Chinese Chicken and Sacred Text: A Reform Jewish Response to Literalism

by Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot

Until 2008, one of the most popular foods served in Beijing restaurants was known in English as “saliva chicken.” This was actually a literal translation of the dish’s traditional name in Mandarin—which could also be translated as “chicken that makes your mouth water.” In advance of that year’s Olympic games, however, the Chinese government demanded restaurants revise their menus. Eager to be taken seriously as a world power, China feared literal translations like this one would besmirch its image and so, “saliva chicken” became “steamed chicken with chili sauce.”

This linguistic metamorphosis illustrates how literal translations are often problematic. They aren’t always the most accurate, or the most comprehensible, or the most likely to make you salivate. When I’m teaching, I regularly use this story as an example of the relationship between text and interpretation, Scripture and midrash. Jewish tradition testifies to the fact that sacred texts contain a plurality of meanings and that “literal” interpretations are often deceptive; they bear the patina of “objective truth” but often lack coherence, relevance and inspirational power.

This message, however, runs against the grain of contemporary American culture.

We live in an age of literalism. Politicians regularly proclaim: “The Bible says this…” or “The Constitution says that….” Schools encourage students to read and think with the goal of divining the single answer deemed correct by test-makers. My students (adults and children alike) routinely ask me to explain what a text “really means.” These are all examples of a craving for literalism, a desire for singular, unequivocal answers—answers that does not exist.

As the Reform movement stands at an historic crossroads, it is important to recognize that one of the significant challenges we face is the pervasiveness of this literalism in American culture and its negative effects.

Above all, the literalism of texts leads to the literalism of lives. We’ve all heard slogans like these: “There’s a simple way to lose weight and live a healthy life;” “There’s a key to being successful;” “There’s a sure way to be happy.” Yet, despite this popular “wisdom,” the most important questions in our lives—the questions that involve our social relations, our life choices, our identities and our spiritualities—don’t often have singular answers. For young people, this culture of literalism imposes a cruel pressure to make the “right” choices—as determined by some external source of authority—at a young age and without second thoughts. In this way, it forecloses opportunities and restricts imagination and experimentation.

Jewish tradition rejects literalism outright, and even possesses the resources to help us overcome it and fashion Jewish communities that value creativity, nuance and dissent.

How can we, as Jewish professionals, do this? We can begin by changing our ways of thinking, our ways of speaking and our ways of acting.

Ways of thinking. My teacher Rabbi Shira Milgrom challenges her students to think of Torah “as if it were a dream”—meaning that like our dreams, its content and meaning are difficult to pin down definitively; to understand it, we must make an interpretive leap. Like our dreams, Torah too is best understood as a reflection of our lives, our fears and our concerns. We need new similes and analogies like this one—new ways of thinking about Torah—if we are to embody an alternative to the literalism of popular culture.

Ways of speaking. Several years ago, I stopped speaking about “the story of Chanukah.” I stopped because after reading the Books of Maccabees, Josephus, BT Shabbat 21b, Elias Bickerman and Victor Tcherikover, I realized that there are many stories of Chanukah, each with its own particular relevance for us today. Now, every fall, I teach “the stories of Chanukah.” This routinely provokes the question, “but rabbi, what’s the true story?” to which I respond, “they’re all true”—an answer which is never satisfactory but a step in the right direction.

Ways of acting. In the last decade, Reform congregations, with the URJ’s leadership, have made great strides in exposing our youth to the richness of Jewish sacred texts. In the future, we can focus-in on the contentiousness of our interpretive tradition, the fact that our literature relishes creativity, contradiction and dissent. As a teacher, one of my proudest moments was a lengthy discussion among my high school students about what they thought Isaac did in the fields after Sarah died (the text is unclear, see Gen. 24). We then compared their answers to those of the traditional commentators. We can fight literalism by highlighting the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in our texts and our interpretive tradition.

These three approaches, none of them especially novel or radical, are necessary in this age of literalism. Frequently, texts place ambiguities before us in order to remind us that words are never self-evident. The literal meaning of a sentence or a passage isn’t always the most comprehensible, or the most accurate, or the most relevant. It takes our effort, our careful sorting through various interpretations, to determine what a text really means to us.

So too in our own lives. Our tradition’s resistance to literalism can give us, and especially our young people, the courage to stake out our own claims to truth, to strike out on our own creative paths, and to resist others who seek to impose their views. Our lives are filled with many mouth-watering possibilities—just like our Torah—and that’s what makes them beautiful and sacred.

Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is completing his doctorate in Jewish cultural history at Columbia University. He teaches students of all ages at congregations across the New York-area. 

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2 Responses to “Chinese Chicken and Sacred Text: A Reform Jewish Response to Literalism”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Okay, if the Mandarin says “saliva chicken,” I would consider “chicken that makes you salivate” a faithful enough translation of the dish’s name, while “steamed chicken with chili sauce” is not a translation of the name so much as a description of the dish. Possibly more useful to the reader of the menu — but less honest to the spirit of the menu.

    The change reminds me of my favorite aberration in Gates of Prayer, where the Hebrew l’vayat hameit, to accompany the dead (for burial), is “translated” as to console the bereaved. While we moderns might consider the shiva call a greater mitzvah than going to the cemetery, I’ve always imagined the Stern Gang deciding to leave the Hebrew value in place, while softening the English to make it more palatable to a laity that most likely wouldn’t know the difference.

    But Rabbi Skloot’s core concern seems to be more with interpretation than with translation, and his guideline of thinking, speaking, and acting in terms of various possibilities suggested in the text makes sense.

    However, it equally makes sense to approach historic text as the Rabbis did, a la PaRDeS — the acronym for P’shat, Remez, Drash, and Sod. The usual direct translation of the four elements in the acronym are the straightforward meaning, the hint, the exploration, and the secret — or in my more interpretive translation, the simple meaning of the words themselves, what those words conveyed in the context of their times, how the Rabbis have interpreted them over the generations, and what meanings they convey to us today.

    Those four traditional elements seems to encompass Rabbi Skloot’s ways of thinking, speaking, and acting, including making allowances for varying approaches to the text and varying behaviors resulting from our studying the text. But applying PaRDeS also makes sure that the reading we emerge with takes the variant possibilities of the past and present into consideration.

    So, the p’shat is chicken that makes us salivate, the remez is steamed chicken with chili sauce, the drash is that, whatever you call it, it sounds good, and the sod tells us what to order when we go to that Chinese restaurant on Christmas day!

  2. avatar
    Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot Reply April 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Dear Larry:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    I appreciate your astute formulation, “making allowances for varying approaches to the text and varying behaviors resulting from our studying the text…[making] sure that the reading we emerge with takes the variant possibilities of the past and present into consideration.”

    I would just add two points of clarification:

    (1) The distinction between translation and interpretation is a slippery one and I would argue that translation is simply one form of interpretation, a particular form of interpretation guided by a specific set of rules which our culture has determined. One possible, rather literal, translation for לווית המת (l’vayat hamet), which you spoke of, could be “accompanying the dead”–which has a significantly different valence from another literal translation “burying the dead” or for that matter, “consoling the bereaved.” This example hits at the essential ambiguity involved in translating anything and raises the question once more, how do we determine what makes one translation/interpretation better than any other?

    (2) The four types of interpretation you identify above (signified by the acronym PaRDeS) are actually a medieval innovation–namely, the concept that there were four kinds of interpretation that form a gradation of differing levels of literalism, actually emerged many many centuries after the development of rabbinic Judaism, under the influence of Islamic and Hellenistic philosophy. For the rabbis of late antiquity–the folks who created the rabbinic Judaism we practice today–there weren’t hard and fast rules for determining what kinds of interpretation were better than others (especially in non-legal matters). Even in the medieval period, there were great differences of opinion as to the what the “simple” meaning of a particular passage was. Just compare Rashi’s “peshat” (simple meaning) to his grandson Rashbam’s “peshat” on many passages frofm the Torah.

    The simple meaning of a text is rarely so simple or evident as we wish it could be.

    Thanks for taking the time to engage in conversation,


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