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Micah Reader in March 2018 by Brenda Levenson
Published in 2015, The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner is about words, translation and the Torah. It is also part family history and memoir, all of which contribute to a book that is difficult to put down and leaves us “regretful that it is ending,” noted one of our readers.
Aviya Kushner grew up in a family in which mealtime conversations focused on the Torah and discussions about the words used in translation compared to the original, and more. Translations “accurate and inaccurate, have been used throughout history to incite hatred,” she writes. The incorrect rendering of the word “keren,” meaning light, into “horns,” added a diabolical trait to the personality of Moses. What we know as “the ten commandments” was actually “the ten sayings,” and the word “murder” became “kill” as in “you shall not kill.” In 17th century England, William Tyndale undertook the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew to English. He was killed as a result, suggesting that his work must have been close enough to the original text to be deemed dangerous by the clerical and governmental authorities. Some of the laws in the Hebrew Bible are strikingly ahead of their time and often challenge the current societies. Centuries before labor unions existed, the treatment of workers was laid out in Deuteronomy 24-15 which prohibits “keeping back the wages of a man who is poor and needy.” Slavery was common to all civilizations of the ancient world, but the Hebrew laws regarding the treatment of slaves were of a uniquely humanitarian character (Deuteronomy 14-12). To the people clamoring for a king, the prophet Samuel’s warning would not have sat well at a time when countries were ruled by absolute monarchs (as opposed to constitutional), nor would the words of the prophet Nathan confronting King David over the Bathsheba affair.
A reader pointed out that “translations vary depending on the century,” as does language, prompting another person in our group to compare translations to music, the interpretation of which varies according to who the conductor is. Aviya Kushner points out that Hebrew has neither capitalization nor punctuation, leading one of our readers to discuss how such singularity affects our interpretation of a text. Hebrew is “limited” (in terms of vocabulary) noted one person, a viable explanation. The belief by “certain rabbis…. that the story of the Bible should begin with nationhood and not with the creation of the world” was quickly dismissed by two readers as making no sense. The way the Hebrew Bible is written provides an order that should not be disrupted was the general opinion. One attendant in our group stated that “the book gave [her] more insight” into the Bible, a thought most probably shared by others.
Far from being a modern issue, assimilation in Egypt among Jews was strong enough to induce the fear that “Jews could no longer read Hebrew,” writes Aviya Kushner, resulting in the first translation in the 3rd century BCE of the Bible in Greek, the language Jews in Alexandria spoke. The more things change, the more they stay the same.