of disaster, outlined in the three-part midrash.

We have the instructional “how” of Deuteronomy and Isaiah in today’s readings, reminders of what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of individual and communal repair. But we can also make use of the desperate element in the “how” — taking time to process the grief and the worry, communities at the breaking point, rituals that don’t seem to serve their purpose any longer. Eichah?!

Transformations and the Grateful Dead

A few years ago, an essay in the Times of Israel suggested that we can also learn about the transformations of Judaism marked with Tisha B’av from the transformation of the Grateful Dead, following Jerry Garcia’s death. (What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av at Times of Israel, 2017)

Then newly minted rabbi, Simeon Cohen, mentions “the Days Between,” from Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, to his yahrzeit, August 9, in his essay and links this period to the Jewish calendar’s Nine Days of mourning at the start of Av.

“The Days Between” by the way, is celebrated around the world and has no intrinsic relationship to Tisha B’av or Judaism generally. “The Nine Days of Jerry” was launched in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and specifically organized around the season of Av. Cohen’s essay doesn’t mention these details, so here is some background for those interested; meanwhile moving ahead to his punchline…

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Yohanan ben Zakkai founded a new learning institution at Yavneh, and, eventually, Cohen writes, “an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor.” He likens this to the survival of Dead-related music after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. (As much as I appreciate the existence and publication of this essay, I find that it focuses more on the commercial success of Dead-related enterprises in the post-1995 years — along with the popularity of that worst of all Dead songs, “Touch of Gray” — rather than on survival of any kind of Deadly essence.)

Then, noting current issues, including tension between Israel and the Diaspora, Cohen concludes:

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment…Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive.

This is a comforting message. But I fear that it too quickly jumps toward that big change, skipping over crucial mourning and betweenness. The desire to do this is not unique to Cohen: it’s very common, and quite comforting in some ways, to jump toward solutions in order to avoid having to sit with mourning and betweenness. In doing so, however, we miss crucial lessons.

Another article on the Grateful Dead focuses more on the betweenness. And I don’t think it requires ever having heard two bars of Dead music to consider, as the author says: Grateful Dead music “has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.” (See “Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter)

Isn’t this also an aspect of what we do in group prayer? Through music, speech, and/or silence prayer helps us shape individual gratitude into collective praise, grief into commitment, and disasters into a future we cannot yet imagine. But, like listening to the Grateful Dead, prayer requires experiencing the moment — which sometimes means sitting with pain, anxiety, or uncertainty — and noticing the transformations happening inside it.

Combining Messages

Together the three eichah texts — along with Rabbi Cohen’s Grateful Dead analogy — remind us that nothing stays the same for long, that growth comes with new burdens, that living in community and pursuing a vision is hard work. We have to adapt, learn to do good in changing circumstances, seek justice over and over again.

The calendar is built to remind us:
the three weeks of chastising prophetic readings come every year; followed by the lowest day of the year, Tisha B’av; and then the slow climb up through the seven weeks of comfort, including Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year.

Today’s reading from Isaiah, built into that cycle, warns us now that it won’t be enough in the coming holiday season to check off the days — skip a few meals, listen to the shofar, give tzedakah donations, recite the proper words — none of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world.

Today’s Torah reading, also a part of this cycle, cautions us to take a look at our communities now — before we head into the season of repair and return — to notice if the burdens and spirit and power are balanced in healthful ways, or if we are facing more disaster ahead.

Shabbat Hazon asks us to envision something different for the coming year.

Tisha B’av asks us to sit with mourning and betweenness.

And the combination of the two suggests the possibility of true transformation.


NOTES

More on “eichah

The Hebrew word אֵיךְ [eich, how] — an adverb/interrogative with an incredulous, negative connotation (the Evan Shoshan concordance calls it “question of rebuke”), appears six times in Genesis and Exodus. For example: when Abimelech says to Isaac: “…she’s your wife! so how then did you say ‘she is my sister’!” (Gen 26:9), and when Moses says to God: “…the children of Israel haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh hear me, of uncircumcised lips?” (Exod 6:12).

The word does not appear at all in Leviticus or Numbers. This form (including v’eich, וְאֵיךְ) appears 55 times in the Prophets and Writings.

The form eichah אֵיכָה first appears in Deuteronomy, where it is used five times, beginning with 1:12. This is more than in any other book, even the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), where it appears four times. The use in Isaiah, included in the midrash above, is the only appearance in that book. This form of the word shows up an additional seven times in the Tanakh: in Judges, 2 Kings, Song of Songs (twice in one verse), and Psalms, along with twice in Jeremiah.

In total, the Evan Shoshan Concordance only lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah,” which appears twice in the Book of Esther and twice in Song of Songs. (Strong’s lists 82 occurrences, including all three forms — it’s nice when they match!)

“How?!” is not among the rarest words in the Tanakh, but it’s unusual (and IMO interesting.)

Regarding the less usual “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah” form, see also “The World is Like a Poem” by Annabelle Farmelant.”

Three-Part Eichah Midrash in Three Versions

from Eichah Rabbah:
Three prophesied with the language of eichah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.* Moses said, (Deut 1:12), “How (eichah) will I carry alone…” Isaiah said, (Isa 1:21) “How (eichah) she has become a prostitute…” Jeremiah said, (Lam 1:1) “How (eichah) does she dwell…” Said

Rabbi Levi: It is compared to a noble woman who had three friends. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her recklessness, and one saw her in her degradation

  1. So did Moses see Yisrael in their honor, and in their tranquility, [yet] he said, “How will I carry their burden alone?”
  2. Isaiah saw them in their recklessness, and he said “How she has become a prostitute…”
  3. Jeremiah saw them in their degradation, and he said, “How does she dwell…”

Eichah Rabbah 1(Roman Palestine) via sefaria

*NOTE: The assumption here is that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. There are additional uses of “eichah” in the Tanakh, but they are not “prophecies.”
BACK

Akeidat Yitzchak (15th Century CE Spain) offers the same parable with the noble woman first “at the height of her beauty and wealth,” then “committing excesses,” and finally “in disgrace.” — this is based on the older midrash: Eichah Rabbah 1 (Roman Palestine).
BACK

One more version:
It’s hard to de-gender the biblical images, but perhaps we can rethink the midrash as three stages at which the prophets meet Yisrael:

  1. Moses knew them during a carefree period (God and the People are “honeymooning” in the desert) but was still prompted to cry “How…”;
  2. Isaiah knew them when they were treating greater riches carelessly and warned them about power imbalances;
  3. Jeremiah knew them at a time of complete disaster and cried out at their misery, not recognizing their carefree, even careless, past.


BACK

Torach

In addition to sharing the word “eichah” with the only verse in Isaiah to use “eichah,” as discussed above, Deuteronomy 1:12 shares the word “torach” with the only verse in Isaiah (or anywhere else in the Tanakh) to use that word. (“Torach” only appears in these two verses in Tanakh.)

חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי
הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא
Your new moons and your appointed seasons fill Me with loathing;* They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
— Isaiah 1:14

אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי,
טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם
How can I bear unaided
the trouble of you, and the burden,
and the bickering!
— Deuteronomy 1:12

*This is the “New JPS” (Jewish Publication Society), 1985. The 1917 “Old JPS” has “My soul hateth,” following KJV (King James Version), for “loathing” here; Alter has “utterly despises,” noting that he incorporated into the verb phrase the intensity of the subject’s added נַפְשִׁי nafshi [my soul].

טָרְחֲכֶם, tarchakhem — the trouble of you. טֹרַח, torach is usually translated in Isaiah 1:14 as “burden,” while the same Hebrew word, as it appears in Deuteronomy here, is translated as “trouble” or “(heavy) load,” or, in the old JPS and the KJV: “cumbrance.”

In the earlier version of Moses’ complaint about the people being too heavy to bear (Numbers 11:11), the Hebrew is מַשָּׂא, massa, regularly translated in that verse — as well as here (following “trouble of you” above) — as “burden.” Massa is a far more common word than torach.


The Nine Days (of Av), The Nine Days of Jerry, and the Days Between

Since 2008 at least, music promoters have been marking what was originally called “Jerry week” (although nine days), between the August 1 birthday and August 9 death date of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). More recently, fans have been marking what are now called “the Days Between.” Locally, for example, the Hamilton Live venue has been celebrating for three years now. While plenty of Jews celebrate, “the Days Between” don’t have the same Jewish resonance of the “Nine Days of Jerry.”

In 2010, Lorelai Kude, a huge Dead fan with a sense of personal connection to the band and to Jerry, in particular, launched the “Nine Days of Jerry” on her audio streaming program called “Radio Free Nachlaot” (RFN). She had started RFN, named for her Jerusalem neighborhood and using the tagline “Where Shlomo meets Jerry,” the year before.

I met Lorelai at a Jewish Deadhead camp of sorts, “Blues for Challah,” at Camp Isabella Freedman in 2011. It seemed clear that the Nine Days of Jerry were, for her, more than simply a chance to reflect and remember — as Rabbi Cohen describes “the Days Between” in his essay, and as many fans experience the period — but much more of a marking of Jerry’s yahrzeit and an attempt to deal with major loss, both relating to the Jewish calendar and to Jerry’s death and the subsequent changes in the Dead universe.

Many fans, Jewish and not, mark “the Days Between,” wherever they fall in the Jewish calendar. Lorelai and many of her listeners, however, avoid music in observance of the Nine Days (of Av). Depending on how August and Av line up, RFN is frequently shut down entirely, in mourning, while others are celebrating. This year, the Nine Days of Jerry begin August 12.
BACK

World Like a Poem

Annabelle Farmelant, a U.S.-based writer, who published books of Hebrew verse in 1960 and 1961, focused a number of her poems on what words — especially in Hebrew’s gendered language — can and cannot do:

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.*
But how — he asks — just how**
— Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha —
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed wanderer
in the world’s splendor***
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores

*lanetzach. Forever or eternally, rather than perpetually.
**Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha. How — he asks — just how.
***tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world. Tifereth is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life. tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world

The translation is by Adriana X. Jacobs, from Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). The notes are mine, and I’m including a few of the original Hebrew words. Additional information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs.

RETURN

Resources on Psalms

I’ve been collecting resources on individual psalms for study on a monthly basis. (Local to DC? Check out Temple Micah, third Tuesdays of the month, 1:30 – 3 p.m.) Here are the materials so far (last updated 7/17/19 — here is the stable page where more will be added.)

Psalm 1 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 92 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 8 Resources(PDF)

Psalm 22 Resources (PDF)

Coming soon, a few notes, by request, on Ugaritic and the Psalms, and more resources related to individual psalms as they are gathered.

The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

Continue Reading

Found through Alter’s Translation

1

Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Lost in Translation? No, lost without fact-checking

1

Robert Alter completed an amazing project. His translations of the Bible continue to offer new, sometimes more literary, possibly more “accurate” renderings of the text. But scholars everywhere seem blinded by the sheer number of pages just published or otherwise befuddled into teaching falsehoods and half truths.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, offered a ten-minute ode to Alter’s translation as a commentary to this week’s Torah portion (parashat Bo: Exod 10:1-13:6). Here’s his podcast, “What is Lost in Translation.” In praising Alter, however, he manages to inadvertently dismiss the work of his own movement.

Darkness and Light

Toward the end of the podcast, Jacobs focuses on one phrase in Alter’s translation and commentary:

“‘…that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwelling places.”

a darkness one can feel. The force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness…
— translation/commentary on Ex 10:21, 23 from The Five Books of Moses. (NY: Norton, 2004)

Jacobs cites this material as though it were new, although Alter published this translation and commentary in 2004. More importantly, I think, Jacobs fails to note that Alter’s English differs very little from the older translations widely available for decades — in fact, some published by his own Union for Reform Judaism.

Here, for comparison are Jewish Publication Society versions of the last century:

“‘…that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
— “New JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1985)
“‘…even darkness which may be felt.’
…but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
— “Old JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1917)

Alter’s “a darkness one can feel” is slightly pithier and so somewhat stronger — and as Jacobs notes, closer to the more succinct** Hebrew, v’yamush, hoshekh [וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ] — than the JPS versions. But Alter’s “in their dwelling places” for b’moshevotam [בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם] is slightly longer than “in their dwellings” of the JPS. So, I’m not sure that, in this particular set of verses, the differences are worthy of great note, all told.

King James and Robert Alter

Jacobs, like a number of others commenting on Alter’s work, compares Alter’s work to the King James Version. (Maybe they’re all reading the same press release?) But Jews and Christians have been translating the bible for many generations since 1611, and all innovation since then is not attributable to Robert Alter, no matter how amazing his recent accomplishment. The weirdest — and, I feel, saddest — thing about Jacobs’ praise for this particular verse of Alter’s translation is that his podcast could just as easily have cited a ten- or twenty-eight-year-old publication from the URJ itself:

  • The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (NY: URJ Press & Women of Reform Judaism, 2008) uses modified “New JPS” language, including the verses as cited above;
  • the 2005 URJ version, which I don’t happen to have handy, also uses JPS;
  • the 1981 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, from UAHC [now URJ], uses a mid-century version of the JPS translation, with the exact language quoted above.

…This is not to say that Alter has not provided new and interesting perspectives or given us some beautiful new language to help us appreciate the Hebrew original. But I fear that what really is new and interesting in Alter’s work is being lost in all the repetition of tired nonsense, false comparisons, and outright omissions in discussing his work.

Moreover, it seems truly dangerous, given the current state of government and journalism, to share information in ways that might mislead and to teach in ways that fail to provide context for “new” ideas….

A final quibble with Jacobs’ podcast: He makes a point of noting that Robert Alter (b. 1935) is in his 80s now, as he completed this huge project. If we’re going to stress the author’s age and/or the number of years he worked on the project, however, let’s be accurate. Alter was not yet 70 when The Five Books of Moses was published, and he was in his early 70s when his Book of Psalms (Norton: 2007) came out. Again, not to say it’s NOT an accomplishment to translate the Torah or the Psalms at 70 or for an individual to complete a bible translation at 83 — or any age! Just that we cannot be re-writing history by inattention to facts.


Note on the 2018 W.W. Norton Publication
A note about these books as books: While I remain in awe of Alter’s scholarship and literary merit, I am deeply disappointed in this three volume set ($125). The set does offer new material, particularly in the Prophets. But there is no new introduction to the Bible as a whole, and there is no additional commentary on the completion of the project; in fact, each of the three volumes repeats verbatim the same introduction to the Bible and its translation that appeared in Alter’s Five Books of Moses in 2004!

If this picture is clear enough, and you’re really curious, note that the section numbering differs in the two volumes, because the section specific to the Five Books was moved.

intro alter

2019 (L) and 2004 (R) introductions to Alter’s translations

Final plea to scholars: I would personally appreciate, as I’m sure would many others, a review or analysis of the recent publication which actually addresses specifics — in organization and layout as well as in content — with a focus on what is actually new in 2018.

Post updated 1/13/19: mostly in formatting, correction of a few typos; also addition of citation to UAHC 1981 Torah (above) and plea here. See also, “Found through Alter’s Translation,” further to this discussion, posted on 1/12/


NOTE:
**In the podcast cited here, Jacobs also compares Alter’s translation of Psalm 23 with that of the King James Version, focusing on the darkness phrase relevant to Parashat Bo. Alter’s “vale of death’s shadow” is more direct than the KJV, “valley of the shadow of death,” while maintaining the connection with death — which some newer translations lose:

valley of deepest darkness — JPS 1985
darkest valley — New International Version (1973-2011)
valleys dark as death — American Bible Society, 2006
dark valley of death — God’s Word, 1995

Do note, for clarity of record, that Alter’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms was published in 2007.
BACK

(Re)dedication and Tasks Incomplete

In postscript to “Thirty on Psalm 30,” here are some related words from R. Aviva Richman, faculty of Hadar. Meant as a teaching for Chanukah, this strikes me as just as applicable to beginning a new calendar year or, indeed, to starting any new day:

The work of hanukat habayit [dedication of the house], then, takes place in multiple spheres—in our homes, in our communal structures, and in our own bodies independent of any particular larger structure. Any narrow focus on one of these aspects of hanukat habayit to the exclusion of others will necessarily leave gaps—some people will not be able to fully participate in the critical transformation that is Hanukkah if we neglect any of these modes.
— “Communal and Private (Re)dedication

Richman goes on to urge that we work “within all of these sites of rededication, to create homes, communal structures, and selves where brokenness is allowed to be visible and can be transformed into rejuventation and healing.”

The idea of allowing brokenness to show and become rejuvenated also reminds me of the Marge Piercy poem, “The task never completed”:

No task is ever completed,
only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.

Each night sleep unravels me into wool,
then into sheep and wolf. Walls and fire
pass through me. I birth stones.

Every dawn I stumble from the roaring
vat of dreams and make myself up
remembering and forgetting by halves.

Every dawn I choose to take a knife
to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,
rough improvisation, but a start.

— from The Art of Blessing the Day (NY: Knopf, 1999)

This poem, like Psalm 30 in its position in the morning liturgy, knows that making a truly fresh, joyful start involves acknowledging that weeping spent the night. (Re)dedicating the house — in multiple spheres — requires knowing where a knife or a sewing kit is needed.

(Thirty on Psalm 30)