He Cannot Borrow His Soul from Others

The Reading of the Bible by the Rabbis by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ, 1882.

The Jewish Publication Society of America published an English translation of the Hebrew Bible, The Holy Scriptures, in 1917. The following excerpt is from the book’s Preface.

The repeated efforts by Jews in the field of biblical translation show their sentiment toward translations prepared by other denominations. The dominant feature of this sentiment, apart from the thought that the christological interpretations in non-Jewish translations are out of place in a Jewish Bible, is and was that the Jew cannot afford to have his Bible translation prepared for him by others. He cannot have it as a gift, even as he cannot borrow his soul from others. If a new country and a new language metamorphose him into a new man, the duty of this new man is to prepare a new garb and a new method of expression for what is most sacred and most dear to him. 

The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917, p. v.

Ninety-eight years later, in 2015, Philologos, a Jewish language columnist for Mosaic, an online magazine about Jewish ideas, politics, religion, etc., felt compelled to respond to a reader asking why the columnist had used the King James Version of the Bible in a previous article for Mosaic. [Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best]. “Are there,” the reader asked, “no Jewish translations, such as the Jewish Publication Society’s, Soncino Press’s, or ArtScroll’s, that would have served a similar purpose?” Soncino Press uses the JPS 1917 translation. The inquirer was bothered by the columnist’s use of the KJV because of, I would imagine, the sentiments described in the JPS (1917) Preface.

In his defense, Philologos offers two reasons for his use of the King James Bible. The first is stylistic, the sheer beauty of the King James translation. His admiration on this point is shared by many, Jews and non-Jews alike. Even the author of the JPS (1917) Preface writes of the “admirable diction” of the Authorized Version (KJV), which, he goes on to say, “can never be surpassed.” Dr. J. H. Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, editor of Soncino Press’ Pentateuch and Haftorahs, describes the King James Version (1611) as being “of unsurpassed literary beauty.” (p.50).

There is little disagreement by anyone about the beauty of the KJV translation. But what about its accuracy? For readers who view the Bible as a sacred text, this is a matter of primary importance. Philologos compares two verses from his previous article using the KJV text and provides three other English translations. He argues that in all cases, the KJV is at least as accurate as the more modern translations, and in some cases, more so. 

In his Introduction to The Hebrew Bible, translator Robert Alter makes an interesting point concerning the accuracy and textual fidelity of the KJV. Referencing Gerald Hammond, a British authority on Bible translations, Alter registers his agreement with Hammond that the KJV “remains the closest approach for English readers to the original—despite its frequent and at times embarrassing inaccuracies, despite it archaisms, and despite it insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for Biblical ones.” (p. xiv) 

All of this being said, I don’t expect to visit a yeshiva and find any of the students poring over the KJV or any other non-Jewish translation of the Bible. They read Hebrew, don’t need a translation, although they may read the Aramaic one by Onkelos. Nor do I expect to share a Shabes meal with Jewish friends who speak words of Torah at the table, words taken from the KJV, even if they don’t read Biblical Hebrew. They are more likely to have one of the versions suggested by Philologos’ inquisitor.Even though Maimonides, the influential medieval Jewish philosopher, advises that we “hear the truth from whoever says it,” [Introduction to Eight Chapters] there seems to be an almost impenetrable distrust of non-Jewish versions of our sacred texts. 

Earlier, I mentioned Dr. J. H. Hertz. In his Preface to the first edition of Soncino’s Pentateuch and Haftorahs, he wrote: AUTHORITIES. Jewish and non-Jewish commentators—ancient, medieval, and modern—have been freely drawn upon. ‘Accept the true from whatever source it come,’ [his take on the Maimonides reference listed above] is sound Rabbinic doctrine—even if it be from the pages of a devout Christian expositor or of an iconoclastic Bible scholar, Jewish or non-Jewish. (p. vii).

Wow! A devout Christian; an iconoclastic Bible scholar, Jewish or non-Jewish. Dr. Hertz wrote that in 1936. Nine years later, the Rev. Dr. A. Cohen applied a similar philosophy as editor of Soncino Press’ The Psalms. It didn’t last. For in the Preface to the 2nd Edition, 1992, we find the following:

Whereas the earlier edition drew from various non-Jewish as well as Jewish sources, the publishers now feel that there is a need to acquaint the reader with the pure Jewish view of these holy books, and this revised edition therefore is based entirely on the traditional classic Jewish commentaries and source material.

“The pure Jewish view.” The idea that we cannot borrow our soul from others appears deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche—Maimonides, Dr. Hertz, Dr. Cohen, and Philologos notwithstanding. 

Let me end with a story. In the 80s, I was working in downtown Philadelphia. There was an Orthodox synagogue within a short walking distance of my workplace. I learned that they were offering a weekly Torah class, meaning, in this case, lessons on the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The teaching was done at lunchtime and aimed primarily at people returning to Judaism after a lapse, sometimes long, in their Jewish practice. Most participants would have little if any, facility in Hebrew. So, the teaching was in English using English texts. I decided to check it out. I showed up at my first class and took a seat. The teacher asked my name, where I was from, and welcomed me. He glanced briefly at the copy of Torah I had brought with me. Then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Oh, I see you have that one.” His emphasis was on the word that and didn’t sound admiring. It was the only class I attended.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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