In this week’s parshah, Noah, we read about the Tower of Babel, constructed at a time when “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Gen. 11:1). But because the Tower’s builders thought that they could storm the gates of heaven, their speech was “confounded, so that they could] not understand one another’s speech” (Gen 11:7). The Bible puns on the Hebrew words, bavel, referring to ancient Babylonia, and balal, to mix up. And so the people had to stop building the tower and were “scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen 11:9). And so we remain to this day — dispersed, speaking a babble of languages, not understanding one another.
As I prepare to step down at the Jewish Publication Society after eighteen years, I am struck by how much of my work has been devoted to translation, not only from foreign languages, ancient and modern, into English, but also from foreign contexts into an idiom accessible to contemporary Americans. Whether it’s the Mekhilta, a second century rabbinic midrash on Exodus, or the teachings of the Sefat Emet, a late 19th century Hasidic master, most of today’s Jews need interpreters to guide them through the unfamiliar terrain of Jewish texts, written is so many exotic dialects: philosophy, ethics, halakha, theology, feminist criticism, folklore, history, poetry, and prayer. Without translation, these languages remain opaque.
Of course, neither my work nor that of my illustrious JPS predecessors, beginning with Henrietta Szold (who herself translated Graetz’s History of the Jews and much of Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews from German into English), has succeeded in restoring the primal harmony described in Genesis. Nor has the world resumed building the tower that was originally designed to unify humanity — especially after the twin towers built by our own hutzpadik generation came tumbling down eight years ago.
Yet I believe that the modest work of translating Jewish texts into words that we moderns can understand is nonetheless essential to healing our people’s disunity, if not the rest of humanity. For how can we build anything together if our speech is confounded into a noisy discord, so that we cannot understand one another’s speech? Now more than ever, we need all the wisdom that we can find, and we need to make sure that we share it in words that bring us closer together.
What is Jewish literature?
What makes a book or its writer Jewish? Whatâ€™s â€œinâ€ and whatâ€™s â€œoutâ€ of the contemporary Jewish syllabus? Who gets to make such judgment calls? Should they even be made at all?
Some time ago, an Orthodox scholar I know suggested a different way of thinking about this issue. He pointed to a distinction between books that Jews â€œreadâ€ and those that they â€œstudy,â€ i.e., secular vs. sacred texts. In my mind, this distinction largely hinges on the question of the authority we invest in books. Those that we readâ€”for pleasure, for a course, to make ourselves culturally conversantâ€”exercise little authority over us. But those that we studyâ€”for moral instruction, for answers to ultimate questions, to inspire us and develop our characterâ€”guide our lives and matter profoundly to us. If a particular book is itself in conversation with other Jewish books, we then become part of that conversation as it becomes part of us. If a book is not in dialogue with other Jewish books, then our reading will lead us away into a different conversation. Whether or not we ever find our way back into the Jewish conversation is anyoneâ€™s guess.
In a review of Ruth Wisseâ€™s book The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture published in Commentary Magazine, the eminent Hebrew translator Hillel Halkin argued that â€œthe question of provenanceâ€”who wrote a given text, with what personal background, motives, and opinionsâ€”cannot ultimately determine a modern Jewish canon, any more than it can determine a textâ€™s worth. What matters is less where a book is coming from than where it is going: to, or not to, a lasting engagement with other Jewish books.â€
Thus, in a kind of Darwinian way, Jewish literature has preserved the best of its writings and cast off the derivative, the insignificant, the merely timely or imitative. What survives are those texts that are in dialogue with what came before, that engage with what matters to Jews. What ultimately makes our books our own is not their authors nor their critics but us, their readers, the People of the Book.
Ellen Frankel will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council. Check out her new book, JPS Illustrated Childrenâ€™s Bible.
The second-century rabbinic anthology Pirkei Avot counsels: â€œAt five years old [one should begin the study of] Scriptureâ€ (5:24). For centuries, Jewish children were introduced to the Bible, unexpurgated and unabridged. In fact, Jewish childrenâ€™s books did not emerge as a separate genre in America until the 1930s, with the publication of The Adventures of Kâ€™tonton by Sadie Rose Weilerstein. Until then, Jewish children read the same texts that were meant for adults.
So, do Jewish kids really need a childrenâ€™s Bible? Or are we just imitating our Christian neighbors, who have been publishing and teaching childrenâ€™s Bibles since the 11th century?
Without question, the Bible contains material that is tough for children to handle. Many of the key stories in the Bible are violent. Cain murders Abel. Abraham raises his knife to sacrifice his son Isaac. Shechem rapes Dinah; Simeon and Levi retaliate by slaughtering all the men of Shechem. Pharaoh condemns to death all newborn Hebrew boys. Then Egypt is brought to its knees by ten deadly plagues. The Book of Joshua chronicles a campaign of genocide against the peoples of Canaan. The Book of Judges runs with blood. And the bloodshed continues through Samuel and Kings, with the Jewish people serving sometimes as executioner, sometimes as victim.
Other books, tooâ€”most of the prophets, Psalms, Lamentations, Esther, and Danielâ€”depict scenes of graphic violence. And thereâ€™s plenty of x-rated sex, too, including prostitution, seduction, rape, adultery, and pagan debauchery.
When I wrote my childrenâ€™s Bible, I chose to leave out most of the sex and violence, on the advice of colleagues and my teenage readers. I did it for the sake of parents and teachers as much as for the kids. In light of radical Islam and Jihadism, how can we countenance Joshuaâ€™s campaign of extermination or Saulâ€™s massacre of Amalek, all in the name of God? In the shadow of the Holocaust, do we want to expose little children to the horrors of Lamentations?
But I didnâ€™t exclude all violence from my book. Some stories, like the Binding of Isaac, are too central to the Jewish national story, even though they may disturb young children. Other stories, such as Cain and Abel or Noahâ€™s Flood, are too familiar to omit. And some stories, like the Exodus from Egypt and the Book of Esther, serve as useful object lessons for todayâ€™s world.
As for the censored â€œadult content,â€ let parents tell their children that they have to wait until theyâ€™re older to read those sections. Thereâ€™s no better way to ensure that the children will come back to the Bible for more.