Thursday, 24 Jan 2019

Written by Gershon Silins

Over the new year, I was given a wonderful gift: a copy of the new translation of the Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter. This new translation has received a lot of attention. As we read in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s article about it, “most full translations of the Bible are done by teams of translators. Alter is the first person to complete a major English-language translation of the entire Hebrew Bible on his own. He began, aptly, with Genesis, published in 1997. Since then, in fits and starts, he has translated several more books of the Bible.” Now his full three-volume translation drops, representing decades of work. “Alter’s versions are not destined to replace the King James Version; they are meant to strip away its familiarity, to help us see the Biblical text more closely and accurately,” wrote the poetry and literary critic Adam Kirsch. Quoted in the Times Literary Supplement, the late Seamus Heaney said, “Alter’s translation can be fairly described as a godsend. The foundational texts are here given their due in prose at once modern and magnificently cadenced. Immediately readable, immensely learned, an education and a restitution.”

I’d like to use this opportunity to give you a taste of what it is like to encounter our Torah portion for this week, Yitro, through Alter’s new  book. The first things I noticed, after the extensive introductory material and the notes to each of the books of the Torah (the first of the three large volumes,) are the footnotes, which take up more than half of the first two pages of Chapter 18, which is where Yitro begins. The first footnote to Chapter 18 provides a sense of the scholarship and literary sensitivity that characterises the sections I’ve read so far. I’ll provide it in full:

“Jethro: As Umberto Cossuto and others have noticed, this episode stands in neat thematic antithesis to the preceding one. After a fierce armed struggle with a hostile nation that Israel is enjoined to destroy, we have an encounter with a representative of another people, Midian, that is marked by harmonious understanding, mutual respect, and the giving of sage counsel. Cassuto points out that this antithesis is underscored through thematic key words: the Amalek episode begins and ends with a repetition of “battle” (or “war”). The Jethro episode begins with inquiries of “well-being” or “peace” (shalom) and near the end, “this people will come to its place in peace.” Moses “chooses” men for war in the first episode and men for justice in the second. He sits on a stone at the battle and then sits in judgment. His hands are “heavy” in the battle scene and the judicial burden is “heavy” in the judgment scene. As for Midian, the later biblical record shows them acting as marauders crossing the Jordan to attack Israelite farms, but Jethro belongs to the Kenite clan of Midianites that had a particular relationship of loyal alliance with Israel.” (p. 286)

The tone is casual, confident, scholarly, and modern. It invites engagement with the text.

Later, the biblical text reads, “And Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’s wife, after her being sent away, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, for he said, “A sojourner I have been in a foreign land,” and the other was named Eliezer, “For the God of my fathers was my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword,” (Exodus 18:2) There is an extensive footnote about the word that is translated as “after her being sent away,” and then this brief one: “Gershom: In this poetic etymology, ger, “sojourner,” is broken out from the rest of the name, which in fact appears to derive from the root g-r-sh, “to banish.” (p, 287) This name, Gershom, is a variant of my first name, Gershon, and I have always understood it to mean “stranger.” Alter here expands my understanding of my own biblical name, giving it an extra nuance that I had not encountered before.

I recommend this new translation to those interested in the Hebrew Bible. It will offer you many happy hours of delving into this book that is ancient and yet, as Alter shows, ever new.


Gershon Silins LBC Rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.