In my column featured last week in Jewish Ideas Daily, I reported on an event held at the New York branch of HUC-JIR, the Reform Jewish seminary where Harry Orlinsky taught Bible for many years. I thought I’d use this space to expand a bit on my comments there, for readers who have a particular interest in the Bible, its scholars, and its translators.
As a Chicagoan who moved to the Northeast Corridor only in my 30s, I still have not lost my gleeful wonder that — from Philadelphia, at least — you can hop on a train and spend the day in Manhattan. Though I sometimes do this just for a treat, more often I schedule a New York day to take advantage of a Bible event that’s happening there. A few years ago, teaching a class on Wisdom literature at Gratz College, I made sure to hear a talk by Ed Greenstein at NYU on “The Problem of Evil in the Book of Job.” (I’m teaching the same class this spring at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; come on back, Ed!)
But I consider it a special duty to show the flag when, as sometimes happens, there’s an event in memory of a biblical scholar. The scholars of a generation ago were famous when I began my own studies, and they were generally the teachers of my own teachers. Harry Orlinsky, though one rarely encounters his name today, was a superstar of Jewish academic Bible studies when I first got interested in the field. His book Ancient Israel was quite well known in those days. It’s mostly of historical interest now, having been superseded by new archaeological discoveries and a generational change in how histories of ancient Israel are now written. (That’s a post for a different occasion.) Perhaps that’s why the event in his memory was so sparsely attended. His family members who were present might have comprised 20% of the crowd.
The event was also meant to mark the 50th anniversary of what is still called the “new” Jewish Publication Society translation of the Torah, produced by a committee that had Orlinsky as its editor-in-chief. I’ve been told that’s the only event scheduled to mark the anniversary. Yet the JPS Torah has become the Torah of non-Orthodox American Jews. I’m hoping we will be able to organize a session about it at the Association for Jewish Studies conference scheduled for Boston in December of 2013.
Most of what I’ll say from here on is taken from the talk by Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton University at the HUC-JIR event. Not only is Greenspoon a scholar of Bible translation; he knew Orlinsky very well in his younger days.
The “old” JPS Bible translation, published in 1917, was directed by a scholar named Max Margolis, who was (briefly) Orlinsky’s teacher. Margolis thought an American Jewish translation of the Bible ought to be modeled on the King James Version, whose Shakespearean diction would teach English to the immigrants who made up such a large proportion of American Jewry in those days. He was consciously modeling Moses Mendelssohn’s “Biur,” which provided a translation of the Bible into German (written in Hebrew characters) to help integrate Jews into the German cultural mainstream, to help them back up their demand for “emancipation.”
When Orlinsky began to call for an updated English version for Jewish use, he intended it to be a revised version of the 1917 translation. According to Greenspoon, it is “almost certain that his contacts with American Bible Society translators were decisive in changing his views.” Rather than a formal translation, demanding that the reader come to the text, Orlinsky began to think that a functional translation — where the text comes to where the reader is — was now more appropriate. As anyone who’s used the New JPS Bible knows, it follows the “functional” method of translation in a major way.
A simple example comes from Deut 17:6a:
על פי שנים עדים או שלשה עדים יומת המת
Old JPS (using the “literal” or “formal equivalence” method):
At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death.
New JPS (using the freer “functional equivalence” method):
A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses.
This kind of translation is far more readable. The downside is that midrashic or other later Jewish interpretations may fix on the more literal “mouth” or “three” when these are invisible to readers of the New JPS translation. But to understand the peshat, the straightforward sense of the text, as it would have been understood by the original readers, the functional method is superior — except when the original text is a poetic or otherwise literary one. Admittedly, in such cases any translator is almost always bound to fail in some degree.
I wrote in my JID column about the “new” translation (based on Rashi and the Enuma Elish) of Gen 1:1. It’s a good example of Orlinsky’s statement that “We considered ourselves obligated to no prior interpretation of Scripture.” Though he never forgot that his work was in the service of the American readers of Bible — Christians with the RSV and the NRSV, Jews with the NJPS — his watchword was always “What does the Bible mean?” Not “what does the Bible mean to me?” but “What does the Bible mean?”
Rashi, who near the end of his life told his grandson that he would rewrite his Bible commentary if he could because new scholarly discoveries were being made on a daily basis, would certainly have been pleased. That’s not a bad encomium to have.