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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Contemporary Torah

The Jewish Publication Society has just published a gender-sensitive adaptation of the JPS translation, The Contemporary Torah, ISBN: 0827607962.

HT: J.D.

UPDATE: Here is a description of this adaptation from
Offers readers new perspectives on the role gender plays in Bible translation

This adaptation of the JPS translation of the Torah (1962) will appeal to readers who are interested in a historically based picture of social gender roles in the Bible as well as those who have become accustomed to gender-sensitive English in other aspects of their lives.

Many contemporary Bible scholars contend that the Bible's original audience understood that the references to God as male simply reflected gendered social roles at the time. However, evidence for this implicit assumption is ambiguous. Accordingly, in preparing this new edition, the editors sought language that was more sensitive to gender nuances, to reflect more accurately the perceptions of the original Bible readers.

In places where the ancient audience probably would not have construed gender as pertinent to the text's plain sense, the editors changed words into gender-neutral terms; where gender was probably understood to be at stake, they left the text as originally translated, or even introduced gendered language where none existed before. They made these changes regardless of whether words referred to God, angels, or human beings.

For example, the phrase originally translated in the 1962 JPS Torah as "every man as he pleases" has been rendered here "each of us as we please" (Deut. 12:8). Similarly, "man and beast" now reads "human and beast" (Exod. 8:14), since the Hebrew word adam is meant to refer to all human beings, not only to males. Conversely, the phrase "the persons enrolled" has been changed to "the men enrolled" (Num. 26:7), to reflect the fact that only men were counted in census-taking at this time.

In most cases, references to God are rendered in gender neutral language. A special case in point: the unpro-nounceable four-letter name for the Divine, the Tetragammaton, is written in unvocalized Hebrew, conveying to the reader that the Name is something totally "other"-- beyond our speech and understanding. Readers can choose to substitute for this unpronounceable Name any of the numerous divine names offered by Jewish tradition, as generations have before our time. In some instances, however, male imagery depicting God is preserved because it reflects ancient society's view of gender roles.

David Stein's preface provides an explanation of the methodology used, and a table delineates typical ways that God language is handled, with sample verses. Occasional notes applied to the Bible text explain how gender is treated; longer supplementary notes at the end of the volume comment on special topics related to this edition.

In preparing this work, the editors undertook a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the Torah's gender ascriptions. The result is a carefully rendered alternative to the traditional JPS translation.


At Thu Aug 10, 04:14:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wayne, do you know if there are plans for an entire Tanakh or just the Torah?

At Thu Aug 10, 06:10:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Thu Aug 10, 09:57:00 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

There is an interesting description of one of the aspects of the project on the SBL Forum site (; how to represent the name of God in the English text. As the Amazon summary mentions, this has been a controversial issue in Jewish circles for some time, with different national/regional customs and ideological preferences being involved.

David Stein includes a review of scribal practices and other precedents going back to the Septuagint and the Dead Sea manuscripts, but it seems that the editors decided to actually consult the sort of people who would be using the revised translation (with a summary of results). Which is an encouraging sign that they take seriously the notion that a Bible translation is really the property of the community that uses it, not something for some Authority to impose from above.

I'm not sure if I agree with the solution on this particular issue, which Stein reports was in fact decided by the publisher: to not only avoid any customary substitution/translation, like "The LORD," or "The ETERNAL," but to use the actual Hebrew letters, instead of the editorial choice of YHWH. In either case, directing the reader to use whatever substitute is found personally appropriate results in a sort of qetib/kere situtation, with which I am sure some novice readers will not be comfortable.

(I personally favor some sort of reminder that what is being read is, after all, only a translation of an ancient document -- I am just not sure if this is the sort of reminder that people not already well-informed will accept; I hope it works.)

However, the argument that "foreign" scripts, including Hebrew letters, are becoming less extoic and intimidating in a world of Unicode fonts, suggests a real awareness that translations are themselves the product of cultural (and technological) moments, and should not be regarded as eternal monuments.

At Thu Aug 10, 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, foreign scripts only became a problem when the age of printing began, but didn't seem to put off 19th and early 20th century academic publishers, e.g. my BDB Hebrew dictionary contains at least Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Syriac and Ethiopic scripts. Early computer typesetting in fact made the problem worse, but now it is beginning to disappear with better character handling. But this solution can hardly be portrayed as a new technology-driven one when it is in fact identical to what was done in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible more than 2000 years ago!

At Thu Aug 10, 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

The issue I was raising wasn't printing technology as such, but the supposed change in the expectations (or tolerance) of "the common reader," concerning which Stein invoked Unicode.

However, I wouldn't discount the changed economics of repeatedly inserting Hebrew into a text in the roman alphabet, in book aimed at a non-academic market, without which I doubt that the JPS would have seriously considered the option.

At Thu Aug 10, 11:59:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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