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.

Blasphemy of Pharaoh’s Overreach: Theology, Context and the Trouble I’ve Seen

“Claiming the center stage, just like Pharaoh and Caesar did in their time, has always been a blasphemous overreach that actually places oneself on the margins of God’s reign,” thus writes Drew G.I. Hart in Trouble I’ve Seen. 

This new title focuses on “Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism,” but much of what Hart says needs equal attention in the Jewish thought. (Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.)

Religious Thought and Practice

Hart notes the optional or alternative status of “women’s,” “peace,” or “black” theology:

According to [teacher John Franke] white male theologians have often seen themselves as objective and neutral overseers of Christian tradition. They function as “theological referees” for everyone else, while imagining their position as neutral and unbiased in the center of all the action….Missing is that white men have a social context too.

— p. 163, Trouble I’ve Seen

TroubleA parallel situation still applies all too well in much of the Jewish world. As does his analysis of how well-intentioned attempts at diversity and inclusion often fail to create real change. Many of his recommendations for the Church are ones other faith communities should explore as well:

  1. “Share life together.”
  2.  Practice solidarity. (See, e.g., Be’chol Lashon, Jewish Multi-Racial Network, and Jews of All Hues, as well as links at “Exodus from Racism”)
  3. “See the world from below,” by changing reading habits, for example. (See “Range of Possibilities” for some suggestions.)
  4. “Subvert racial hierarchy in the [religious infrastructure].”
  5. “Soak in scripture and the Spirit for renewed social imagination.” (Explore  “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart,” e.g. and these resources from Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center.)
  6. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”
  7. Engage in self-examination.

— from p. 176, Trouble I’ve Seen

Current and Historical Re-Examination

Hart’s exploration of “White Jesus” and related Church history may seem irrelevant to those outside the Christian faith. This is important background for every U.S. citizen, however, and worth review for those as yet unfamiliar.

Moreover, Jewish communities would do well to consider whether our members are aware of essential demographics — such as a recent study showing white men with criminal convictions more likely to get positive job-application responses than black men without a record (see p. 145) — and the individual and cumulative effect of everyday racism experienced by the author of Trouble I’ve Seen.

Most importantly, Jews must join our Christian neighbors in examining how we “resemble this remark”:

Too many in the American Church have perpetuated the myth that this land was build on Christian principle rather than on stolen land and stolen labor.

p.145, Trouble I’ve Seen

Hart’s new volume provides important food for thought as we continue to read Exodus this winter and experience it in the upcoming Passover season.

Hart

Drew G. I. Hart

More about “Anablacktivist” Drew G.I. Hart

Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.

What are you reading this Exodus season?

Please share your resources and your thinking.

Community, Leadership, and Listening

Leadership and community are key elements in the early chapters of Exodus. We see a variety of strong actions and interactions:

1) Moses sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew; he responds by killing the Egyptian and then hides the deceased in the sand.

2) Moses sees two Hebrew men fighting and tries to stop the aggressor.

3) The Hebrew fighter replies: “Who made you judge over us? And do you propose to murder me as you did the Egyptian?”

4) Pharaoh learns of Moses’ crime and sets out to kill him. Moses flees from Egypt.

5) Moses witnesses what appears to be an injustice as Jethro’s daughter attempt to water their flocks and intervenes, immediately and physically. (Exodus 2:11-17)

We don’t know, from the text itself, if Moses’ upbringing included grooming in Egyptian leadership skills or if he was taught Israelite ideas and practices through a continuing relationship with his birth parents. Commentators over the centuries have understood his early years in both ways.

We do know that Moses “went out unto his brethren and looked on their burdens [וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם]” (Exodus 2:11). What is not reported is any interaction between Moses and his brethren — or between Moses and the Midianite women at the well — that would help him understand community perspectives and concerns. He seems to have some sort of innate sense of justice, but he isn’t able to turn that inner sense into action that is helpful when faced with real world circumstances.

Like Moses, many attempting to understand and join the #BlackLivesMatter struggle don’t know how to translate a desire for justice into action that is helpful. The first step, the one Moses seems to have missed initially, is to LISTEN. Here, for those interested in taking this step, are video clips from Jews United for Justice’s “Black Lives Matter, Chanukah Action” program.

Hear directly from black activists about their experiences and their advice for white allies. More on the event and full list of speakers.

DearWhiteFor those in the DC area, consider joining “Dear White Allies: A Training by #BlackLivesMatterDMV” or one of the many other local opportunities to listen and learn.

Dear White Allies:
Sunday, Jan 18
1-5 p.m.
Impact Hub, 419 4th Street NW

For those beyond DC, look for local anti-racism and white ally training in your area.

Exodus: from state violence to resistance to liberation

The story of Exodus opens with state-mandated oppression and violence against a rapidly growing minority population, increasingly feared by the ruling majority (brief summary). Women of different communities and classes engage in resistance, separately and jointly, that eventually leads to toppling of the entire system.

From Violence to Resistance

Today, many in the U.S. are calling for acknowledgement of “the structural violence and institutional discrimination that continues to imprison our communities either in a life of poverty and/or one behind bars,” and recognition of “the full spectrum of our human rights and its obligations under international law.” Black Lives Matter addresses

…a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise….an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression….we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.

Midwives Shifrah and Puah act against the state, we are told, because “they feared God,” prompting them to act in preservation of life. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg elaborates:

…the very extremity of the edict forces a new moral vision upon the midwives, a radical choice between life and death. Disobedience to Pharaoh becomes more than merely a refusal to kill, it becomes a total dedication to nourishing life.
— Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p.23 (full citation)

Similarly, I think, the Herstory of #BlackLivesMatter exhorts us:

…when Black people cry out in defense of our lives, which are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state, we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.

Pledging Resistance?

Ferguson Action is asking individuals to declare 2015 their “year of resistance.”

I pledge to make 2015 my year of resistance to state violence against Black lives.

I challenge myself and those in my community to take risks as we confront the many ways that Black lives are diminished and taken from us….

This year, I will declare boldly and loudly through my words and actions, that #BlackLivesMatter.
Ferguson Action Pledge

Does Exodus — with its powerful examples of resistance — call us to anything less?
Continue Reading

First Steps in an Exodus from Racism

In the mid-20th Century, the Exodus story (neither Charlton Heston nor Christian Bales, but the second book of the bible) became part of the underpinnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Today, as a new civil rights movement evolves, how can we use the ancient Exodus narrative to once again help us explore key issues and increase understanding and involvement?
Continue Reading

Getting Exodus Right: Watch the Women and Learn (or: Family Travail Becomes Community Action)


A coffin in Egypt closes the Book of Genesis (Genesis 50:26), and the Exodus story is launched with a basket on the Nile (Exodus 2:3). Joseph’s death, which closely follows that of his father, Jacob (Gen 49:33), brings to an end the patriarchal stories. With Exodus, the focus shifts to the Israelite story, beginning with midwives Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Miriam (Moses’ sister), and Pharaoh’s daughter. Our focus is thus shifted, as one book ends and the next begins, from death to birth and from stories of individual and family struggle to a communal struggle toward liberation. So, too, in the United States today, we are moving:

  • from individual circles of mourning for black persons killed by police to a national movement against police brutality across the country, and
  • from disjoint demands addressing various forms of racial inequity to a collective struggle for racial justice.

In addition, men dominate at the close of Genesis, while Exodus opens with women in the lead; similarly, women have been primary leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The Exodus story looks, on the face of it, like a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples. But there are elements — particularly evident in watching what the women do at the beginning of the Exodus story — of the tale that can help us learn respectful coexistence.

Change of Mindset

Failure to dehumanize: The Egyptian midwives model for us at Exodus 1:15-22, using Pharaoh’s racist assumptions about the baby-popping Hebrew women to protect the Israelite community. (more on this)

Vision: Moses’ mother shows immense faith in her Egyptian neighbors, assuming that someone will rescue the child. And at least one Egyptian does rescue a child. Both women, thereby, refuse to dehumanize the other. (more on vision)

Passover is still months away (April 3-April 11, 2015). But Jews and Christians, along with others to whom the Exodus story speaks, can begin now to explore how we can use this ancient tale to change today’s realities, in our own communities and beyond. A few more “Passover Lessons” —

  • Crossers-Over
  • “From Privilege, Activism
  • Maybe We’re All Riff Raff
  • Rabbis, Rome and Slaves
  • “School for Freedom”

— from a 2012 crowd-sourcing.

What else can we learn?
Let’s start now to figure it out!
And let’s NOT WAIT to begin learning and acting
Continue Reading

Bo: Great Source(s)

From “The Pharoah and the Frog” IN God’s Mailbox: More Stories about Stories in the Bible by Marc Gellman (NY: Beech Tree, 1996)

…While he was under the covers, [Pharaoh] heard a frog voice. “Let’s see now,” the frog voice said. “Plague number one was blood, then there were frogs (that’s how I got here), then fleas, then flies, then dead cows, then zits, and now we have the charming plague of ice balls with fire mixed in, and still you won’t let the people go? What a dope!”

…Then Moses put his arm around the Pharaoh’s shoulder and said to him quietly, “Listen to me, and listen well. This is the last time we will see each other. If you do not let my people go by this time tomorrow, the last plague will come and it will be so horrible you will never forget it. Don’t make God punish you and your people this way. You can’t win. You can’t stand against freedom, and you can’t stand against God.”

The Pharaoh said, “God has nothing to do with all this stuff. We are just having a run of bad luck, real bad luck!…Moses, if you are in Egypt tomorrow, I will have my soldiers find you and kill you, along with that frog!”

…after the ice balls with fireballs mixed in, after the locusts and after the darkness, every first-born person and animal died in all the land of Egypt. That day the Pharaoh cried a cry that was so loud that people all over Egypt heard him. That day the Pharaoh let the people go.

As Moses and his people walked out of Egypt with all their stuff and with all their animals, they did not cheer and they did not laugh and they did not sing. They saw how the plagues had ruined Egypt, and they were sad for the Egyptians, so they just left quietly.

The Pharaoh was alone. Between his tears he heard a frog way in the distance. The frog was croaking over and over, “You can’t stand against freedom, and you can’t stand against God!” — Exodus 7:14-12:36

This book and Gellman’s earlier volume, Does God Have A Big Toe? Stories about Stories in the Bible (NY: HarperCollins, 1989) are great companions to the Torah — for adult readers as well as for children. We’ve used this particular story for multi-age seders.

————————————————————–
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
Continue Reading