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For readers of Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible and Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk comes a powerful exploration of the Bible in translation.
Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking family, reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and debating its meaning over the dinner table. She knew much of it by heart—and was therefore surprised when, while getting her MFA at the University of Iowa, she took the novelist Marilynne Robinson’s class on the Old Testament and discovered she barely recognized the text she thought she knew so well. From differences in the Ten Commandments to a less ambiguous reading of the creation story to a new emphasis on the topic of slavery, the English translation often felt like another book entirely from the one she had grown up with.
Kushner began discussing the experience with Robinson, who became a mentor, and her interest in the differences between the ancient language and the modern one gradually became an obsession. She began what became a ten-year project of reading different versions of the Hebrew Bible in English and traveling the world in the footsteps of the great biblical translators, trying to understand what compelled them to take on a lifetime project that was often considered heretical and in some cases resulted in their deaths.
In this eye-opening chronicle, Kushner tells the story of her vibrant relationship to the Bible, and along the way illustrates how the differences in translation affect our understanding of our culture’s most important written work. A fascinating look at language and the beliefs we hold most dear, The Grammar of God is also a moving tale about leaving home and returning to it, both literally and through reading.
Praise for The Grammar of God
“The highest praise for a book, perhaps, is tucking it into a slot on your bookshelf where you’ll always be able to effortlessly slide it out, lay it across your lap and soak it up for a minute or a long afternoon’s absorption. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, Aviya Kushner’s poetic and powerful plumbing of both the Hebrew and English translations of the Bible, now rests in just such an easy-to-grab spot in my library. In a word, it’s brilliant. And beautiful.”—Barbara Mahany, Chicago Tribune
“Aviya Kushner has written a passionate, illuminating essay about meaning itself. The Grammar of God is also a unique personal narrative, a family story with the Bible and its languages as central characters.”—Robert Pinsky
“Kushner is principally interested in the meanings and translations of key Biblical passages, and she pursues this interest with a fierce passion. . . . A paean, in a way, to the rigors and frustrations—and ultimate joys—of trying to comprehend the unfathomable.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A remarkable and passionately original book of meditation, exegesis, and memoir. In Kushner’s redemptive vision, the Bible in its many translations is a Noah’s ark, and her book, too, does a work of saving. When I put it down, I wept.”—Rosanna Warren, author of Stained Glass
“What a glorious book! From Sarah’s laughter to the idea of Jewish law being a dialogue and not a rigid set of rules, this is a book not only to learn from but to savor.”—Peter Orner, author of Love and Shame and Love
“In this splendid book, each page is a wonder.”—Willis Barnstone, author of The Restored New Testament
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Grammar of God
In/at the beginningcreatedGod
[no English equivalent; the skies; the introduces a definite direct object]heavens
and et [see et above]the earth/land
And the earth/landwas [feminine verb, past tense]
wild emptiness; voidand darkness
[The phrase to’hu va’vo’hu appears only twice in the Bible; the other place is Jeremiah 4:23.]
on[the] facewater; deep water
[“Face” in Hebrew is always plural; the same is true for “water” and “life.”]
And the wind/spirit[of] God
flutters/hoversonface[of] the water
1 In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth.
2 And the earth was without forme, and voyd; and darkeness was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.
King James Bible (1611)
1 When God began to create heaven and earth—
2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—
Jewish Publication Society Bible (1985)
1 At the beginning of God’s creating
of the heavens and the earth,
2 when the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—
Schocken Bible (The Five Books of Moses, translated by Everett Fox, 1997)
1 In the beginning, when God created the universe,
2 the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water.
Good News Bible–Today’s English Version, American Bible Society (2001)
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was waste and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Darby Bible (1890)
1 When God began to create heaven and earth,
2 and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters,
Genesis: Translation and Commentary (Translated by Robert Alter, 1997)
My family generally discusses the grammar of creation when I’m carrying at least thirty pounds of food. I’ve often walked into the dining room with a heavy platter of chicken and roasted potatoes just when my brother brings up the first line of Genesis, the opening of the world.
“It’s a problem,” my younger brother Davi says. “Every commentator knows it’s a problem.”
“It all comes down to how you read that one word,” my mother says. “Do you read the verb in the first line as bara, in the past tense, so that it means ‘In the beginning God created,’ or do you read it as bro, the infinitive, so that it reads ‘In the beginning of God’s creating’?”
Someone reaches for the asparagus.
“Bereishit bara elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz,” Davi says. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. I can guess what he’s thinking. If Genesis 1:1 says that God definitively created the heavens and the earth, over and done with—then why would line 2 go on about the time before the earth’s creation, saying “and the earth was without form, and void” as if line 1 wasn’t even there?
I survey the table, looking for an empty spot to put the platter down. For the moment, everyone seems focused on eating. There are eight of us: my three younger brothers, my younger sister, my mother and father, and my grandmother—my father’s mother—who lived with us then, and remained for more than a decade. I’m nineteen, my next brother, Amiad, is seventeen and a half, and Davi is sixteen. My sister, Merav, is twelve, and our youngest brother, Daniel, is six.
“Maybe the beginning isn’t exactly the beginning,” Davi says.
The Shabbat candles flicker desperately, as if they know their stay on earth is limited to this meal, their lives as short as a conversation.
Here we are again, on the seventh day, discussing the Hebrew of the first day.
“I remember reading Ramban in the eighth grade,” Davi continues, referring to the thirteenth-century commentator who lived in Christian Spain. “And what he said about the first line of the Bible. I thought it sounded a lot like evolution, what we were learning about in the afternoon.”
“That’s ridiculous!” my father suddenly screams. “Don’t be absurd!”
“Why?” Davi says.
Davi ducks out of the way as I lift the platter over his head in an effort to reach the empty spot of table space directly in front of him. And he gives me a look that says, Isn’t there anywhere else you can put this?
Well, no. It’s the only spot. And this table is, sometimes, the only place on earth where I can fight with myself and my family and God and the opening lines of the Bible all at the same time.
“I’m just saying,” Davi continues, “Ramban’s idea that everything was there, just formless, but was given form later is very close to what Darwin says hundreds of years later. Don’t you think it’s similar?”
“I can’t even listen to this,” my mathematician father says. My father has spent years of his life studying physics, battling math, and immersing himself in the history of discovery. The idea that Ramban’s rambling comment even approaches Darwin’s achievement infuriates him. “This is science. The rabbis—that’s absurd!”
Davi recites what Ramban says anyway.
I sigh and settle in for a long discussion. Ramban’s commentary on Genesis 1:1 happens to extend for pages. Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, often writes long entries, and he goes all out about the very beginning of the Bible. First, he insists that the idea that God created the world is the core of belief. But eventually he moves into radical territory by trying to understand why there is so much text about creation after Genesis 1:1, from the making of man to the Garden of Eden scene to the near-destruction of the world and the saving of Noah. And that’s when things get interesting.
Ramban argues that what God created in Genesis 1:1 was a formlessness, which God later changes into form. In the beginning, Ramban suggests, God created primordial matter that later became the various parts and inhabitants of the world.
“Well, what if line one isn’t the real beginning, anyway?” someone interrupts.
When this conversation erupts again a decade later, while I am a graduate student at Iowa, twenty-nine years old and coming home for the holidays, I smile to realize at least this part of life has not changed.
As the discussion quickly moves to where the Bible should have started in the first place—Rashi, in his commentary on Genesis 1:1, quotes his father, Rabbi Yitzchak, who says the Torah should have begun with the first moment of nationhood, and not with creation—I think about how little of the rabbis’ elaborate commentary could be elicited from the English translation. In the 1611 King James rendition of Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—there is no room for mystery. There is no room for puzzlement, no room for what prompted the rabbis’ lengthy commentary.
Rashi reads Genesis 1:1 as a clause or a phrase connecting Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 into one long sentence. This reading is nothing like the King James Bible’s two-sentence translation for Genesis 1:1–2, but it is pretty much how Genesis 1:1–2 comes across in the most recent Jewish Publication Society translation, published in 1985:
When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
That “began to create” is close to what Rashi is trying to convey. Rashi believed that bara, the word frequently translated as “created” in Genesis 1:1, should be read as bro, meaning “the creation of” (in the beginning of the creation of), the argument my mother was referring to.
But how, exactly, does Rashi come to this conclusion, and why is it so confusing to begin with?
The answer is one of my mother’s all-time favorite dinner topics: vowels.
In Hebrew, vowels—dots and dashes located above, beneath, and inside letters—frequently determine meaning. And Rashi claims that in Genesis 1:1, the vowels should have been rendered differently. This complaint isn’t unreasonable. In the medieval era, and in our own, typos and human errors were not unheard-of phenomena. Then as now, they can be both irritating and critical, prompting irate letters to the editor—and pages of biblical commentary, which is pretty much what Rashi is doing in his commentary on Genesis 1:1.
Rashi, in the eleventh century, can argue that the vowels are wrong because he knows that written vowels were added to the text only in the eighth century, and before that, the reading of the text was passed along orally, from teacher to student, parent to child, perhaps around tables like the one we are eating at right now. Rashi uses his deep knowledge of the text, of all that comes after Genesis 1:1, to help him, just as a modern reader might use past experience to flag a typo. In this case, Rashi thinks there should have been a dot above the verb instead of lines beneath it. It is the verb, and more specifically the grammatical state of it, that determines a world of meaning.
It’s not just recent Jewish translations that are defining the verb in Genesis 1:1 as a phrase, as Rashi did. Interestingly, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Edition, published in 2001, also combines Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. It reads:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.
I look over at my father, who is eating peacefully again. Maybe my father is simply too hungry to comment on evolution. In previous meals, he has said something like, “There is no way the rabbis knew about evolution. No way, or the entire history of science would be different!”
In the rare silence, I imagine the Shabbat meals of several hundred years ago, eaten by candlelight. When Ramban lived, evolution wasn’t a dominant idea, though Aristotle had already suggested it. Perhaps the thirteenth-century concept of evolution was more like a few observations scribbled on a scientist’s pad, like the calculations my father leaves around the house on yellow legal paper in his pursuit of a beautiful theory or what his field calls an “optimal experimental design.”
I don’t really know what “optimal experimental design” means, but to me what is optimal is the sight of work; I love seeing the start of creation. And I like that I can’t even understand what I read in my father’s neat handwriting. I see equations, x’s and y’s, the linearization of some polynomial—it doesn’t matter. What is beautiful is the process of his thought, the fact that the questions go on, that my father is not troubled by not finding definite answers.
It’s a little like some of the rambling moments in biblical commentary; what grips me is how the commentators get where they are going question by question, point by point, and how sometimes even the great Rashi writes aineni yodeya, which means, simply, “I don’t know.”
“All the commentators are interested in grammar,” my mother says, moving the conversation back to her favorite subject while spearing a roasted potato. It is flavored with chawaj, a spice from the Arab world that finds its way into our chicken soup, too.
My youngest brother, Dani, and I try to look bored. My sister, Merav, who is seven years younger than I am, tries to focus on her plate, making her way through her vegetables with her usual efficiency. We have been listening to the grammar wars, the roar and explosion and finally the temporary calm, all our lives. But no amount of pleading can stop my mother from discussing grammar.
There is nothing more fascinating to my mother than the ways to look at an ancient word. For as long as I can remember, my mother has been trying to convince us that grammar is a universe, and that the tiniest parts of grammar tell a story. “It is impossible to read a word without its neighbors,” my mother says to us. “You have to read the first line next to the rest.”
The rest of us keep munching. Around us, the paintings on the dining room walls, all of them of Hebrew letters floating in the air, look on. They were once my grandfather’s, painted by his rabbi and friend, a man as in love with the look of Hebrew letters as I have been with the conversation they create.
I grew up in Monsey, New York, a town twenty-five miles and a universe from Manhattan. Officially, Monsey is an unincorporated area, though a few years ago it was given a green-and-white sign on the highway. A few decades ago, Monsey was mostly farms and orchards, and there are still pear trees on the street where I grew up.
But in the Jewish world, Monsey is famous: it is sometimes called ir hakodesh, the holy city, the term usually reserved for Jerusalem, or yerushalayim shel mata, literally the Jerusalem of below, or the Jerusalem outside Israel. Monsey is home to thousands of rabbis, many students of the Torah, and important yeshivas—schools of Jewish higher learning. The word yeshiva comes from the verb lashevet, to sit or to settle, and many scholars seem to settle in for years, decades, even lifetimes. Some of the yeshivas belong to large, well-known Chassidic sects, like the Satmar or the Viznitz, whose yeshiva has castle-like towers. Chassidim are adherents to a movement that began in the eighteenth century, with the Ba’al Shem Tov—whose name literally means “bearer of a good name”—a rabbi who promoted the idea that emotions matter more than scholarship. This radical concept meant that a devout shoemaker could hold the same status as an erudite rabbinical student.
In addition to the major Chassidic sects that are represented in Monsey, there are smaller sects, like the Stoliner, whose school is on a main road; other sects’ schools are not that easy to find. On the block I grew up on, there are Gerer Chassidim and Belz Chassidim, and not far away is the Popov Rebbe, a man I have heard of but never seen. These rabbis are major presences in the lives of their followers, and in Monsey. But as soon as I leave Monsey for Manhattan, or Newark Airport, the importance of the Popov Rebbe suddenly recedes. Still, the Popov Rebbe managed to have an effect on me. I once heard a conversation between two people who were trying to buy a house as close to the Rebbe as possible. Years later, when I tried to live as close as possible to writers I admired, I finally understood that aspect of what makes Monsey tick: the desire to live close to great teachers, to great thinkers, to the rabbinical presence.
Aviya Kushner has worked as a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post, and her poems and essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Partisan Review, and The Wilson Quarterly. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago and is a contributing editor at A Public Space and a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.