November 20, 2019

A New Bible Translation, But Only the Fun Parts

Poet and translator David Rosenberg is best known for “The Book of J,” a best-seller that features the commentary of literary scholar Harold Bloom and Rosenberg’s fresh and felicitous translation of the portions of the biblical text attributed to the author who is known to Bible scholars by the letter-code “J.”  I fear, however, that Rosenberg’s achievement as a Bible translator may have been unfairly overshadowed by Bloom’s intentionally provocative argument that J was, in fact, a woman.

Now we have a second chance to see the Bible through Rosenberg’s discerning eyes.  In his latest book, “A Literary Bible” (Counterpoint: $35.00, 681 pps.), Rosenberg brings his audacious project of Bible translation to completion by offering a new rendering of what he calls “arguably the most important work of art in the Western literary canon.”

“A Literary Bible” is something quite different, both in intention and execution, from the Bible that was handed to me on the day of my bar mitzvah. Rosenberg dispenses with passages and whole books that are concerned with law and ritual and focuses instead on the poetry and prose that comprise “the core of the Hebrew Bible.”  Much (if not all) of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers are here, but the whole of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are left out. Only 17 of the 39 books in the Jewish canon are included, some of them in highly abbreviated form, but Rosenberg finds room for Judith, a book from the Apocrypha that does not appear in the Tanakh at all.

Rosenberg translates the Hebrew text into words and phrases that differ, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically, from conventional translations. Thus, for example, Rosenberg omits the iconic opening lines of Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth”) and starts “A Literary Bible” with what appears as the second chapter of Genesis in an ordinary Bible. The lines of Gen. 2:7, conventionally translated as “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth,” are given in Rosenberg’s book in slightly different wording that creates a hugely different impression: “Yahweh shaped an earthling from clay of this earth…”  By using “earthling” and “earth,” he allows to see and hear the wordplay that appears in the original Hebrew text — the Hebrew word adam (“man”) is derived from adamah (“earth”).

Elsewhere, Rosenberg’s translation strikes the modern reader’s ear in ways that are more accessible and more resonant than the familiar but stilted words of the King James Version, which remains the benchmark for many recent translations. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is the opening line of Psalm 23 in the English translation that is still used at countless gravesides, both Jewish and Christian, but here’s how Rosenberg renders the same sentence: “The Lord is my shepherd/and keeps me from wanting/what I can’t have.”

Rosenberg provides a short preface to each translated text, and these introductory musings allow us to see what he aspires to accomplish in the translations that follow.  He insists, for instance, that most translations of Ecclesiastes into Western languages wrongly suggest that its author is plagued with “corroding doubt” when, as Rosenberg argues, the author seeks to transform the cynicism and stoicism of the pagan world into “a Jewish version of earthiness.”  Rosenberg himself, in an admitted gesture of wry self-reference, makes the author of Ecclesiastes describe how he “set to work/in the grand style/building an oeuvre/ten books in five years,” only to realize that “we can take in anything/and we are still empty/on the shore of the life/our blood flows to.”

Rosenberg, the former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, openly defies the conventional wisdom of Bible scholarship.  “Modern translations exchange poetic irony for terse sentiment,” he argues.  “The Bible is a luminous guidebook to our past yet it is put out of reach by colorless professors.”  By way of example, Rosenberg complains that Harvard scholar James Kugel, author of “How to Read the Bible,” has “an unfortunately tin ear for authorship,” and he encourages us to see the flesh-and-blood authors of the Bible as “vital, sexual beings like ourselves.”  For Rosenberg, authorship is the touchstone of the biblical text, and he suggests professional writers and poets in the ancient world experienced some of the same drives that modern ones do.

“Why does it seem so difficult for religion to discover the humanity of a great classical culture?” asks Rosenberg. “[C]an we imagine a rabbi, priest or professor of religion having authored such subtle and ironic poetic texts as Jonah or Ruth?”

The Bible according to David Rosenberg is a masterpiece of poetry and scholarship, both challenging and rewarding, always invigorating and illuminating.  Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow upon “A Literary Bible” is to report that it sent me back to the Bible, again and again, and I invariably returned to the pages of Rosenberg’s book with an even greater admiration for its author and even greater pleasure in his work.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, still owns the Bible that was handed to him by Rabbi Meyer Mereminsky at his bar mitzvah at Adat Shalom Synagogue in 1963