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Robert Alter And The Art Of Biblical Disappointment

The Art of Bible Translation
By Robert Alter
Princeton University Press, 152 pages, $24.95

Students disappoint their teachers constantly, but we enjoy doing so only rarely. Only once have I pleasurably frustrated Robert Alter’s hopes. I was sitting in his office, where I had come to discuss my paper for a graduate seminar on Exodus. He remarked that he had been surprised to see how I had taken to source criticism — that is, the painstaking textual archeology by which academic readers gradually divide the Bible into the earlier texts from which it was assembled. Back then, I wore a kippah around, and read Pentateuchal Hebrew with the precise, unnatural intonation of someone who regularly chants it as religious ritual (which I did). The point of Bob’s remark and of his characteristic smile, which manages to convey mischief without malice, was clear enough. With the vaguely illicit warmth of a professional blackjack player teaching a square to count cards, he was welcoming to me to the study of scripture as a profane, secular, human text.

Unfortunately for him, the welcome arrived roughly twenty years too late. Biblical criticism is, in the Talmudic phrase, my girsa d’yanuka, the “learning of my youth,” which I imbibed from my father as the patriarchal corollary of mother’s milk. On long walks to synagogue, my father had listed the inconsistencies in the week’s reading — familial slippages between genealogical lists, differing counts of animals Noah was supposed to bring into the ark, contradictions about which foreign merchants sold Joseph to Egypt — which I, as a grade-schooler, would struggle to harmonize before finally conceding that the text had to be divided. With a fiercely rational certitude, my father subscribed to the “Documentary Hypothesis,” a classic if now slightly dusty theory, which cleanly decomposed the Pentateuch into four distinct sources.

I was confused in middle school when I learned what scientists mean by “hypothesis,” because, based on these walks, I had thought the word described not a first guess but a canonical truth. J, E, P, and D — the four letters by which so-called documentarians denominate the text’s sources — seemed to me magical letters, through whose mystical potencies one could fix the incoherencies of a puzzling text and relieve the unspoken anxiety accumulating in my father’s questions. When, some years into this education, my father sheepishly admitted that solving a particular textual crux required postulating the existence of “R,” a redactor who edited the sources together and occasionally added odd bits, I felt as shocked and betrayed as if he had just admitted the existence of other gods. All of which is to say, I told Bob Alter, to what I remember as his very mild chagrin, that he was not initiating me into the skeptical, secular world of the scholars. I had never experienced a contradiction between biblical criticism and wearing a kippah. In fact, the humanizing criticism of the Bible, and even a gleefully impious recitation of its flaws, fissures, and textual cleavages, had been my childhood’s most memorable religious ritual.

According to one popular story, Alter’s translation newly humanizes and secularizes the Bible. In rendering the Bible in graceful, literary English, Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, Alter has made “a version of scripture made not to be obeyed or scrutinized for lessons but to be studied and shared through the pleasure of pluralist interpretation and constant cross-referencing.” Avi Steinberg’s long profile in The New York Times magazine celebrated Alter’s “secular and literary method of reading the Hebrew Bible” (which, Steinberg conceded, “has appealed to some religious readers”) and interpreted his translation as aimed at the “general reader, over and against institutional gatekeepers of the text, both in academia and in the religious world.”

I am skeptical of this story, especially Gopnik’s version. In its sharp, Manichean dichotomy, secular literature gets aesthetics, pluralism and scholarship while religion gets sermonizing, authoritarianism and dogma. But you have to be staggeringly ignorant of the history of biblical hermeneutics, for instance, to think that secular modernity invented “pluralist interpretation.” A rabbinic commentary likens revelation to a hammer hitting a rock; interpretations abound like sparks of illumination, thus explaining why, as proverb elsewhere has it, there are seventy faces to the Torah. Gopnik could not be bothered to know about any of them. Nor was it just the Jews. Medieval Christians made pluralism about the Bible a sacred dogma, insisting the Bible had to be interpreted on four different levels. For Dante, for instance, Psalm 145 ends up being about the Exodus from Egypt, the redemption through Christ, the individual’s conversion to grace, and the eventual flight of the soul to heaven. Later in the same piece, Gopnik complains about how, in contemporary readings, “post-Enlightenment values are projected backward” onto sacred texts. To accuse others of anachronism, you have to know something about the past — knowledge of which Gopnik gives little evidence.

I could list more weaknesses in this portrayal of the literary Bible as newly liberal and open-minded. But beyond its incoherence in intellectual terms, Gopnik’s story also weirdly erases the actual uses people make of “the Bible as literature.” I encountered Alter’s work for the first time as a college student migrating from the liberal, religiously anarchic Judaism of my youth into the world of traditional observance. In that world, literary reading, far from threatening to ruin the sacred truths, could be enlisted in their defense. Against the efforts of biblical critics to dissect the Bible into its parts, the traditionalists I met brandished copies of Alter’s Five Books of Moses. Literary reading uncovered patterns of echo and allusion that, they thought, wove the text together into a tight knot no philologist could untie. (This is not exactly Alter’s own view of things, but that is not exactly my concern here.) Moreover, Alter’s ironic and psychologically astute made for great sermons and homiletics. Congregants didn’t want cheesy moralism, they wanted ambivalence and complexity, and Alter meant they could have it.

Alter was cool too — his books came out, not in the faux-gilt, bombastic leather volumes of frummy publishers like Artscroll and Feldheim, nor in the amateurish fonts and typesetting of small-time Jewish scholarly presses, but with the cultural cachet of New York brand-names: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Basic Books; Princeton University Press. It was around then that the rabbis stopped squirming when you asked them about the documentary hypothesis. Instead they would look at you like you were talking about phrenology or decorating your living room with a lava lamp and say, “But does anyone really believe that anymore?” Biblical criticism had not been refuted; much more powerfully, it had become passé.

So instead of threatening the Bible’s authority, Alter buttressed it, in the way that Hamilton recuperates the American founding: by giving it a makeover. Nor is this much of a secret. Already in 1985, Alter complained in Commentary about the “QUESTION AUTHORITY” bumper stickers ubiquitous in his California, the skepticism of academic “feminists, Marxists, deconstructionists” and the like about the value of literary masterpieces, and so on. “The literary reading of the Bible,” Alter argued, “provides a means of getting in touch again with the religious power of Scripture, and so reinstates scriptural authority in new terms.” Unsurprisingly, many of Alter’s crucial essays on the Bible as literature appeared first in Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary, a magazine that in the eighties advocated vigorous Cold-War interventionism, dismantling the welfare state, and the like. At least as described in that essay, Alter’s project was — and I mean this descriptively, as neither praise nor blame — conservative, though in the urbane, intellectual, modern pattern of Jewish neo-conservatism: Dostoevsky rather than Billy Graham, the Metropolitan Opera instead of the National Football League.

I have never asked Alter about the broader meanings of his work. In all the time I have studied with him — poring over Exodus, the Song of Songs, Yehudah Amichai, Dahlia Ravikovitch, and so on in three-hour-long seminars; answering his questions during my oral exams; mulling over his critiques of my dissertation chapters — it never came up.

This lacuna struck me while I was reading his newest book, “The Art of Bible Translation.” The book consists of five short chapters about aspects of biblical language and literary craft frequently lost in English translation, with a polemical introduction. By sharply criticizing his translation’s predecessors — the committee of the King James Bible, but much more so a series of flat-footed modern versions — Alter defends what might otherwise have seemed his hubris in tackling the entire Hebrew Bible. The book reminds me intensely of his presence in class. It is packed with precise, judicious observations about a treasured text: that the Moabites who hearing no response from their king, speculate that he is on the toilet, are actually smelling his decomposing body; that when the Israelite assassin blasts his horn to rally his troops, the text uses the same word as it did to describe his earlier sword-thrust. And Alter is judiciously scathing about the literary incompetents who produce modern translations: the great scholar who wanted to preserve the etymology for the Hebrew word for “altar” and translates it with the macabre “slaughtersite,” or the committee which had God in Genesis 1 create the sun “to dominate the day,” using a verb which Alter writes is “appropriate for political contexts… or for sexual perversion with whip and boots as accouterments.” You can read “The Art of Bible Translation” in an afternoon, and if you care to understand the Hebrew Bible’s fine details or enjoy seeing particular forms of erudite pomposity deflated, you probably should.

That said, this book does not discuss the broader questions: the translation’s cultural significance, religion and literature in contemporary America, the Jewish question, and so on. It is, as an academic would say, “under-theorized” — an ungainly word Alter would never use and an accusation I think he would not mind. The word “art” in his title is the rough equivalent of the Greek techne — the trained ability to do delicate work skillfully, intended to craft a well-wrought urn rather than to elicit a revelation.

In part that reflects a generational gap. In 1962 at Harvard, when Alter received his PhD, it was reasonably clear what literature meant. A canon existed, along with a set of formal techniques for transmitting and interpreting the works within it. He is the last teacher I will have whose mind was formed before the interpretive chaos of deconstruction, the academic upheaval of the student protests, the canon wars of the eighties, the decline of the print book, the neoliberal corrosion of the university, and so on. There is a sense in which he is secular, and in which almost no one studying literature can be secular today: the sense in which literature itself seems to him a stable, comprehensible thing, rather than a category always in danger of exploding. I do not know too many literary scholars my age who do not see some sort of apocalypse around the corner. Right now, I think it hard not to hope for and fear a revelation, a sudden transformation which would change everything utterly. In that sense, reading “The Art of Bible Translation,” I remain slightly disappointed, in the way students usually are by teachers, by the discovery that they never set out to solve your problems, merely their own.


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