Love and the Grammar of God

In her forthcoming book, ‘The Grammar of God,’ Aviya Kushner — a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa and a creative writing professor at Columbia College Chicago — draws on lessons she has learned while collecting bibles and assessing the disparities in meaning that exist in its many translations. Through the course of her research and writing, the author arrived at a greater understanding of both the Bible itself and the mutability of translation, where slight alterations in word choice can have a profound impact on how the reader grasps the meaning of a text. In this chapter, Kushner’s search for the appropriate words to say at her sister’s wedding leads her on a quest for both self- and biblical knowledge.

When I was five years old, my nursery school teacher got married. The entire school was invited to the wedding, and so we all got to see Morah Blimi (literally, “Teacher Blimi”) arrive at the wedding hall with her hair uncovered, then leave the room briefly and return in a wig. I did not know it then, but beneath the wig, her head was entirely shaved. It was a Hasidic wedding, and so the festivities began with all the guests crying.

I had never been to a wedding before, and so I watched in awe as Morah Blimi’s mother, female relatives, and friends — and Morah Blimi herself — all wept. Years later my mother explained the weeping to me. In Hasidic tradition, she said, a wedding is a leaving of the family of birth as well as a celebration. The most private part of a wedding, my mother was told by several Hasidic women, is what happens after all the guests leave. That’s when the wedding poet arrives and sings a stanza of personal goodbye to each member of the bride’s family.

Years later, as my sister plans her wedding, I keep thinking of that first wedding I ever attended, and I imagine the song I might write for my sister, if I knew how to do it. When I go home to Monsey, potential melodies are everywhere. Wedding music rocks the kosher supermarket, intrudes at the dentist’s office, fills the Jewish bookstore. I notice how much weddings dominate life in the town we grew up in; they even reached Pathmark, the secular supermarket that has since closed, where prospective couples checked each other out in the parking lot. Yes, and a smile and a nod; or no, and the car doors slam. Now that wedding planning is our family’s new topic of conversation, I notice the car doors opening, and closing, more clearly now, even though they have been there all my life. All the doors are reminding me that I have only a few weeks to go before my sister becomes a bride; if I want to come up with a gift of song, it had better be fast.

There is only one problem: I am slow.

At the post office, I notice that awards are posted for the massive volume handled by that particular post office in the past year — probably from all the wedding invitations, I’m thinking. Or maybe the award for volume got a boost from the large number of charity solicitations the community sends out, often in an effort to pay for weddings. The rest of the world may be phasing out snail mail; here, mail packs the bags of the postal carriers and stuffs the metal mailboxes of everyone who lives in town. It occurs to me that a wedding poet must have a regal role here, and an endless stream of business. For just a few minutes, the poet is the center of attention, just as is, for one day, the bride.

For inspiration, I head to the most popular wedding hall in Monsey and look around. It is a Tuesday — the third day of creation, the day when “God saw that it was good” twice, according to Genesis. It is the day that many believe received a double dose of divine approval, or perhaps divine love, which is why it has long been the preferred day of the week to get married.

In the Schocken Bible translation by Everett Fox, the double refrain of the third day of creation is apparent, as it is in most translations. Here is Fox’s rendering:

I look out the car window. The parking lot in front of the Atrium wedding hall just beyond Pathmark is packed. In Monsey, there are always weddings on Tuesdays. Unfortunately, visiting the parking lot does not yield a wedding poem for me. But I know I want something of a double blessing for my sister, so I grab the Hebrew Bible and the King James Version and find a place to sit and write. It’s a doughnut shop that’s crammed with immigrants — I hear Chinese and Spanish — and it reminds me of being in a new country, which is what the early days of creation must have felt like, to man and perhaps even to God. The woman who runs the place says “Two?” constantly, in her effort to get everyone to buy two doughnuts. As she keeps saying “two” I think again of God’s double approval of Tuesdays, and how clear it is in the Schocken translation. I open the King James Bible and stare at the same line:

And God saw that it was good.

Throughout the King James Bible, words that have been added from the Hebrew are italicized. In this case, the verb “to be” in Hebrew is implied rather than stated when used in the present tense. I sit and stare at the two words for a little too long. Something is bothering me. What I am seeing is not what is. I read the section again: “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters he called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

I see now what I did not notice in the Everett Fox translation. A literal, word-for-word version of the Hebrew does not include the word “it.” Instead, there is the little Hebrew word ki. “And God saw ki good.” The Hebrew word ki is a challenge to translate. In modern Hebrew, it means “because,” but “And God saw because good” doesn’t feel quite right either. Ki in the Bible sometimes feels a little more like emphasis. What the King James translators have employed is both the simplicity and the certainty of the word “that.” But ki feels different from “that” — it’s both more complex and more elegant.

I open the Jewish Publication Society’s most recent translation, from 1985, and see that it has “And God saw that this was good.” “This” is a bit more emphatic than “it,” but I’m still not satisfied.

Fortunately, my parents’ library offers some other ideas. “Notes on the New Translation of the Torah,” edited by Harry M. Orlinsky and published in 1969, gives an inside look at some of the arguments and problems the Jewish Publication Society committee encountered in its effort to translate. It turns out that the word ki was one of the committee’s problems. “The wide range of meanings commanded by the common conjunction ki has not been exploited fully in the traditional translations,” the committee writes in the introduction. It quotes the Brown-Driver-Briggs “Hebrew and English Lexicon,” which explains “that ki often introduces the direct narration… in which case it cannot be represented in English (except by inverted commas).” The committee notes that older translations had a different take on the word, which became “verily” and “certainly” at points in the 1917 translations.

Then, at the end of the page-long discussion of a simple conjunction, the committee delights me when it mentions that ki is a topic that can be talked about at length, and also that it can be used to emphasize. “Finally—since our word lends itself to almost limitless discussion in detail—the emphatic force of ki has often gone unrecognized, e.g. in Exodus 2.2, where NJV has ‘and when she saw how [ki] beautiful he was,’ where the older version read, ‘and when she saw him that [ki] was a goodly child.’”

There appear to be two approaches to translating ki: understated and elaborate. Then the committee admits that “sometimes it is difficult to decide between the two; thus, earlier printings read ‘(God saw) how [ki] good this was,’… but this was given up in favor of the traditional ‘that this was good.’”

I return to the Hebrew of the third day, and now what jumps out at me is one letter — the letter vav in the word vayahr, “and he saw.” What it is doing in translation is not exactly what it does in Hebrew.

It may be difficult for a reader of English to imagine the significance of the word “and” in the famous refrain of creation, vayahr elohim ki tov, usually translated as “and God saw that it was good.” In English, “and” is indicated by a word in its own right; in Hebrew it is indicated by a lone letter (a vav) attached to the word that follows it.

But it is no ordinary letter. Whereas in English “and” simply connects ideas or objects or actions, in Hebrew the letter vav can change the tense of the verb that follows it. For this reason, it is known as the vav hahipuch, the vav that turns over. In Hebrew, vayahr, “and God saw,” begins with this particular vav. Its construction is an unusual mixture of past and future: yireh, “he will see,” with a vav tacked onto it becomes a verb in the past tense. The resulting verb vayahr lives in a special zone of biblical time, a past tense that lies on the foundation of a verb in the future tense. Its sense of time reminds me of the centuries-old rabbinic discussion on the timing of creation. Perhaps this is why the verb strikes some Hebrew commentators as referring to something richer than literal sight. Ibn Ezra, the 12th-century commentator, says “and he saw” means “in his thought.” Ramban, or Nachmanides, from the 13th century, reads it as “thought in his heart.” Rashi sees the word as both literal and metaphorical. Commenting on Genesis 1:4, the first appearance of the verb vayahr, “and he saw,” in the Bible, when God “sees” that the light is good, Rashi quotes a story in which God decides that it’s not good for the wicked to use the light, and therefore God separates it for the righteous to use in the future. Rashi writes that God sees that it is not desirable for light and darkness to be mixed together, and so God assigns light to day and darkness to night. All three medieval commentators, writing in different countries and centuries, read sight as more than just visual; for all of them, divine sight has an element of knowing. To see means to know, and perhaps to understand.

What “sight” means matters because many of the Bible’s plot twists involve sight — or perhaps, some kind of knowledge. The first woman, Eve, “sees” that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is good to eat. Very quickly, Eve takes the fruit, and both she and Adam eat it. The power of looking and not looking, and knowledge and the lack thereof, are connected. Caught eating, Adam vainly tries to hide from God’s sight. Caught murdering, Adam’s son Cain tries to hide from God’s sight, too. Later, Lot’s wife famously turns back to take a last look at her old home, which she had been forbidden to do, and becomes salt. And God sees, too, in a way that often implies judgment. After creation, God sees that it is good, but here, God’s sight is powerful and wide — and also frightening.

These sight-related episodes often involve ignoring an explicit spoken request God has made of man. These simple errors, the Bible tells us — as it delineates the pain Eve will endure in childbirth and the sweat Adam will experience as he works the earth — cause struggle to this day. But in Hebrew, they are perhaps even more chilling to read on the page.

Why?

In Hebrew, the words for “fear” and “sight” are visually close, and sometimes their verb forms actually contain the same letters. “To fear” has the three-letter root yud, reish, aleph, and “to see” has the three-letter root reish, aleph, hey. Because they do not share the same root, the concepts of sight and fear are not related in meaning. And yet, in certain biblical moments, in certain verb forms, sight and fear look identical — written with the same letters. Only their vowels distinguish them.

This occasional visual closeness of sight and fear in biblical Hebrew is impossible to see in English, but I wish there were some way to hint at it, to add a comment, to insert an asterisk, as so many readers have done for thousands of years. In the moments when “sight” and “fear” skid close to each other, in the moments when the verbs are written with identical letters, I think about how what we first see with our eyes is often quite far from what truly is — both in reading and in life.

I think, too, about the look of a story. For centuries, the Bible was an aural experience, a text read out loud, in public. It still is read out loud today. But today, when printed books are relatively affordable, and when online access makes reading the Bible entirely free, the ancient Bible is a visual experience as well as a heard one. What we see, or think we see, matters more than ever. And there is something potentially frightening about mistaking looking at God with fearing God — even if it’s easy to see how that mistake happens.

The only cure for a quick glance is context. This is what so many of the rabbinic commentators try to provide — a map of how to read a verse within a neighborhood of other verses. It is as if the rabbis are creating a web of hyperlinks, encouraging the reader to read more, to see what other verses and ideas lie just beyond the boundaries of that particular page. The reader’s task is not to be lulled by the promise of the familiar, not to simply accept a refrain as seemingly clear as the cheerful “And God saw that it was good.” The reader’s task is to ask what is going on. No matter how many readers have read before him, the reader must read again, must investigate, must lift the veil to seek the face of the text, over and over again.

I find, to my delight, that the rabbis and translators obsess, as I do, over the little details that make up the first Tuesday. In line 11, the word for “grass,” desheh, is right next to a word that, in modern Hebrew at least, is a synonym for “grass,” esev — though it can also mean “weeds” and “herbs.” The Oxford Annotated Bible translates the word as “plants,” while the King James chooses “herbs.” Interestingly, some of the commentators endorse both of these translations. Ramban, or Nachmanides, the 13th-century commentator, explains that there are two parts of the same plant — desheh and esev. The lower part of the plant, desheh, translated as “grass,” grows close to the ground, but esev, the word that follows it, is large and seedful. Esev is the taller part of the plant, which produces seeds and thus makes reproduction possible. The wind can easily blow the seeds from esev all over the world.

If this sounds like over-obsession with detail, the rabbis don’t seem to think that this emphasis on different types of vegetation is frivolous at all. Sforno, the Italian rabbi, commentator, and physician who lived from 1475 to 1550, explains that desheh, or “grass,” is for animals to eat, and he gives a quote from the Book of Joel to back this up, whereas esev mazria zerah, the seedful part of the plant, is for humans to eat. As for what is often translated as the tree yielding fruit, that, too, Sforno tries to explain: what is made from two types does not give birth. As usual, I think as I read, Genesis is about what will lead to what, what will give birth to what. God makes grass and animals and humans and then they all create in turn. Reading the English, I miss the alliterative sound of tadsheh desheh: “let grass grow,” it says. The rabbis frequently point out that what is repeated in the Bible is significant. So why was the third day blessed twice? Why is any one day blessed more than the others?

Naturally, the rabbis discuss this. It’s not that the third was better, Ramban, or Nachmanides, says, in a comment full of quotes from other rabbis who preceded him, but rather that there was no goodness on Monday. This is something plenty of modern office workers would agree with, but Ramban is simply counting, not expressing a desire for a life of leisure. Because “God saw that it was good” was left out on Monday, when Tuesday came, there was a need for two.

Then there is the Musaf Rashi, a commentary that literally means an addition to Rashi. On the phrase tadsheh desheh, “let grass grow,” this commentator adds: “Let her cover herself and dress herself in grass.” The “her” is not a bride, but the earth. What interests me is this: bride or earth, the exalted being here is female.

The third day in Hebrew seems to have a feminine lilt to it. This is another element I find strange when reading the King James Version. Hebrew is a gendered language, and all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Not so in English, in which a table or a tree is neither masculine nor feminine. Yet on the third day the King James translation feels aggressively male.

Here is line 12 in the King James Bible:

In Hebrew, aretz, “earth,” is feminine, so what is translated as “brought forth” — va’totzeh — is a feminine verb in Hebrew. And while the grass — what is translated as “herb-yielding seed” — and the tree are both masculine nouns in Hebrew, the reader of English may not realize that even if the trees and the grass are male, the earth itself, to which they belong, is female.

The Hebrew commentators, who mostly predate the King James Bible and the rise of English, do not comment on the fact that “earth” is a feminine noun: in a gendered language like Hebrew, it’s not a major point. Yet when the rabbis focus on the numerous words for grass, even calling the grassing of the earth a dressing of the earth, they are referring to the festive feeling of the third day, the extra love given to it, and perhaps even the femininity of it. On the third day, after all, the bareness was covered.

My sister tells me that underneath the chuppah, the bridal canopy, shoulders will have to be covered for everyone in the wedding party, the standard for religious weddings. It strikes me, as my sister discusses shawls and jackets, that the rabbis effusing over Genesis 1:11–12 had a point. There is something festive about being so dressed, something that is hopeful for the future — even though the rabbis meant the earth and not a bride. And then another aspect of the festivity hits me. God does not say that all that God created on the third day is good: instead, God sees it.

So much of creation is spoken — from “let there be light” to “it is not good for man to be alone.” And yet, when it comes to approving the greening of the earth, there is not a word. God’s famous double approval of the third day comes entirely without speech. Syag l’chochma sh’tika, the rabbis say. It is a comment perhaps appropriate to this moment of divine approval or divine love. It means: a guardian of wisdom is silence.

From the book “The Grammar of God.” Copyright © 2015 by Aviya Kushner. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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