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A Stepping Stone, Not a Stumbling Block: The Place of Biblical Translations in the Classroom

Nate Hain
March 28, 2024

The Tanakh has been translated into thousands of languages over the past two millennia. There are the classics of biblical translation—those nearly synonymous with the Good Book itself: King James, RSV, Septuagint—and those regularly consulted by the Jewish community in its learning: Artscroll, Koren, JPS. The world’s best-selling book has been consumed by readers everywhere in every tongue, to use the biblical parlance. My journey with biblical translation is not long, and hardly deep; I have only just begun my plunge into the vast and widely varied world of those who render the Tanakh’s ancient text into modern language. This world is diverse and packed with numerous, often conflicting ideologies: idiomatic versus literal, traditional versus historically accurate, and so on and so forth—each illuminating a distinct facet of the Tankah’s text.

Too often, though, this rich, pedagogically valuable body of literature, biblical translation, is shunned in the classroom; not simply ignored by our community’s Tanakh teachers but often expressly condemned and rejected. “Not something you should do,” they may say. Or, “Use only the original Hebrew.”

These are the messages imparted to many high school students in their Tanakh classes, that English translations are gross, inaccurate distortions of the Masoretic Text. These exhortations, of course, do not stop students from consulting Koren, JPS or any of the other numerous (Jewish or non-Jewish) translations available online and in their personal and school libraries.

Two years ago, I embarked on the 929 Tanakh B’yachad program. Sunday through Friday, I read one chapter of Tankah a day. Currently, the cycle is in the middle of Trei ‘Asar, the Twelve Prophets. I yearned for the confidence knowing the entire canon of the Bible would lend me. I also did 929 to familiarize myself with the cardinal, foundational text of our heritage and to improve my biblical Hebrew, the language this faith was created in. But along the way, my goals were seized and somewhat subverted by the unique beauty of translations.

Biblical translations are older than the four Christian Gospels. Each translation was written for a particular community and a particular time. When the ancient translations (Septuagint, Targum, Syriac or Vulgate) don’t match, or may even contradict, the Masoretic Text, scholars can explain the variants in one of three ways: (1) A translation’s vorlage (the manuscript from which the translation was made) differed (due to a scribal error?) from that of the Masoretic Text; (2) the ancient translators made a mistake or misunderstood the Hebrew (as Michelangelo, a thousand years after the Vulgate, did with his Moses); (3) the translators had the same Masoretic Text and understood it not incorrectly, but differently than we interpret it.

The third explanation is both the fundamental flaw of biblical translations and what lends them excitement and vitality. Certainly, vorlages differed and translators stumbled. But to consider that, in many cases, the variants between the ancient translations are due not to manmade errors but to the newly uncovered scholarship and the novel human creativity of each generation is what gives translations their intrigue and meaning. The interpretive process in translations lends the Bible an air of collaboration between the Divine author and the human reader. Only people, and Jews in particular, with our constant return to the same texts and spirit of renewal, could endlessly make the same ancient book feel novel every time it’s opened and translated.

Yes, translation is interpretation (as my ninth grade teacher put it), and we must be cognizant of that fact when reading translations: they are not the same as the original text, nor can they be. But those interpretations are both beautiful and valuable. Interpretations render each version of the Bible one of a kind in nature, and each is an expression of additional Torah insight and a fulfillment of Torah study.

I began 929 hoping to complete the Tanakh in its entirety, to become somewhat accomplished in this one area of my faith. But thanks to the beauty, difficulty and diversity of biblical translations, when I finish the cycle in 2025, I’ll have read not just the original Hebrew of the Bible but multiple unique and endlessly fascinating interpretations of the book, all originating from the same text. I’ve seen people’s personal beliefs and values reflected in the text of Scripture through their translations; translation allows people today, as well as in the past, a hand in crafting the Bible. These translations have not only lent me a more thorough insight into the possibilities of Scripture and biblical interpretation, they have also given me a better understanding of the value of Modern Orthodoxy’s way in renewal and rejuvenation, always balanced by a strict adherence to and admiration of past tradition.

Tankah teachers should not shun translations. (And not all do.) This tactic not only fails to prevent students from consulting these resources in the first place, but also deprives teens from experiencing the full depth of the Tanakh’s text in its wide array of diverse interpretations. And perhaps more importantly, banning translation from the classroom deprives the teens in our community of the tools they need to properly read a translation.

Instead, Tanakh classes should teach their students not to ignore translations but how to use them. Teach them to view translations not as a replacement for the original text of the Tanakh but as an interpretive tool. Students should learn to recognize the potential biases and goals of each translation, to be cognizant of the factors that may have influenced a translator’s interpretative choices. Students should be instructed that when utilizing translation, they should always consult multiple versions in order to glean as many nuances as possible from the text, and to ensure that they are not misled by or stuck with a single translator’s understanding.

To be sure, we must continue teaching students the skills they need to engage with and clearly understand the original Hebrew of the Bible. We mustn’t allow Jewish youth to rely on translations for their Tanakh learning. Rather, we must teach them to view translations as a tool, as sources of diverse and wide-ranging interpretation. By exposing students to translations in this manner, we may allow them to uncover all of the seventy faces of the Torah, one interpretation at a time.