Jewish tradition mandates that we name our teachers, asserting that doing so redeems the world. It is therefore disappointing that neither Avi Steinberg’s article on Robert Alter’s three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible (NYTMagazine, Dec 23, 2018) nor P. J. Grisar’s summary of the Times article in The Forward (Dec 24, 2018), mentions the real origins of Alter’s approach to the Bible.
The whole enterprise of translating the Bible so as to make available in English the rhythms, word-plays, leit-motifs, and texture of the Hebrew – rather than “normal” or “literary” English – began in 1972 with a translation of the Book of Genesis (In the Beginning) by Everett Fox.
Fox was then a graduate student at Brandeis and is now a professor at Clark University. His translation, published in a special issue of Response magazine (Summer 1972), stirred great excitement in the Jewish and parts of the Christian world. It led to publication by Schocken Books of In the Beginning in 1983, Now These Are the Names (Exodus) in 1990, Fox’s The Five Books of Moses in 1995, and The Early Prophets (Judges, Samuel, and Kings) in 2014.
Alter’s work on the Hebrew Bible did not begin till the 1990s. according to the article in the Times. His publication of the Five Books came in 2004. Steinberg refers to Fox’s work in general, yet does not mention that Fox’s entire rethinking of how to translate the Hebrew Bible preceded Alter’s work by decades.
On the other hand, from the very beginning, Fox honored his own teachers by making clear that he was inspired by a unique translation of the Hebrew Bible into German by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.
In another paean to Alter’s innovation, Steinberg compares his translation of a verse in the Song of Songs to the widely used translation of the Jewish Publication Society version. He is quite right that the JPS version is wooden, the opposite of the erotic overtones of the text. As Steinberg notes, in this case Alter does honor his teacher, crediting his translation of the verse to the translation by Chana and Ariel Bloch. But neither Alter nor Steinberg mentions the translation by Marcia Falk, which long preceded the Blochs as well as Alter's. Falk not only lit up the erotic glimmers of the Hebrew without diminishing its spiritual glow or its poetic brilliance, but also first made transparent for readers of English the dialogue between the man and woman of the Song by using different type fonts for each of them.
For me as rabbi, teacher, theologian, and activist who has used Fox’s work for decades in unwrapping the Bible for students and congregants who are not adept in Hebrew, one element of Fox’s translation has been extraordinarily fruitful. He refused to obey the conventional “non-translation” as “Lord” of the sacred Name of God in the Hebrew letters “Yod Hei Vav Hei.” That convention is based on a decision of the Rabbis that the word “Adonai,” which means “Lord,” should be said whenever “YHWH” appears. Alter follows that convention.
But it is clear that this is not what the Four Letters meant in most of the Hebrew Bible, nor were the Four Letters wrapped with vowels that would make the Name “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Fox, true to the vision of making the true Hebrew truly accessible in English, simply transliterated the Name as “YHWH.”
For a generation that is uncomfortable with “Lord” as a metaphor for God and also demands truthful authenticity, Fox’s transliteration is far more truthful and invites us to wrestle in each moment with what “YHWH” meant to those who wrote the Bible, and what it means to us. If we try to pronounce it with no vowels, most people find themselves simply breathing. So perhaps it meant, and could mean again for us, “the Breath of Life.” In any case, seeing “YHWH” invites us to wrestle with the meaning. Becoming “Godwrestlers” once again.