New Torah translation: a radical approach

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That's because the Jewish scholar has tried to capture the essence of the Hebrew, including the repetitions, rhythms, imagery and poetry found in the original. The result, scholars say, is a Torah filled with eye-opening though sometimes jarring English.

"I consider it to be radical," Fox said.

Eve, like all other biblical characters, gets back her original Hebrew name and its translated meaning. She becomes "Havva/Life-Giver." Moses is now "Moshe/He-Who-Pulls-Out," in reference to Pharaoh's daughter pulling the baby from the river. Moshe later becomes a "sojourner…in a foreign land," to show that despite the popular King James Bible translation, the Hebrew version uses two different root words in this phrase.

In addition, the term customarily translated as "the Lord" is replaced with "YHWH" — the English equivalent of the Hebrew letters yud hay vav hay that represent the traditionally unspoken name of God.

Currently on a promotional tour, the 48-year-old associate professor and director of Jewish studies at Clark University in Massachusetts is scheduled to discuss his translation Sunday night at Afikomen Jewish Books & Art in Berkeley. The $50 book, named for its publishing company, is officially titled "The Schocken Bible: Volume I — The Five Books of Moses."

Recognizing that his translation is so unusual, Fox packs his 1,024-page work with commentary.

Other contemporary Torah translations by Jewish scholars either try to make the Hebrew read like modern literary English or they stick with traditional rabbinic wording. Fox's does not.

For example, the Jewish Publication Society's 1962 revised translation renders the first three verses of Genesis as:

"When God began to create the heaven and the earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, `Let there be light'; and there was light."

Fox translates those verses as: "At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters — God said: Let there be light! And there was light."

While some religious scholars criticize parts of Fox's effort, they also praise it as something no one else has produced in English.

"It's a very fresh approach. I'm surprised it worked," said David Noel Freedman, a professor of Hebrew biblical studies at U.C. San Diego and editor of the Anchor Bible Series. "I think everyone has tried to do it. Most of us don't succeed."

Nahum M. Sarna, the professor emeritus of

biblical studies at Brandeis University, agreed. "It's extremely useful conveying, to those who don't know Hebrew, the sense of the original," said Sarna, who worked on the Jewish Publication Society's revised translation.

He quickly added, however, that he considers the JPS' work "more scholarly." Assembled by a large group of Semitic language scholars over several decades, that text is considered the standard English translation by most Jews today.

But Fox's work didn't appear overnight either. He began the effort a quarter century ago at Brandeis University, where he earned his doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic studies.

Studying the writings of 20th century German Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Fox came across their translation of the Bible into German. The pair broke the text into poetic lines and translated the verses into German words designed to echo the Hebrew.

"What arrested me was that it was so strikingly different from anything I'd ever seen," Fox said in a telephone interview from his office in Worcester, Mass. "I essentially fell in love with the rhythm of the text."

He decided to translate a chapter of Genesis into English using the same method. "It certainly wasn't the whole Bible I was thinking about," Fox said.

His first attempt produced "gobbledygook," but he kept trying.

"Once I started…I was hooked. It took on a life of its own," said Fox, who is married to a rabbi and describes himself as a "fairly traditional" Jew who doesn't fit squarely into any Jewish movement.

In the customary approach to translation, scholars come across the same Hebrew root word in different contexts and then choose one of many possible English synonyms.

But Fox searched for a single English word that could be used in every instance that a Hebrew word appeared in the text.

Like Buber and Rosenzweig, he was convinced that the repetition of a single Hebrew word was a device to elucidate a connection or theme.

For example, forms of the word avod, or "serve," appear throughout the book of Exodus. The Israelites must serve the Egyptians; they become "serfs," which is the word Fox uses instead of the traditional translation of "slaves." Later in the story, Moses uses the root word "avod" in another context, asking the Pharoah to free the Israelites so they can serve God.

That wording, Fox said, shows the transition of the Israelites from serving humans to serving the Divine.

At times, Fox's method produces startling translations. Among the harsher ones is his translation of the Hebrew word mizbe'ah. Fox uses the term "slaughter-site" instead of the traditional word "altar." He acknowledged that in some cases he has "gone a little bit over the edge to make a point."

That's why some religious scholars and translators aren't wholeheartedly endorsing the text.

Rabbi Chaim Stern, editor of the Reform movement's "Gates of Prayer" and translator of an upcoming edition of the haftorah, said that he doesn't believe Hebrew can be transformed into the equivalent English because the two come from different linguistic families.

"My own opinion is it's not a workable proposition," the New York rabbi said. "English doesn't like that kind of structure. It isn't native to English. It's native to Hebrew."

While U.C. Berkeley Professor Robert Alter calls Fox's text a "bold and admirable" effort for going against the grain of 20th century Bible translation, he also has problems with it.

"The English too often seems strange," said Alter, author of "The Art of Biblical Narrative" and professor of Hebrew and comparative literature.

For example, Alter said, Fox's translation of ruah as the "rushing-spirit of God" feels more Native American than ancient Israelite.

"The Bible is written in a magnificent, literary Hebrew," said Alter, whose own translation of Genesis will be published next year. "I wish his English were more satisfactory."

Fox acknowledged that his method sometimes loses the nuances found in other translations and produces a "bumpy" English.

But he believes too many translations already try to "spoon-feed" the Bible by using everyday, modern English that makes the reader feel comfortable.

In Jewish tradition, however, studying Torah isn't supposed to be easy.

"Our approach is that the Bible is difficult and something that must be wrestled with," he said. "This tries to give…a taste of what's there."