Bible translation has been a significant feature of Judaism since the Enlightenment. This might seem surprising, since Bible translation is often seen as slavish devotion to tradition while creativity and liberation from tradition are understood to be the hallmarks of enlightened modernity. But rather than involving unquestioning self-effacement, Bible translation puts the reader at the center as it aims to promote individual understanding, and translation involves great creativity, as every translation is an interpretation. For its part, the Enlightenment was not as radically individualistic as is commonly assumed, as most major Enlightenment political thinkers were concerned with fostering community, and they saw religion as integral to this end. Modern Jewish Bible translation is a way of synthesizing loyalty to communal tradition with loyalty to the authentic self that reshapes Judaism.
Jewish Bible translation dates back some 22 centuries to the time when Alexandrian Jews produced the Greek Septuagint translation. In the modern period, Jews produced an astonishing number of Bible translations, especially into German and English. In the 150 years between Moses Mendelssohn’s 1783 translation of the Pentateuch into German and the Nazi rise to power, German Jews produced no less than sixteen different Pentateuch translations, more than any other religious community in Germany, including German Protestants. In America, at least nine Jewish Pentateuch translations have appeared in the past 30 years alone.
Two features distinguish German-Jewish Bible translation: first, the use of translation to ground religious and ideological commitments; second, the use of translation to intensify the encounter with the Bible that results in a dynamic exchange between self and Jewish tradition.
Of the leading Jewish movements in Germany, many were associated with a specific Bible translation: Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur helped lay the ideological groundwork for the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), which aimed to facilitate Jewish social and political integration while retaining a robust commitment to Judaism. Bible translations by Leopold Zunz and Ludwig Philippson promoted principles of the academic study of Judaism (Wissenschaft) and of Reform Judaism — the latter which radicalized the Haskalah by discarding much of Jewish ritual law largely on the basis of a historical understanding of Judaism. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Bible grounded Neo-Orthodox Judaism, which embraced German high culture while defending halakhah by removing it from history. The Bible translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig sought to reinvigorate the bourgeois Judaism of the day by nurturing a Jewish spiritual renaissance.
These translations can be understood as means of both preserving and reshaping Jewish tradition. Among the outcomes of this translation frenzy were efforts to bring the Bible to the reader through an elegant translation, and to bring the reader to the Bible by translating in a way that preserved a sense of the Bible’s foreignness.
The bibliocentricism of modern Judaism was also a feature of Zionism, which grounded its ideological claims by “returning” to the Bible. But cultural Zionists challenged the centrality of Bible translation for modern Judaism. They dreamt that the Jewish state could assuage the exilic Jew’s alienation and heal the rift between the modern individual and collective Jewish tradition by enabling the Jew to participate in a thoroughly modern Jewish state using one and the same language to buy bus fare, write love poems, and read the Bible. Translation would be unnecessary. What these cultural Zionists failed to understand was that the chasm between individual and Jewish tradition was unbridgeable. Exilic Judaism could be transfigured into secular nationalism, but there was always a remainder of Jewish tradition that could never be assimilated. While some Israelis were indifferent to this, many longed precisely for this remainder. This was clear from the fact that halakhic observance and devotional Talmud study survived the establishment of the Jewish state and attracted even secular Jews. A recent Bible translation, the Tanakh Ram, points to the distance separating Israelis from Jewish tradition since it is the first translation of the Bible into Hebrew. The tension between self and tradition can never be fully resolved, so the need to translate persists and Judaism is ever renewed.email print