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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

English Translations

The history of Jewish translation of the Bible into English shares many of the features of Jewish versions in other modern languages. At the same time, distinctive elements mark its development, culminating in the proliferation of texts during the past several decades.

In some ways, the King James Version (KJV) of 1611 functions for English speakers as Luther's version has for those who speak German. Although not the earliest English rendering, KJV is by far the most influential. The members of its translation committee resemble Luther's individual effort in two other respects: They were deeply indebted to Jewish scholarship, in their case the work of David Kimḥi (Radak); but they themselves had no recorded contact with Jews who, having been expelled from England several centuries earlier, were not officially welcomed back until the mid‐1600s.

The cadence, vocabulary, and overall structure of KJV strongly resemble the Hebrew original. Any number of memorable turns of phrases (“tender mercies,” Ps. 25.6 and elsewhere) or lingering verbal pictures (“the face of the waters,” Gen. 1.2 , and “the LORD make his face shine upon thee,” Num. 6.26 ) we associate with KJV are in fact quite literal renderings of the Hebrew lost in freer translations into English or other modern languages. Whether through recognition of this indebtedness, a desire to fit in, a lack of interest in making a new English translation, or a combination of such factors, KJV apparently served the needs of England's growing Jewish community for the first century of its post‐expulsion existence.

The first Jewish versions of the Bible in English appear in the 1780s and are limited to the Torah. They are not in fact new translations: A page of Hebrew text faces the corresponding version of KJV, with a scattering of notes (in English and Hebrew) from traditional Jewish sources such as Rashi. Such editions may represent a reaction to Hebrew‐English texts published in the preceding decades under Protestant auspices. In any event, the materials in these versions, consciously shaped as they are for English‐speaking Jews, represent an important step—and not an isolated one.

Earlier in this essay, both internal and external causes or stimuli were identified for the Greek translation of the Torah (the Septuagint). A similar complex of concerns was operative in England at the turn of the 19th century. It is clear that by that time most Jews, those who immigrated from Spanish‐speaking lands as well as those from German and Yiddish backgrounds, were becoming increasingly familiar and comfortable with English. Synagogues established by both German and Spanish communities made use of prayerbooks with some English, and it was not uncommon to hear at least a few sermons in English. Under such circumstances the appearance of “Jewish Bibles” that combined English with Hebrew (and some traditional Jewish exegetical annotation) is not surprising.

External forces were active that would slowly propel the Jewish community in the same direction. Missionary societies had existed for some time, but by the early 1800s their number, and especially their focus on the conversion of Jews, increased considerably. Most notable in this respect was the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongJews, generally referred to simply as the London Jews Society. Their proselytizing was in turn greatly abetted by the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804. Although not a missionary society per se, this organization (and others founded throughout the world, including the American Bible Society), had as one of its principal goals the mass production of inexpensive Bibles that were useful in acquainting non‐Christians with the New Testament gospel and the Old Testament as Christian texts. (Yiddish Bibles of this sort were noted above.) In what might appropriately be termed a measure of self‐defense, the Jewish community would come to see the value of producing its own English‐language versions.

An additional feature marks the introduction of English Bibles into London's Jewish community and from there throughout the Empire and to North America: the few known pre‐1800 editions came not from the Jewish establishment, but from individuals on the periphery of the organized community or even at odds with its leadership. Perhaps Jewish leaders of this period thought it imprudent to challenge, if only implicitly, the unique status of KJV. On the other hand, they may have been resisting the incursion of English into precincts where Hebrew and German (Yiddish) or Spanish had previously reigned unchallenged.

In any case, by the mid‐1800s, individuals well connected by profession, relation, or both were preparing English versions, typically of the Torah or specific books rather than the entire Bible, for Jews. In an unmistakable sign that these versions had “arrived,” the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire sanctioned two of them. Perhaps the better parallel is the term “authorized,” as in the Authorized Version, another name for KJV. We must, nonetheless, be careful to distinguish the procedures, and especially the goals, envisioned in these two cases. When the Church of England “authorizes” a translation of Scripture, it signifies its suitability for liturgical use in a church. When the Chief Rabbi “sanctioned” Jewish versions, he pointedly did not refer to the synagogue, but to their use in schools and homes. It was not conceivable that the Chief Rabbi would have bestowed similar recognition for liturgical usage, where the Hebrew text retained its central role. Still, it is worthy of note that he at least tacitly recognized the increasing role of the home and school in transmitting and inculcating Jewish values as enshrined in the Bible.

By the end of the 19th century, the Jews of England had their choice of more than a dozen English‐language versions specifically marketed to them. The translations themselves are admittedly not distinguished nor do they differ markedly from KJV. Efforts were made to excise christological language and to (re‐)introduce traditional Jewish interpretations. Nevertheless, at the very time Protestants themselves were beginning to experiment with rather radical (for Victorian society) departures from KJV, Jews departed but rarely from its linguistic heritage and overall format. This may have stemmed from the desire “to be more English than the English,” or (as noted above for the 18th century) from the recognition of KJV's “Jewish” roots. It was left to the Jews of the United States, and then not until the middle of the 20th century, to devise new approaches to Bible translation.

Even with communal recognition, Jewish translators in England had, as had Jews in German‐speaking lands, worked as individ‐ uals—unlike the committees that produced KJV and its successors (or the Septuagint, for that matter). This pattern prevailed throughout most of the 19th century in the United States as well. One man, Isaac Leeser, is responsible for the most influential English‐language translation on either side of the Atlantic. Like Saadia, Leeser was a communal leader of prodigious accomplishment and not a little controversy. Despite his notoriety in some circles, Leeser's Torah translation of the 1840s, followed a decade later by his rendering of the entire Bible, attracted considerable interest and resulted in a series of new editions and republications over seven decades.Unlike Saadia's flowing Arabic, Leeser's English was rather wooden and at many points essentially devoid of literary distinction. It is perhaps the existence of Leeser's work rather than its merits that marks it as a noteworthy achievement.

By the end of the 19th century, the American Jewish community had become sufficiently sophisticated to support a growing number of cultural organizations in addition to synagogues and other communal structures. Among the most important organizations is the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) of America. Founded in Philadelphia in 1888, JPS attracted the financial support of some of America's wealthiest Jews and the involvement of some of the country's leading Jewish intellectuals and writers. In 1917, JPS organized and published the first committee‐produced English‐language version of the Bible for Jews. The idea for such a version, which was to function as a replacement for Leeser, originated with the Central Committee of American Rabbis, made up of Reform clergy. Their plan, put into action in the 1890s, was to enlist individual rabbis and scholars to work on a given book or block of biblical material. An editorial committee was to ensure some measure of consistency and quality. But these procedures were difficult to implement, and by the early 20th century little progress had been achieved.

At that point JPS took charge, having secured the cooperation and support of most of those involved in the earlier project. Rather than farming out sections of the text to individuals, they established a committee that would be responsible for the translation. This committee was composed of six men, two each from the three major Jewish institutions of higher learning: Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, affiliated with the Reform movement; the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, part of the Conservative movement; and Dropsie College in Philadelphia, which was not a rabbinical seminary but a nondenominational graduate school that provided instruction in fields, such as biblical studies, that were not readily accessible to Jews elsewhere. No representative from an Orthodox institution was part of the committee. In terms of their ideological or theological stances, these men ranged from quite liberal to fairly traditional. None of the six, however, was a biblical scholar of any distinction.

In addition to these six translators, JPS selected as editor‐in‐chief the biblical scholar Max L. Margolis, who was among the best qualified, in terms of temperament as well as training, for the task at hand. He had taught at HUC in Cincinnati as well as at the University of California at Berkeley before being selected in 1908 as one of the original faculty members at Dropsie. He was thoroughly grounded in traditional Jewish learning, as might be expected, but was also well trained in the classics and in the critical approaches to biblical study then in vogue (in terms of the latter, he was generally skeptical, although appreciative). In one respect, the choice of Margolis was unusual: He had been born in Eastern Europe, educated there and in Berlin, and came to the United States only in the late 1880s. As it happened, the selection of an immigrant rather than a native speaker of English helped shape both the process that produced this version and the translation itself.

As an immigrant, Margolis was acutely aware of distinctions in English diction and the negative effects of improper language or slang as a newly arrived populace sought to improve its status in America. To Margolis, the language of King James, albeit lexically antiquated and stylistically out‐of‐date, was nonetheless the best possible model for his fellow immigrants. In his desire to inculcate the best of English, along with a Jewish understanding of the Bible, Margolis consciously emulated Moses Mendelssohn, whom he greatly admired.

Margolis's efforts were entirely consistent with the approach prescribed by JPS. Although most readers of its 1917 English translation did not know it, this version adhered quite closely to the (British) Revised Versionof 1885, which constituted the first major revision of the 1611 KJV. Verse‐by‐verse comparisons between the Jewish Version of 1917 and the Revised Version reveal agreement, typically word‐for‐word agreement, in most passages. Where it was necessary to incorporate materials not found in KJV or its revision, Margolis deliberately chose KJV‐sounding language, so as to achieve a text that seamlessly combined the “new” with the “old.”

Margolis, of course, excised overtly christological renderings and introduced some traditional Jewish exegesis. But a well‐educated early 20th‐century Protestant would in no way have been put off by the JPS translation, and the same might well have been true for any Jewish reader of the Revised Version. This harmonious picture, which carried over to formatting and even binding, was surely consistent with the goals of the JPS leadership. Margolis, like Mendelssohn over a century earlier, could also derive considerable satisfaction from the recognition that one could learn to be a better Jew and a good citizen through one and the same process.

It was biblical scholar Harry M. Orlinsky who aptly remarked that the shelf life of translations for English‐speaking Jews has averaged half a century. That was the case with Leeser and also, so it turns out, for the JPS version of 1917. That JPS itself initiated the project which resulted in a replacement for its earlier translation is due primarily to the energetic advocacy and leadership of Orlinsky. A longtime faculty member at New York City's Jewish Institute of Religion, later merged with Hebrew Union College, Orlinsky was singularly well placed to head the new translation project. He had been selected in the 1940s as the first Jewish member of the Revised Standard Version translation committee; in fact, he was the first Jew to serve on any committee to prepare a mainstream (that is, Christian) Bible translation. His experience in this regard led to his subsequent selection as the only Jewish editor for the New Revised Standard Version. By the late 1950s, when he began to lobby for a new Jewish translation, Orlinsky was well known and respected among a wide range of rabbis and Jewish scholars.

Moreover, Orlinsky had a clear vision of what a Jewish translation should look and sound like, a vision that marked a definite departure from the King James‐type language characteristic of earlier Jewish versions. For Orlinsky, the effectiveness of any Bible translation was linked to its easy intelligibility by contemporary readers, who can be readily put off by antiquated or obscure words and stilted or foreign‐looking syntax. The question translators should always have before them is this: What did the original authors intend to say to their audience and how can we convey that meaning to our audience? In short, this approach to translation seeks to bring the text to the reader. Although an admirer of Mendelssohn and Margolis, Orlinsky's model from within Judaism itself was Saadia Gaon. More broadly, Orlinsky was allying himself with a number of (mostly Protestant) scholars associated with the American Bible Society, who promoted and practiced a dynamic or functional equivalence approach to translation in two popular versions of the post– World War II era: Today's English Version (The Good News Bible) and the Contemporary English Version.

Orlinsky of course approached his task from what he understood to be a thoroughly Jewish stance. In his opinion, sensitivity to distinctively Jewish interpretations and exegetes produced a text that was not only more suitable for the Jewish community, but that often presented a more accurate rendering than those offered by other translations. When published in a volume that dispensed with hard‐to‐read type and the two‐column‐per‐page format traditionally associated with Bibles, the New Jewish Publication Society translation (NJPS) was positioned to take its place among the other accessible, readable, and attractive English Bibles of the midto late 20th century.

Orlinsky served as editor‐in‐chief of the committee that prepared the NJPS translation of the Torah, which initially appeared in themid‐1960s; he was also part of the group that worked on the Prophets. Other scholars from North America and Israel composed the committee for the Writings. Their efforts were first published as separate volumes, 1962 (first edition of Torah, revised 1967), 1978 (Neviʾim), and 1982 (Kethuvim). It was 1985 before the entire Tanakh appeared, incorporating in revised form the efforts of all three translation committees. Until 1999, volumes of the Tanakh contained only the English version; in that year, a Hebrew‐English language edition first came out, thereby facilitating comparison between text and translation.

It is instructive to compare the two JPS versions, 1917 and 1985, in order to gauge both the distance that separates them and the features they hold in common:

Genesis 1.1–2

1917: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.…And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters

1985: When God began to create heaven and earth.…And a wind from God sweeping over the water

The 1917 version retains the wording of KJV; it parts company with the Protestant text by replacing the upper case “s” of Spirit, a reference to the Trinity, with a lower case “s.” In addition to rendering Hebrew “ruaḥ” with “wind” rather than with a form of “spirit,” Orlinsky (in the 1985 version), in keeping with one line of Jewish exegesis, renders the notoriously difficult wording of Genesis’ (and the Bible's) beginning as “When God began to create.” In so doing, he excludes the theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, to the extent that this belief is dependent on the traditional English text. Moreover, it reflects the opening of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, which also begins with a “when” clause. It is also characteristic of Orlinsky's approach that the literal “face of the waters” yields to the simpler, more modern‐sounding “the water.”

Genesis 11.5 (Tower of Babel)

1917: And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

1985: The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that man had built.

It is characteristic of almost all post‐World War II versions to update archaic verb forms, such as “had built” for “builded” in this passage. More noteworthy is the use of the generic “man” (but not “human” or “humankind” as in gender‐neutral texts like the roughly contemporary New Revised Standard Version or NRSV) for the literal, but perhaps misleading, “children of men.” In like manner, “Israelites” consistently replaces “children of Israel” in the 1985 version.

Exodus 21.15

1917: And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.

1985: He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.

“He who strikes” sounds far more natural to today's readers than “he that smiteth.” The retention of the third singular masculine pronoun, a precise reflection of the Hebrew wording, is avoided in certain other modern translations, most notably the NRSV. As mentioned above, Orlinsky played a role in the development of the NRSV as well as the JPS version of 1985. Although his sympathies in such passages lay with the gender‐neutral approach taken by the NRSV, in these instances the NJPS Torah tended to resist any innovation. An important innovation, from Orlinsky's perspective, is found at the beginning of this verse (as in Gen. 11.5 and many other places), where the conjunction vav—typically translated as “and” in traditional English versions (esp. KJV)—is omitted. Elsewhere, its presence is signaled through the use of subordination where the paratactic structure of Hebrew favored coordination.

Deuteronomy 24.16

1917: The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

1985: Parents should not be put to death children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.

In this case, NJPS shows considerable, although not consistent, sensitivity to gendered language. The version understands that “fathers,” although a literal translation of the Hebrew, does not reflect the more inclusive meaning of the term here, hence “parents.” In like manner, “every man” is more accurately rendered by “a person.” The NRSV, although not the NJPS, manages to eliminate all vestiges of male‐oriented language by the use of “their own” after “persons.” Although more consistent in terms of gender language, such an approach involves more restructuring of the Hebrew than the NJPS Torah editors apparently found desirable.

Judges 12.9

1917: And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he sent abroad, and thirty daughters he brought in from abroad for his sons.

1985: He had thirty sons, and he married off thirty daughters outside the clan and brought in thirty girls from outside the clan for his sons.

In his own distinctively insightful way, Orlinsky used to point out how misleading the traditional rendering “abroad” is here. It is not that the judge Ibzan sought foreign spouses for his sons and daughters, but that he went “outside the clan” for prospective sons‐ and daughters‐in‐law. A small point perhaps, but instructive for showing what were, for Orlinsky, some of the benefits of the approach he championed.

Isaiah 7.14

1917: Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son.

1985: Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son.

With the rendering “a virgin,” the KJV translation of this passage has been central to a christological interpretation of the Old Testament. In keeping with a long‐standing Jewish understanding and with the philologically more correct meaning, both JPS and NJPS have “the young woman.” For the rest, JPS 1917 retains the traditional KJV rendering, which places conception and child‐bearing in the (distant) future. Although such a rendering of Hebrew present participles is possible, NJPS is surely on more solid ground, syntactically and contextually, when it portrays the women as pregnant and soon to give birth. It is noteworthy that the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Old Testament of 1952 was the first mainstream Christian translation to place “the young woman” in the text itself, relegating “a virgin” to the margins. Orlinsky's presence as an RSV editor did not go unnoticed by that translation's conservative critics.

Jeremiah 31.29–30 (similar expression found in Ezekiel 18.14 )

1917: In those days they shall say no more: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

1985: In those days they shall no longer say: The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

It is instructive to compare the NJPS text here with a passage from the Torah, such as Deut. 24.16 above. In the earlier example, NJPS retained the singular (with “person”; cf. “man” in traditional English versions), leading to the retention of the masculine singular pronoun “his.” In the Prophets, NJPS, in a move that could be characterized as quite bold if nonetheless consistent with NRSV, eliminates all exclusively male references. Such a practice, while less literal than the 1917 JPS version, does more accurately reflect the meaning of the Hebrew original, as understood by the committee responsible for the Prophets.

Ezekiel 2.1 (and frequently elsewhere in the book of Ezekiel)

1917: Son of man

1985: O mortal

Ben ʾadam is the characteristic way in which God addresses the prophet Ezekiel throughout his book. The literal translation of this Hebrew phrase is “son of man,” which the 1917 JPS version shares with many traditional and even modern English‐language versions. The NJPS editors responsible for the Prophets determined that the main point of this appellation was not Ezekiel's maleness, but his humanness or mortality, vis‐à‐vis the divinity and immortality of the Lord. Hence, they decided to dispense with tradition, a decision found in several other contemporary versions as well.

Proverbs 31.10

1917: A woman of valour who can find? For her price is far above rubies.

1985: What a rare find is a capable wife! Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.

The expression “a woman of valour” is one of the few memorable phrases coined by the JPS 1917 translators. To this day, it is used to describe women of noteworthy achievement within the Jewish community. It is a rather literal rendering of the Hebrew, ʾeshet ḥayil. The NJPS editors for the Writings discarded this expression in favor of “a capable wife,” which is to be sure a possible rendering of the Hebrew. Nonetheless, in this case it is difficult to see this newer wording as either a closer reflection of the Hebrew or a sensitive application of the ancient text to the modern world.

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