Dayenu – Let’s Stop Mistranslating Sacred Texts



I’ve purposely waited until the Haggadot have been put away for the year to comment on issues that emerged in the discussion of the highly touted New American Haggadah (NEH) produced for Pesach 5772 by the wunderkinder editor Jonathan Safran Foer and translator Nathan Englander.

I have seen NEH, which is not truly a new Haggadah, but a new presentation of the inherited liturgy; however, I haven’t actually studied it.  The blogosphere analyses and dissections were enough to put me back on my soapbox about translation of classic texts.

Leaving aside some “notice me, notice me” eccentricities in Englander’s English renderings of the Hebrew – God of Us for Eloheinu rather than a simple Our God as the most prominent example – these subjects have been noted in the reviews:

  1. Hewing to traditional gender renderings – God as masculine,  four sons rather than four children
  2. Interpretative translations rather than faithful translations, which I discussed earlier .
  3. Words not translated, only transliterated, like mitzvah and chametz, which I consider a cop-out.

The justification for transliterating rather than translating seems to be that chametz and mitzvah have no easy English equivalents, and are well enough known to seder attendees. Yes, some words have exact parallels from language to language, so a chien is neither more nor less than a dog, while mitzvah is not directly paralleled by commandment. But leaving mitzvah untranslated puts a stumbling block before the one who is blind to Jewish tradition, or even insensitive to Jewish languages.  (Mitzvah in Yiddish is different from mitzvah in Hebrew – good deed rather than sacred obligation.)* My preference is to get as close an equivalent as is possible to what the word meant when it was written and clarify when necessary through such external aids as footnotes, glossaries, or commentaries.

The guide is the historic PaRDes approach to studying Jewish text — what’s the simple meaning, what did that signify in the context of its time, how has it been explained over the centuries, and what should it convey to us today.  The translator can come as close as possible to the p’shat, the simple meaning, relying on the external aids to explain ambiguities and changes over time in the meaning, usage, and acceptability of words in the “new” language.  I am horrified by the revisionism of texts like the despicable new editions of Huckleberry Finn which, in the interest of today’s political correctness, eschew the word “nigger.”  Similarly, in the New JPS (1985) Torah translation, yad chazakah, accurately rendered in most Bibles as “a strong hand, becomes “a greater might,” a dishonest choice presumably made to avoid anthropomorphizing the Deity.**

Of course, the most frequent and obtrusive device to avoid anthropomorphizing is de-gendering, which can work adequately with nouns (ruler or sovereign rather than king), and not at all with pronouns, as discussed on this blog.  Providing two versions of the same prayer addressing God in the reader’s choice of masculine or feminine, as in The Open Door, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell’s recent Haggadah for the CCAR, is a gimmicky and somewhat heavy-handed but honest way to remind all those at the seder table that both sexes are made b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. ***

But there is another way to deal with the complex issue of rendering God genderless in either of two languages which don’t readily permit it.  Get over it!  Dayenu.  It has been sufficient.  After a generation of sensitivity to (legitimate) feminist concerns, we have raised consciousness about the historic biases built into rabbinic practice – and in the Reform movement have striven pretty successfully to put them behind us and to live our egalitarianism.  But we haven’t eradicated the language problem, or the psychological problem of how to envision God, and our efforts to do so just get in the way of the poetry of prayer.  Torah tells us God’s appearance may not be known, Hebrew by its structure renders God in the masculine, **** and English only allows us make God genderless by disproportionately emphasizing the gender issue.  Our theology of an unknowable God and our history of a male-centered tradition should be taught, not ignored.  We can only understand where we are and where we are going if we know where we have been.

*This is different from transliterating in the interest of gender-sensitivity, as in Adonai, or Avinu Malkeinu to avoid Our Father Our King, or the unsatisfying Our Parent Our Sovereign.  Read more about this in my previous blog post. Avinu Malkeinu is also less a stumbling block, because there’s less pressure to cater to a stranger at High Holy Day services e than at a seder.

 **In the Haggadah, the strong hand is typically joined to an outstretched arm by “and.”  I do like Englander’s putting the hand on the outstretched arm, joining them physically rather than conjunctionally.

*** A separate feminist issue is bringing in the women where they never were before.  Adding the Matriarchs and Miriam into the liturgy may disturb the flow of the music, but doesn’t distort the spirit of the prayer, it only obscures the historicity of women’s presence in the Rabbis’ consciousness. Deciding when to translate b’nai Yisrael as children rather than as sons of Israel actually leads to useful distinctions.

****The exception is when on opts for an alternate name, like Shechinah, not found in the Bible (nor am I aware of it in the conventional liturgy).

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman is a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coaches b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he has served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and is a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Although semi-retired, he still consults with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

14 Responses to “Dayenu – Let’s Stop Mistranslating Sacred Texts”

  1. avatar

    The way one approaches translation of Jewish Texts should depend upon the intended use of the translation. For Liturgy which is meant to be read or sung prayerfully in English (a rarity these days, unfortunately), it makes sense to attempt to de-gender a bit, following Einhorn’s preference of “the Eternal” instead of “the Lord”. I am fine with Eternal, God, Parent, Sovereign, Ruler, Friend, Spirit, etc. But replacing ALL pronouns with “God” cheapens the liturgy and kills the poetry. I would rather just pray in Hebrew and deal with the masculine language than read torturous English. Berman, Sternfield, et. al., who edited the 2000 Sinai Edition of the 1940 Union Prayer Book, de-gendered all pronouns, but switched many of them to second person to avoid the “God, God, God, God, God” phenomenon. This is pure genius–the English flows as beautifully and poetically as the 1940, but it’s totally PC! Yet, it does not avoid other anthropomorphisms such as “every gift of Your hand”, which is fine with me! It’s poetry, and we all know God doesn’t have physical “hands”. It’s well balanced by the cosmic, very non-antrhopomorphic feeling of God one gets when addressing Him/Her as “the Eternal”. The new revision, though, slated to come out in a month or so, has done away with ALL anthropomorphisms. I hope the poetry isn’t too impoverished for having done so…

    When a translation is not meant to be spoken or sung liturgically, such as in a Conservative siddur, I feel it should be as accurate as possible, so people know what the heck they’re saying in Hebrew. That means it MUST have “He”, “Lord”, “King”, “Father”, etc. The same goes for Tanakh translations. This is our tradition, and we have to deal with it, reckon with it, wrestle with it. I don’t think I have to remind people of the p’shat of “Yisrael”.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    I’m inclined to agree with Jordan (Surprise!) that switching to second person solves a lot of problems, although it erases the distinction between talking to God and talking about God. Then we get to consider whether and how much that matters.

    Getting rid of anthropomorphisms distorts the meaning of the inherited text, and obscures our realization that the best we humans can do to deal with being made b’tselem elohim is to envision God in our image. Aside from losing poetry, the big risk is that the new Sinai UPB will sacrifice honesty and authenticity. I know the intention is honorable — but one of my grad school friends used to say that the worst thing you can say about someone is He means well, because the implication is He does badly.

    • avatar

      Larry, I share your concerns about “cleansing” the Liturgy of all anthropomorphisms. Interestingly, many of my SCRJ friends disagree with me, and welcome the changes, or at least view them as necessary to PRESERVE honesty and authenticity even if they don’t prefer them personally. The 2000 UPB is already SO unbelievably liberal–do we really need to cater to Spinozan sensibilities now?

  3. avatar

    This is a wonderful addition (or replacement!) for Leon Wieseltier’s pedantic and lengthy review of the New American Haggadah in the Jewish Review of Books. As one who was a “feminist” before working wives and mothers who were also involved with synagogue and Israel were recognized as such, the neutering of the worship service began to grate. Just as we can never truly know the ineffable, neither can we translate the untranslatable. Those who put the Torah into written form were men who wrote it for men. Get over it, people!

  4. avatar

    On one hand, the liturgy is a kind of poetry, and should not be read with a heavy-handed literalism. I doubt anyone is confused by ‘Tzur Yisrael’ — I doubt that many worshippers are concerned that God is really a large rock.

    On the other hand, though, exclusive use of the masculine reinforces the idea that what’s highest and best is necessarily male. And that hidden assumption still runs through all of our interactions as congregations and as a movement. The concerns raised by feminism are still very much present and have not yet been fully overcome.

    So what to do? How to handle this tension?

    First, I agree that the ‘God’ and ‘God’s self’ substitutions can be exceedingly clumsy.

    Personally, I actually like using ‘it’ now and then for the anti-anthropomorphism it represents.

    I do not, however, have a problem with using titles like ‘King’ or ‘Lord’. When women first enter a field, we have a tendency to identify that the position is held by a woman: so, when I was young it was ‘Lady Doctor’ or ‘Female Judge’. Eventually we drop the identifier. As women have become more present in public life, we have also tended to drop the feminine endings as well: hence, ‘actor’ has replaced ‘actress’. So eventually we will stop thinking of ‘Lord’ as necessarily male.

    So my general approach is to use the (traditionally male) names of God but to avoid the masculine pronoun.

  5. avatar

    I very much agree with being bothered by using transliterations rather than translations. I think Reform translators use “mitzvah” because they are uncomfortable reminding people that this means “commandments”, not options. So many Reform writers have trouble admitting that the traditional view did see these as “commandments”.

    The problem of replacing the original Hebrew word with euphemisms is not, however, a modern Reform problem. Whether in Hebrew or English why is YHWH always translated as “lord”? In the Torah God very explicitly gave us his name – so that we might better know him. However we seem to cling to the superstition that using it is dangerous? Or are Reform Jews still clinging to the idea that only Cohain have the right to speak God’s name? I thought all of those special privileges were given up at the birth of Reform.

    • avatar

      Mr. Gellert, you raise a very thoughtful and important set of questions, addressed in the following post and subsequent comments (from a while ago!):

      http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2011/08/24/the_reform_movement_should_sto/

      I am infamous for writing inflammatory posts about how Reform Jews should discontinue practices which might be viewed as superstitious, but on the topic of addressing God by the Tetragrammaton, caution might be advisable. The reasons for this are certainly not supernatural, but quite compelling nevertheless.

  6. avatar

    I want to suggest that there is a difference between a prayer book and a hagadah: a hagadah considers Whom is reading it (and whom it is being read to). From the first hagadot there has been a political context (the Karite / literal biblical split). The text itself – both what is included and what is excluded has a message. This creative framework has exploded in the past decades through-out the Jewish world. It has made the seder to be a particularly educational opportunity for Jews and Non-Jewish guests alike. The issue of G-d as Male King is not just an English language issue! Here in Israel there are many Jews that have gone from Orthodox to secular in part because a prayer service filled with text (or as you propose metaphor) describing “an all knowing, bearded grandfather king on a throne in heaven”. For those of us who have gone through the “G-d Concept” process, we can let go of the words and search for deeper meaning beyond the anthropomorphic illustration – but they, who have not yet, find even the Reform service liturgy an insurmountable challenge. Therefore I suggest that we’ll need different hagadot for different seders, each for its audience, its leader(s) and its particular message.

    • Larry Kaufman

      Alex raises a significant point that I alluded to only very tangentially in my post — the distinction between haggadot that present the inherited liturgy and haggadot that pinpoint a theme beyond the Exodus — feminist haggadot, GLBT haggadot, abused worker haggadot, and though the list is endless, I should not omit his pet cause, environmental haggadot.

      Those issues are separate from the question of how we talk about God. And as I pointed out in the original post, the absence of a pronoun that means he or she (as distinct from it, a very different kettle of fish, is even more pronounced in Hebrew, a language that offers only masculine and feminine, no kind of neuter/neutral structure, whether for nouns, pronouns, or verbs.

  7. avatar

    There is another reason to avoid the use of the masculine pronoun in referring to God. Many Jews who say that they do not believe in God have a very specific concept of the God they don’t believe in — and that God is almost always an anthropomorphic male figure. Avoiding the use of the masculine in referring to God is one way to open up our fellow Jews’ minds to the possibilities beyond that man with the really long beard sitting up in the clouds.

    • avatar

      Obviously all the efforts to degender God are designed to avoid the picture of the old man with the beard. But do the Jews of whom you speak disbelieve in the old man with the beard, or do they disbelieve in a creative Force who created the universe and who follows with interest the doings of the last element to be created, humankind?

      I don’t see how taking away the beard, or the gender, will influence an atheist into becoming a theist.

      • avatar

        I must agree with Mr. Saltz. While it’s probably not the case that the normalization of non-anthropomorphic conceptualizations of the Divine would make theists out of most atheists, I know for a fact that there are MANY people who just don’t UNDERSTAND that such palatable conceptions exist. So many agnostics become firm theists when presented with the possibilities of liberal God-concepts. This is one of those things that just isn’t axiomatic–if people are raised with the idea of God as “big Zayde in the sky”, then they may well find it hard to get away from that without dismissing theism altogether (or embracing fundamentalism). People are not stupid, but this is the kind of thing that might not be obvious to people if it isn’t pointed out to them in a sensitive, informed, and intelligent way. There are so many stories out there of people who are grateful to liberal denominations of monotheistic faith traditions for “showing them a God they can believe in”.

        • avatar

          If giving people a God they can believe in first requires dispelling their belief in the God they can’t believe in, it would seem that their atheist credentials were shaky. I’d like some quantification of your assertion that “so many atheists” transition when presented with an intelligent alternative idea.

          In another translation issue, a wise woman once reminded me that when someone says, They say, what is means is Someone said.

          • avatar
            Jordan Friedman April 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm

            I didn’t say that “so many atheists” transition. I said “so many agnostics”. The number of atheists (people who are convinced that NO HIGHER POWER exists) who would change their minds given liberal theology is probably small, but agnostics who HAVE TROUBLE taking seriously the “big Zayde in the sky” concept do often find resolution on the theist end of the spectrum when presented with more nuanced options. There is obviously no poll or statistic on these kinds of transitions, but that basic narrative is a common trope, and one I have heard a lot. It’s even an accepted technique for Jewish and Christian clergy to tell doubting congregants “I don’t believe in THAT God either!” It’s nearly cliché at this point. It seems strange for anyone involved with a non-fundamentalist organized religion in this day and age to doubt the prevalence of that phenomenon, despite the lack of precise statistics.

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