Translating Torah

By Leonard J. Greenspoon

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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Of all the devarim — “words” or, more generally, “things” — in the Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy, few attract less notice than the first five verses. Often set apart as a separate, and introductory, paragraph in modern translations, these verses — as opaque in their syntax as they are in their geographical references — appear to describe the location and define the subject matter of much that follows, namely, the words of Moses.

Deuteronomy 1:5 is rendered in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh as: “Moses undertook to expound this Teaching.” The Hebrew word that lies behind “this Teaching” is “this Torah.” Exactly what does that term mean in this context, and how can translators convey that meaning to today’s readers?

In order to answer these queries properly, we need to look at both the noun and the verbs that precede it. For “this Teaching,” JPS commentary editor Baruch Levine suggests “this Instruction.” The latter is also favored by translator Everett Fox, while Rabbi J.H. Hertz, in his Soncino annotations, supports the former. The ArtScroll opts for “this Torah”; in “The Living Torah,” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan prefers “this law.” Almost all translators and interpreters agree that Moses “undertook,” “began” or (in Fox’s version) “set about” to do something with “this Torah.” Levine convincingly argues in favor of the JPS rendering, “expound,” over “explain” found elsewhere, on the grounds that this English term accurately reflects the two semantic fields of the Hebrew verb: to set forth in detail/state clearly, and to explain/clarify. This accords well with the observation that what follows in the book of Deuteronomy both sets forth new material and clarifies what was presented earlier.

With this in mind, we can better evaluate the several options offered for rendering the key noun here. Kaplan’s “law” is, in the eyes of many, immediately suspect; the point is often made, especially in Jewish circles, that Torah does not equal, or is at least much more than, law. The avoidance of this rendering is based in part on a sense that it plays, unwittingly perhaps, into the dubious Law-Grace antithesis of traditional Christianity; and the book of Deuteronomy — the likely referent to “Torah” in this context — contains more than “law,” as of course do the other Five Books of Moses (the usual reference for the term).

It seems more likely that a term like “Instruction” or “Teaching” works better here, or perhaps the transliteration “Torah.” But there are, as is so often the case, weighty counterarguments. For contemporary readers, “instruction” and “teaching,” while of importance, lack the force, in this case divine force, that lies behind law. And we are perhaps overly precise and limiting in our view of “law.” Properly understood, “law” is perfectly capable of conveying the range of meanings of “instruction” or “teaching,” along with the all-important element of divine origins.

Although, in a previous Forward column, I advanced arguments in favor of transliteration — which is of course what the term “Torah” is in English — over those against translation, I don’t favor such an approach, taken by ArtScroll, here. The word Torah can mean many things for contemporary Jews, but its restriction to all or to parts of the book of Deuteronomy is not likely to come immediately to the minds of most readers of the text.

Finally, there is the issue of capitalizing the first letter of the rendering, whether it be Instruction, Teaching or Torah. There are no capital (or small) letters in Hebrew. Unless the Hebrew term is unequivocally a place name or personal name, I prefer to severely limit the use of initial capital letters in translations of the Hebrew Bible. This is no idiosyncrasy on my part. When, for example, traditional Christian versions of Genesis 1:2 read “the Spirit of God,’ they are introducing a particular interpretation into the text. In the same way, Messiah and Redeemer, etc., are Christological terms of pre-eminent import for traditional Christian exegesis. In our case, the issue clearly does not revolve around a Jewish versus a Christian understanding of Scripture, but the principle, I believe, is the same.

Therefore, I find myself siding with Kaplan here, with his “this law.” I would also support, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm, any of the other renderings, including “torah,” as common nouns. However, I’m not offended by any of the versions, since each has its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

I have discussed only a handful of words in the introductory section to this week’s portion. Every word and phrase in the Hebrew Bible needs to be taken seriously. They all richly reward those who take the time to study and restudy them.

Leonard Greenspoon, who holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University, writes and lectures frequently about translations of the Hebrew Bible.

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