Off the Pulpit

Found in Translation

Ours is the age of translation. There are more Jewish texts available in English than in any language at any time in history. Not only are Hebrew and Aramaic texts translated, but also works in Yiddish, Ladino, German, French, and the countless other languages Jews have spoken throughout the centuries. 

From beginning we were a polyglot people. It is part of the condition of exile. Moses was raised speaking Egyptian, in ancient times the Torah was rendered into Aramaic and Greek, and some words in old French are known because the medieval commentator Rashi uses them to illuminate phrases in the Torah and Talmud. A Jewish historian once remarked to me that no one can speak enough languages to do full justice to the history of the Jewish people. 

But even with translations, the key that unlocks the Jewish tradition is Hebrew. It is the original language of the Torah, and the best translation will fall short. When Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize novelist was in Israel his fellow Nobelist, S. Agnon, asked Bellow if his books were translated into Hebrew. Yes, replied Bellow. “Ah,” said Agnon, “then you are safe.” After more than three thousand years and counting, maybe Agnon’s right.