Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Community

When Biblical Gender Is Lost In Translation

We find gender-bending language in the Torah, in the greater Hebrew Bible, as well as in later Hebrew literature. And I am hardly the first one to notice this. Bible scholars, critics, and translators of later Hebrew works have all drawn attention to the phenomenon.

In his 1990 bestseller “The Book of J,” Harold Bloom noted that the author of the J strand of the Pentateuch presents God as both “mother and father;” indeed as a gender-bending “mothering father,” even as God “stands beyond sexuality.”

The 1989 poetry collection Rift, by the master translator and poet Peter Cole, was, he told Paris Review, “a semiconscious translation of everything I was absorbing—the blurring of secular and sacred planes, heightened attention to the auditory, gender bending in the Hebrew verse and its grammar…”

As long ago as 1946, Bible scholar Edwin Broome had noted pervasive grammatical gender-bending in the Book of Ezekiel, and concluded that the prophet must have suffered from “gender confusion.”

But gender-bending language in the Hebrew Bible was the subject of commentary long before the twentieth century.

As long ago as the eleventh century, the great Torah commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, d. 1105) felt compelled to explain why Moses had addressed God as at, the second person feminine singular word for “you” (Numbers 11:15). Rashi speculated that Moses had grown “weak” — the suggestion being that he was too tired to utter the two-syllable word atah, the second person masculine singular word for “you,” and had broken off after the first syllable. Rashi’s far-fetched explanation is not as interesting as the fact that he felt compelled to address gender-bending language in the Torah.

Even a fairly straightforward text presents translation challenges. One who is perfectly fluent in two languages will still struggle to capture the flavor of the original text’s cadences, alliteration, allusions and word-plays. There is no way to do this perfectly. Sometimes there is no way to do it well.

And when a text’s meaning has been intentionally obscured… all bets are off. Such is the case with the Hebrew Bible. The second century BCE scribe Ben Sira wrote about the Torah’s many “twists,” “obscurities,” “riddles,” and “hidden things” (Ben Sira 39: 1- 8). And he pushed the curious away: “You have no need of hidden matters,” he wrote (Ben Sira, 3: 21-24).

Ben Sira’s grandson translated his grandfather’s work into Greek, and put his readers on notice that the difference between his grandfather’s original Hebrew text and his own Greek translation “is not small” (Ben Sira, Prologue, 15).

Sometimes intentionally, always inevitably, much gets lost in translation. Not for nothing did the rabbis declare the day on which the Torah itself was first translated (into Greek) an annual day of mourning.

Reading the Torah in translation, we would do well to acknowledge that a vast “space” exists between a translation and an original text. As the Forward’s own Aviyah Kushner, author of the highly illuminating book The Grammar of God has written, “this particular space between languages matters.”

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.