Don't Worry About the Bible, It Can Take Care of Itself

In Israel, a move is afoot to publish the Bible in contemporary Hebrew.

In Israel - which was established 60 years ago as the national home of the Jewish people, which "gave the world the eternal Book of Books" (according to the Declaration of Independence), and whose official languages, alongside Arabic, include that same Hebrew in which the Book of Books is written - a move is afoot to publish the Bible in contemporary Hebrew. In other words, to translate the Bible into Hebrew. To rewrite it, in the same language, using different words.

This is a private commercial endeavor launched by a veteran teacher of the Bible, Avraham Ahuvia, and publisher Rafi Mozes of Reches Educational Projects. The entire text is vocalized, and each verse appears in the original form alongside the translated version.

The Education Ministry cried foul upon hearing of the idea and hastily issued a directive banning use of the new translation in schools. The danger has thus been averted: Even if they wanted to, Israeli teachers and students, at least officially, may not sample this work.

In 1964, Robert Graves was asked by the British National Theatre to translate Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" into English, to make it easier for British audiences to understand a play that was written in the English language of 400 years ago. He commented at the time: "A remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good."

The new translation proves that the same also applies to the Bible. It suffices to compare the original first verse of the Book of Genesis with its translation. The difference between the original - "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" - and the translation - "At the start of creation, when God created the world" - may as well be the difference between the heavens and the earth. Like any great work of literature, the Bible worded differently in the same language is a different book altogether.

Those who conceived of the translation project are quick to point out that their intentions were good. "The language of the Bible is a 'foreign language' for Israeli students, and there is a need to interpose easier language, so that teachers can have free time to delve deeper [into the material]," said Rafi Mozes (who decided to etch his name on the project for posterity and thus titled the book the Ram Bible, where "Ram" represents his initials in Hebrew). Avraham Ahuvia, who translated the work, added: "I was convinced [to put out the book] because we teachers translate the Bible orally in lessons for the students, who have a difficult time understanding the grand language."

It is worth noting that Western culture, which encompasses many languages, evolved over 2,000 years. During that time, it has been enriched by translations of the Bible from Hebrew to Aramaic (and vice versa), Greek, Latin and English. Hebrew itself was developed over many generations by sages who translated the Bible into their contemporary languages, and that produced the language of the Talmud. And there is indeed a difference between biblical Hebrew and contemporary Hebrew, even though it is the same language. More importantly, there is a huge difference between Hebrew speakers of 60 years ago and those who speak the language today, even though it is the same language.

Back in 1919, my grandfather, Yisrael Eliyahu Handelzalts, a Hebrew teacher and translator in Poland who knew a thing or two about translations of the Bible and its similarity to spoken Hebrew, accurately diagnosed the problem. He translated the Book of Esther from Aramaic to Hebrew, as well as the Aramaic sections of the Book of Daniel.

In an article he penned for Hamadrich, a professional journal for teachers published in Lodz, Poland, he wrote: "In the past ... knowledge of the Hebrew language was gained by knowledge of the holy texts and the Talmud, knowledge of grammar was gained by interpreting Rashi, the style of the Mishna and its offshoots, the language of the rabbis ... Back then, ignorance was impossible. A 'knower of Hebrew' and an ignoramus were two opposites back then. Now, things have changed. Any average knower of Hebrew does not need the Bible at all, and if he learned it, he did so intermittently and in fits and starts. Now it is possible to know the Hebrew language, and to nonetheless be a boor and an ignoramus..."

I cannot ask my grandfather for his reaction to the new translation. He was killed by the Nazis in the Rusissian town of Novgrodok in 1941. From his writing, however, it is clear that he is speaking of the same problem that motivated the new translators to act. Turning the language of the Bible into our everyday tongue entailed a price: Generations of people speak the language of the Bible without being aware that they are doing so. When they say a simple word like shamaim (sky), they do not know they are quoting the Book of Genesis - much like Monsieur Jourdain in "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" spoke in prose his entire life without knowing it was prose.

Motivated Bible teachers today need not make it easier for native Hebrew speakers to understand the language of the Bible, the same language in which they speak. They must not make the Bible easier for them, which essentially means killing the Bible softly. Rather, they should demonstrate that a small amount of thought and effort is all that is required to understand the Bible as it was written.

I am not concerned about the Bible and its language, nor am I worried by contemporary Hebrew. They have enough admirers (Meir Shalev, for example, who authored "Bible Now" and whose latest work is a study of biblical text titled "Reishit, Pa'amim Rishonot B'mikra"). Hebrew knows how to take care of itself. The Bible is eternal, due to its own merits. The only thing they have to fear is teachers with good intentions.