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Scholars Wrestle With Language of Torah Without Throwing It Away

January 11, 2007 By:
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Ellen Frankel
As a biblical scholar, Ellen Frankel sees the Torah as a sacred, absolute text.

But when it comes to issues of gender, Frankel -- the author of a women's commentary on the Torah, among other books -- feels that the work of God could stand for a little revision.

As the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society explained it, "I had to figure out how to wrestle with the Torah and still not throw it away."

Out of this need The Contemporary Torah: A Gender Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation was born.

In refashioning the text, a team of scholars -- including Frankel; David E.S. Stein, a Reconstructionist rabbi and editor; Adele Berlin, a Hebrew Bible expert at the University of Maryland; and Carol Meyers, a religion professor at Duke University -- tried to meld contemporary interests about gender with an ancient text -- and world -- that is predominantly male-centric.

Frankel said that the 1962 JPS translation -- widely regarded as the gold standard of Torah translations -- failed to do so.

The most recent wave of feminism "hadn't even really gotten off the ground in 1962," the editor noted. And though a volume published last year by the Union for Reform Judaism -- and adapted jointly with JPS -- began to tackle the topic, "the whole issue of gender had never been completely confronted in a Jewish translation."

Pouring over pages of the Torah in her office recently, Frankel admitted that this revisionary angle posed a challenge: "We didn't want to fall prey to political correctness.

"We're not trying to make the ancient Israelites into feminists," said Frankel. "We don't want to be anachronistic."

To avoid such gaffes, the editors reviewed the latest scholarship on gender in the biblical era. Frankel said they worked with a noted female archaeologist to figure out exactly what roles and behaviors were open to women in that society: Could women hold high- ranking positions? Were they counted in the ancient census? Did they commit murder?

In some cases, these questions led the scholars to retain gendered language.

For example, a verse in the '62 translation mentions that the wife of a male slave should leave with him when he becomes free.

But what if the roles were switched: Would a man go off with a newly freed female slave?

Ensuing research proved that this would not have occurred. Such an act would have been a transgression of ancient mores that made women more or less property of men. Therefore, the new editors felt the original sentence should not be refashioned. And so it reads: "If [a male slave] came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him."

In other cases, gendered terms were extracted and more generic ones applied.

For instance, the editors explain in the prefatory material to the the new volume that it was not uncommon for ancient Hebrews to refer to both male and female herders as "herdsmen." Ancient audiences, too, would have interpreted the term figuratively.

But in today's gender conscious society, the editors felt that most readers would assume "herdsmen" meant solely men. So, to better enable modern audiences to grasp the meaning of the line -- found in Genesis 13 -- they decided to go with "herders."

Each of the volume's gender ascriptions, in fact, underwent a similar review process.

"Each word was examined on a case-by-case basis," explained Frankel. "This was not a one-size-fits-all project."

Sometimes, she said, the year-long undertaking bordered on excruciating.

In the book's forward, Stein writes that "Often I and the consulting editors spent many hours (and sometimes days) in order to fully grasp the gender implications of a single Hebrew word."

The editors agreed that the tetragrammaton -- the unpronounceable four-letter name for God -- presented their biggest hurdle.

Though Judaism as a theology does not ascribe a gender to God, the 1962 Torah translation consistent- ly refers to God as "the lord." This has left many Jews with a sense that God is in fact male, a sentiment the authors said they did not want to propagate.

To handle the issue, Stein asked 18 biblical scholars to weigh in on how to represent God in a gender-sensitive light.

After much wrangling -- Frankel admitted that most respondents couldn't even produce an answer -- the editors decided to keep the Hebrew lettering that corresponds to the English consonants YHWH.

In addition to satisfying the gender-neutral requirement, this solution was meant to separate God's name from the rest of the text, explained Frankel.

She added that the edition -- which is meant to act as a supplement to other Bible volumes -- is part of a larger overhaul; a $2 million to $3 million project to modernize the '62 translation is slated to begin next year.

"Among people who produce Bibles, there is a belief that each generation needs its own translation," said Frankel. "To reflect the sensibility of the translators and of the age."

 

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