How the Jews read their Bible
After two years of pondering how to unlock the basic meaning of Hebrew Scripture, this is how far I’ve come. Part 1: my assumptions.
Let’s begin with a few sentences in lay-philosophical terms about assumptions, followed by those basics upon which Jews base themselves.
Assumptions are Inevitable
Philosophers of Science teach that all Thought is based on Assumptions. All thinking, no matter how hard we try to get it objective, obligates all honest people to agree. The only possible option is to be aware of our prior convictions and to use or avoid them consciously.
One could say: “I will only value ideas based on correct scientific measurements.” But why didn’t you prioritize other measures? What results do you consider valid? How many findings do you need to judge them as reliable? How precisely do your measurements need to be? How relevant or irrelevant do you regard conflicting findings? Etc.
A popular objection pleading for absolute objectivity is: “But it says so in the Bible.” Marshall Rosenberg pointed out that a corrector statement is: “But my understanding of the Bible and its Commentaries is different.”
A test of ridged, preconceived ideas is to see if you find a statement true, untrue, or could be either. Any vote for true or untrue reveals a personal bias. How could “There is only one God” be biased—that’s the definition of God, no? Well, God could be the name of a dog …
New ideas about findings you call Theories. Popper established that you could never prove a theory conclusively, only disprove one. After all, any next measurement or idea could disprove what you considered solid. (My Chavruta points out that today’s refutation could be rejected tomorrow.) A Law is a Theory that could be rejected but isn’t for a long time. Those Laws are descriptive; they predict what you should measure. Penal laws are only prescriptive. They just demand which options we should choose.
Occam’s Razor means that you should cut off any parts of a Theory that it can do without. A Theory of Law is called elegant when it is very concise. Yet, Feynman pointed out that the shortest Theory explaining one phenomenon very well doesn’t always describe other situations fittingly.
Assumptions shouldn’t contradict each other. Yet, if you try to (dis)prove them, you show that rather than basic presumptions, they are conclusions.
These are not extraneous conditions I put upon myself or my translation. Rather, this is only to clarify from what starting positions I work.
My Jewish Assumptions Underpinning My Torah Translation
Here is my list. I note if the points are traditional or more just mine.*
1. The Written Torah was given to us complete some thousands of years ago, accompanied by verbal details, called the Oral Torah.
2. The Written Torah is fixed and perfect as it is; the Oral Torah is ever-developing and expanding—Prophecy continues.* That does not need to mean that we now know more than ever. It could imply that in the past, some of these details were self-understood, and now, need to be explicitly formulated to compensate a bit for our current inferior understanding. ● Further, the Oral Law is the Interface between the Torah and Modernity.
3. For many centuries, the Biblical text became somewhat obscure because of the great effort we had make to survive as the Jewish People. Yet, the greater closeness of previous generations to the Prophets and Sages and their humbleness from our ongoing poverty made that they still got enough of its meaning. But now that the Jewish People have become more comfortable and prosperous and further away from the Sages and Prophets, we need a better translation. This better translation is not proof of a superior understanding of Judaism, Heaven forbid, but rather reflects a need for more precision because of the greater temporary void in understanding. ● A modern translator may try to reconstruct earlier understandings that got lost in the turmoil, persecution, murder, and assimilation in the Diaspora, especially by the Crusades and Holocaust. An unfamiliar translation may very well be a faithful rendering of Traditional Judaism as long as it jives with the whole parcel of Orthodox Judaism. E.g., before we eat our staple of food, bread, we acknowledge G^d giving us all food. We use the Hebrew for foods, Lechem. Now, a popular error takes Lechem to mean the loaves. (Rather, a bread in Hebrew is Pat or Keekar.) The faulty, nonsensical translation of the blessing before a bread meal reads that G^d produces all loafs from the ground. It should say: all foods.*
4. Torah and Talmuds have endless depth testifying to their Divine origin.* The Torah Text can be understood in many different ways. That’s not an imperfection of the Text or Scholars, Heaven forbid. Life is complicated and can’t have a Guide that is over-simplistic. ● The Torah describes life on earth. It is not meant for mind games but rather for application in life. The translation thus must look to understand the Text as down-to-earth observations.* ● Students need to master secular philosophical and other worldly data. Yet, the Jewish Lore needs to master the students. ● An autonomous control freak who thinks to master the Text will be unable to render it correctly. ● Because the Text tries to challenge us, we can produce a translation that challenges the reader rather than soothes us.*
5. Some of this endless depth gets lost in any even superb translation. For the average person, Scripture without the Oral Law and Rabbinic Remarks becomes a collection of silly stories, and for brilliant people, a set of contradictory principles. It’s a complete tragedy that the Koreans and Christians only got a translation of these Texts. ● Christians and Muslims have acted on completely needless jealousy, trying not just to compete with Judaism but to exterminate us. Maimonides, our greatest teacher after Moses, persecuted by Christianity and Islam, nevertheless credits them for worldwide spreading Jewish notions like One Invisible G^d, Obedience to G^d, Reward and Punishment, Afterlife, Redemption, etc.
6. There are (at least*) 70 ways to understand the Torah. ● The Torah is further explained through 13 Exegetic, Logical Principles. ● Each word can be seen on 4 levels: A. The Basic Meaning. B. Hints from the Text, often via puns. C. Jewish Lessons connected to the Text in a seemingly farfetched, superficial way. And D. A Very Deep, Hidden Understandings. ● Hints, Lessons, or the Hidden can be a subdivision of the Basic Meaning. ● Whatever the case, surprisingly, the Basic Meaning is the most superior! Only therefore dare one make a one-dimensional translation of this multi-layered Text!* One needs extremely good arguments to ignore or override what it really, basically says. Judaism has a lot of tolerance for serious differences of opinion as long as they don’t attack long-standing decisions in Jewish Law. (To question them, one must be a specialist in kosher laws.) ● The Torah is eerily precise and subtle.* It has no true synonyms. When we understand different words in the Text as interchangeable, we miss distinctions that sets them apart. (American English asks a liberal use of synonyms to make texts ‘more interesting.’ This must be avoided in Bible translations.) When the Text has several meanings, we must give several translations, not synonyms. ● The Text is comprised of a rather small vocabulary.* So, a faithful translation should not use fancy variations and expressions to make it sound better in English. That is an adulteration of the Text. Good or Moral should be used everywhere where the Torah employs Tov, and not at-lib: benign, pleasant, right, fine, etc.* Any editor must be warned not to ‘improve’ “the sun came [closer]” to “the sun set.”
7. The Basic Meaning means: the Text taken literally as far as that fits the context, other parts of the Torah, and the total of the Jewish Tradition.* ● Biblical translators also need to notice what it doesn’t say, which words are not used, what’s missing in the Text, and what purposely is kept vague. And we need to ask why it says what it says, ready to not find an answer.
8. The eternal relevance of these Texts is based on the assumption that basically, human nature doesn’t change. It is eternally good for humans to be humble and grateful and curb anger. Rather than adjusting our moral standards to modern lower norms, they teach that we should adjust ourselves to their classical, higher notions. ● The Torah conveys a certain worldview. Different from translations of regular texts, it is improper to render Scripture completely into an idiom foreign to the Torah’s Thought.* A totally smooth translation into another language gives away that the rendering cannot be trusted. ● A proper rendering should abandon the futile idea that any Bible Word should be rendered by just one word in translation. Rather, many Jewish concepts need a circumscription in another tongue. ● The Hebrew Bible was misappropriated by Christianity. A proper rendering must in many ways highlight and stress the Jewishness of the Text.* (This, obviously, does not imply any disrespect to Christians—to the contrary. I take them seriously to the extent that I assume they want to be held collectively responsible for now departing from any anti-Judaism in their Tradition, to clean it up, and never have this again.*)
9. The Torah is written as a Guide for the average human to have a good life and Afterlife, not for perfect Angels. Hence, build-in are concessions to human weakness. In the heat of battle, a captured woman is kosher, but under such conditions that almost all, who initially would fall for the temptation, in the end, would forgo this ‘chance.’ Slaves are permitted, but under such high ethical conditions that the Talmud concludes: Who found himself a slave found himself a master. Women are hardly mentioned or addressed except in the area of sex and childbirth.* But that is because, when average men behave, average women, who are superior, will certainly not disappoint.* Men are addressed on how to honor women. Thinkers (Spinosa) who live by perfect theories and without wives and children surely had to find the Torah a silly set of contradictory rules.
10. Torah means teaching. The last letter plus the first letter of the Torah form the word Lev, which means heart, in the Torah implying the Seat of Awareness. The Torah is to be thought about, not to be learned by heart (pun not intended). ● If our understanding of a Torah verse doesn’t make sense or is not a Guide to a good life for the average human, that rendering simply testifies that we misunderstand it.* Put positively, all of the Torah must be logically sound and life-supporting.
11. The Text must have made sense to the generation that received it.* So, it is unreasonable to expect it to write about nuclear fusion or modern biology.* Yet, it must be rich, deep, and prophetic enough to contain hints for later generations and be of interest to all generations as a life Guide.*
12. Since Judaism is Agnostic (we cannot prove G^d—a demonstratable god is not elevated enough for us to bother), G^d could mean an abstract Entity beyond the physical world or something abstract like the total of the best in each human. Most honest Atheists will admit that they’re really Agnostics. They don’t need to be excluded.* The Torah could have been given by a supernatural G^d or (much less plausibly*) a large collection of extremely wise people representing all wisdom during a large timespan.*
13. Especially the Torah Text is meticulously transmitted over millennia. It is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to embrace the Text’s Letters, but reject the Mishnaic, Talmudic, and Rabbinic elucidations, their Sages’ Advice,* and the Torah’s punctuation, Stipulations, and Commentary by the same learned Jews as later untrustworthy, private, unholy additions.*
14. The Torah can be understood on different levels. For many, it will be merely a collection of stories with a (sometimes overlooked) morality. One characteristic often overlooked is that the Torah has few adjectives. This allows many people their own imaginations of what it says.* ● But for Jews especially, it is our Constitution. Some (Moshe Kline) have even unearthed a very sophisticated structure giving its own messages. Clearly, the Torah is an indivisible unit that deliberately contains contradictory elements that merely show different sides of one coin, life’s contrasts and absurdities.
15. The Torah is a Guidebook. It surely has historic elements, like that Jews are the only indigenous People of Palestine. Yet, it certainly is not a perfect history book, record, or police report. Often, it doesn’t clarify what stories, parts, or elements are historic and which are just educational.
16. Some of the Torah claims things happened that are physically impossible or highly improbable. I recommend seeing them happening in an innocent child-like mindset, not because they must have happened, but rather because the Torah wants us to imagine them as described.*
17. We are used to Greek storytelling that is chronological. The Torah clearly has no such attitude. Many stories in the Torah are repeated, not necessarily implying that one description preceded the next. The Creation story is a clear example of this. It is retold several times from different viewpoints or with different teaching goals in Mind.
18. The oldest Jewish Translators have, on occasion, consciously departed from the Basic Meaning to not give extra oxygen to the crazes of the day. The 72 Elders, forced to translate the Torah into Greek, miraculously, each made the same changes. E.g., they exchanged the first and the third word so no one would assume that a god named In the Beginning created God. The saintly Aramaic Convert Onkelos translated all Names of God as God, not distinguishing between the Master of all Powers and the Eternal One, etc. This is to not strengthen any foreign notion like the Trinity. I have not done so. The serious reader of this translation will be well-aware that Jews hold by One indivisible God without multiplicity. But, with Onkelos, I have incorporated explanations to convey the proper understanding of the Text when needed. ● I would’ve liked to use transliterations of any names in the Text to give it more of the Jewish vibe. Yet, in the end, I decided not to do this. ‘Messianic groups,’ pretending to be Jewish, and trying to baptize Jews, are hiding their Christian character by using Moshe instead of Moses, something I (and anyone with integrity) obviously want nothing to do with.
19. After the destruction of the Second Temple, over millennia, translators often found themselves forced to mince words and tiptoe around Gentile sensitivities in the Diaspora. My translation should proudly and gratefully radiate the Torah coming out of Zion from liberated, invigorated Jews. Professor Sh’muel David Luzzatto could never have done so. Not only was he still living in exile and, in the shadow of the Crusades, and without the shame and humiliation the Holocaust brought the Christian world. As an academic, he could not be partial, and his personality was rather bashful.* ● None of our greatest Torah translators of the last centuries had enough time to ponder every word for weeks. Possibly, they required less time than unlearned me, but a translation fit for our days needs a considerable time investment to get even close. Obviously, it is not ideal to outsource this work to groups of Jews to try and compensate for this lack of time.
20. Giving God’s sense of humor to the keen observer, deeply distrust any serious Jewish book that lacks all wit. ● Distrust any Torah translation that pretentiously claims to be the ultimate unlocking of the Text. We only can try and create a rendering fit for our time and pray that it’s not obsolete before it rolls off the presses. This is because the needs of the times keep changing, and Prophecy and efforts are ongoing. ● No Torah translation can be universally accepted. There are different degrees of uncertainty and disagreement about different parts of any translation.
21. To get to a quality Torah translation, the translators should be learned and smart, the more the better. However, less smart can be compensated by steady hard work and making long hours, and less knowledgeable by extensive research. More important than those are good character traits. ● Some of the vital personality qualities to produce a good translation are enthusiasm, humility (generosity, friendliness), honesty, balance, etc. If one is not on fire making such a translation, one has no business even trying. If one is not exceedingly humble (which may show in kindness and pleasantness), one’s ego will try to edit God’s Word, and improve on the Sages, Heaven forbid. One must be extremely suspicious of any novelty one found. Humbleness and honesty are needed for admitting: “I don’t know.” And such a lack of success is important information to include. For those challenged in the integrity department, words will have unclear borders and the translation will be vague if not misleading. ● If one is an extremist, one’s hobby horses will pop up all over the rendering. ● If we lack one or more of these traits, we can still learn them. Yet, this typically costs decades. (I got a decent measure of them for free from my Holocaust-surviving parents and so I can’t brag about them.) Another solution is to collaborate with several translators so that together, you have all the traits needed. However, for that to work, each must have their names equally large on the cover and have a veto on any word going in.