Article Library / Annual Assessment

2019 Annual Assessment

Significant Judaic works were also published in the Diaspora in the last year. Three of the most significant deal, more or less directly, with the question of translation. Two of these works are translations of canonical Jewish texts, Robert Alter’s translation, The Hebrew Bible, and The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, translation and commentary by Daniel Chanan Matt. The third explores the precise meaning of a key term: Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion by Daniel Boyarin. Interestingly, all three are leading scholars in their fields and current or former professors at the University of California, Berkeley.

The theme of translation is inherent in Jewish life in the Diaspora. Practically by definition, Jewish life in the Diaspora (the word Diaspora itself is Greek) is Jewish life lived in an alien language and the question of rendering Jewish concepts and texts into this lived non-Jewish language tends to be constant. (This is especially true in modern times, but it should be recalled that at base, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic are non-Jewish languages, despite their “conversion”.)

Robert Alter’s translation of the Tanach is a singular accomplishment. Almost all of the widely utilized translations of this text, including the King James version (1611), were the product of committees. Alter’s translation is a continuation of his particular engagement with the Biblical text, which is reading the Bible as literature. Since the 1970s Alter has published a series of articles and well known books (most notably, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981)), which have illuminated the literary techniques with which the Biblical narrative has been constructed, and have demonstrated the contribution that literary analysis can make to the understanding of Biblical texts. Alter’s translation is meant to convey those linguistic and narrative techniques (e.g. alliteration, repetition, key words and images) that constitute the “art of Biblical narrative” to the English reader.

A similar challenge faced Daniel Chanan Matt in his pioneering and landmark translation of the Zohar, a twenty year endeavor involving Matt and other translators. Stanford U. Press issued The Complete Set of twelve volumes in 2018. This translation does not represent the first attempt to translate this canonical but esoteric work. Soncino published extensive parts of the Zohar ( in five volumes) in 1934. However, it was not certain that the text that they translated was indeed the authentic text of the Zohar and they did not translate many passages that were too involved or found to be extremely unreliable. Daniel Chanan Matt’s translation has the supreme virtues that it is based upon a critical reconstruction of the entire authentic Zoharic text and it provides, in addition to a translation, explanations and notes regarding many of the terms in the Zohar’s unique language. The Zohar is the cornerstone of the Kabbala and deals with the Godhead and its emanations and the relations of these to (among other things) the world, Israel, the Torah, the Messiah, and evil. It sets out its doctrines not in dry exposition but in narrative terms with R. Shimon Bar Yochai and his disciples as protagonists who use a highly symbolic and mythic language. This is all rendered in a unique Aramaic that was invented in medieval Spain on the basis of Babylonian and Palestinian Aramaic and medieval Hebrew. The result of all this extraordinary and it is no wonder that passages of the Zohar have entered the liturgy. It remains to be seen how much of this magical text can be conveyed to the English reader.

Daniel Boyarin’s new book, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion examines a key term: “Judaism”-Ioudaismos, Judentum, Yahadut. Boyarin makes the startling claim that the contemporary usage and understanding of Judaism as a “religion,” a belief system that can be abstracted out of the other spheres of life (family, language, work), is a modern invention. He argues that in fact it is the result of Jews internalizing (anti-Semitic) Christian discourse and is alien to the historical Jewish manner of thinking and speaking. This work is a continuation of Boyarin’s long term project which started with his seminal Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in the Talmud (1993), and takes as its premise that the terms and assumptions of Jewish civilization in fundamental categories: spirituality, religion, the body, etc. are fundamentally different from Western, Christian assumptions (as Boyarin, who is anti-Zionist, is fully aware, his claims sound remarkably similar to those of right wing settlers and religious Zionists who also claim that authentic Jewish morality, spirituality, and religion is totally different from Western, Christian approaches).

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