Thursday, February 24, 2005

Rav Soloveitchik and the JPS Translation

In 1953, JPS began work on a new translation of the Bible and invited respected Jewish academic scholars as well as rabbis from the three major Jewish movements to join. The RCA presented before R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik the question of whether or not they should allow a representative of their organization to participate. Below is an excerpt from R. Soloveitchik's answer. As an aside, this letter and many others were first brought to my attention by my late professor R. Louis Bernstein in his book Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate. That terse but fascinating book makes an excellent companion volume to the recently printed Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications from which this excerpt is taken.

As to the question of a new English translation of the Bible suggested by the Jewish Publication Society, I am afraid that the purpose of this undertaking is not to infuse the spirit of Torah she-be-al peh into the new English version but, on the contrary, following the footsteps of the Protestant Liberal ministers who recently revised the English text of the Bible, to satisfy the so-called modern "scientific" demands for a more exact rendition in accordance with the latest archeological and philological discoveries. In other words, the Jewish Publication Society is going to give us a translation in full accord with, or at least influenced by, higher Biblical criticism, and I cannot see how we, representatvies of the Torah she-be-al peh, can lend our names to such an undertaking...

Only if the Jewish Publication Society should delegate to the Rabbinical Council of America the power to veto anything which it would consider contrary to our tradition, could we join the project.

(pp. 110-111)
I find this passage highly difficult and suspect that, like much of what R. Soloveitchik wrote and said, it has to be understood carefully.

As the Rashbam declares in his commentary to the beginning of Parashas Va-Yeshev, there is no objection to new peshat interpretations to the Torah. Furthermore, as the Rashbam - and Ibn Ezra and Ramban and Rambam and sometimes even Rashi - demonstrates, there is nothing wrong with peshat interpretations that contradict those found in the Talmud or midrashim.

However, there are times when we have a tradition from Sinai as to the correct interpretation of a biblical passage. In those cases, we are not allowed to interpret the passages contrary to our accepted tradition. For example, "ayin tahas ayin" (Shemos 21:24). Our tradition is that the verse was written intending it to mean that one must pay an eye's value for damage to an eye. Because this is a clear and unquestioned tradition, an Orthodox Jew may not interpret it otherwise and, in fact, none of the traditional commentaries do so, not even Rashbam or Ibn Ezra.* (Cf. Rambam, Introduction to Commentary on the Mishnah, Qafah tr., vol. 1 p. 11a sv. "Ha-helek ha-rishon")

It could be, therefore, that R. Soloveitchik was concerned that JPS would translate those few verses for which we have a specific interpretive tradition contrary to that Torah she-be-al peh. However, I don't think that is what he meant. I have never seen an English translation of Shemos 21:24 that does not translate it literally and plainly as "an eye for an eye," not even Artscroll. Even Onkelos translates it plainly like that. Evidently, a translation that is faithful but simple leaves the same room for the interpretive tradition as the original Hebrew and, therefore, is not in contradiction with the Torah she-be-al peh.

I would suggest that rather than objecting to literal translations that are not in accordance with our tradition, R. Soloveitchik was concerned that the text would be butchered by over-eager practitioners of biblical criticism who would change the Hebrew text and translate accordingly. He did not want to join a project over which he (or the RCA) had no control and could easily spiral into chaotic conjectural tampering with the Masoretic text. As it turns out, the new translation that resulted from that JPS project did not tamper with the Masoretic text, although it occasionally mentions textual variants in its footnotes. However, R. Soloveitchik was concerned with Higher Textual Criticism, not Lower, that might have, for example, combined Bereishis chapter 1 and chapter 2 into one flowing Creation story rather than two separate ones or combined the stories of Avraham leaving Israel due to famine, etc.

However, this is just my conjecture and it could very well be that I just don't understand R. Soloveitchik's objection. His mention of archeology and philology is puzzling to me. Was he objecting to inclusion of any archeological and philological finds? I find this difficult because the rishonim, including R. Soloveitchik's beloved commentary of the Ramban, utilize such information! Perhaps he was concerned with excessive use of speculative scholarship.

* I base this understanding on a long discussion with R. Soloveitchik's grandson, R. Mayer Twersky and used his example of ayin tahas ayin. However, given his inheritance of his grandfather's affinity to precision and nuance, it is possible that I did not fully understand him. It is also possible that the years that have passed have blurred my own understanding with what he told me.

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