THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES: A TRANSLATION WITH COMMENTARY
by Robert Alter
Published b y W.W. Norton & Company, 2004
Reviewed by Rabbi Raymond Apple
This is a magnificent book. As a piece of bookcraft it is a pleasure to hold. As a translation it is insightful – probably not always accurate, but an attempt to handle the nuances of the Hebrew with more linguistic skill than the King James Version of 1611 (Alter’s “When God began to create heaven and earth” is certainly better than, if not as majestic as, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). Inevitably the translation is a commentary in itself; thus, still looking at Genesis 1, tohu vavohu is rendered “welter and waste” instead of the conventional “chaos and void”.
There is a formal commentary at the foot of each page, often high stimulating even when it rejects what the author calls “maneuvers of exegetical justification in the Midrash”. The introductory section is scholarly and helpful, though possibly too enamoured of Bible criticism and the now largely discredited theories that separate the Biblical texts on the basis of the various Hebrew names of God found in them. The traditionalist reader of the Akedah, for example – Genesis 22 – cannot see the story as less than a complete whole with the Almighty sometimes being Elokim and sometimes HaShem, depending on whether His actions at that point manifest the attribute of justice (Elokim) or compassion (HaShem).
Of course any translator has to ask him- or herself whether the task is really necessary. As Kohelet said, “Of the making of many books there is no end”. The unfriendly cynic might say, “Don’t we have more than enough Bible translations already?” but in Alter’s defence one has to agree with him that many other translators have only “a shaky sense of English” and/or “a shaky sense of Hebrew”.
Alter argues that many earlier renderings were possibly only guesswork – intelligent guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. Recent investigation of Biblical culture and linguistics have made it unnecessary to guess. In his own case, a sensitive feeling for Biblical Hebrew style is combined with an expert understanding of the power inherent in the rich and flexible language that is English, whether or not we agree with him in his ideology or interpretations.
I have to say that I feel more at home with the commentary of my late teacher, Rabbi Harry Freedman of Melbourne, which was published a year or two ago by his family. But that is because I cannot separate the Pentateuch as a classical work of literature from the Chumash I cherish from decades of going to shul and the Rashi I love from trying to read the Chumash as a traditionalist believer. Not that Alter ignores the Jewish commentators. It is rather that he implies that no-one, not even Rashi, Ramban and Ibn Ezra, may be said to have ownership of the great work that is the Hebrew Bible.
You might not necessarily bring Alter’s book to shul with you, but you should certainly acquire a copy, open it on your study table as often as you can, and rejoice in its constant capacity to find nuances and expressions, ideas and inspiration, in what one reviewer has rightly called Alter’s “grace, comprehensive learning, and unswerving commitment to clarity and cogency.”