Kicking out the Jambs
14 August 2012, 12:17 PM
So. I’m in synagogue on Saturday—I should mention that I have started full-time Monday-through-Friday type employment, for the first time since Hector was a pup, which relieves me of working on Shabbos. Which, in turn, means I can attend services on Saturday morning like a civilized person, instead of sitting at a desk embedding klezmer links into my Tohu Bohu like a wild animal in the wilderness.
So, I’m in synagogue, and we are reading the ve’ahavta, and Cantor has us read aloud the English translation in our new(ish) siddurs. Now, the prayer is one of the best-known in the liturgy, being one of the few that nobody really ever skips. It’s Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The last verse, 6:9, is rendered in the KJV as And thou shalt write them [these words] upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates; the Vulgate as scribesque ea in limine et ostiis domus tuae. This is the literal meaning: uchtavtam, to write, second-person plural imperative; al-mizuzot, on the posts, as in the post of an archway or doorway; beitecha, houses, second-person plural possessive; u’vish’arecha, gates, second-person plural possessive. You should write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. That’s what we have at the Zemerl website, and that’s what Debbie Friedman uses.
In our Mishkan T’Filah, however, there is a different translation. Throughout the translations in the siddur, they have replaced old figures of speech with new ones (when they use close translations at all), and here they say: Do not leave them at the doorway of your house, or outside your gate. From thou shalt to thou shalt not; it’s a big change, isn’t it?
See, what happened was this: It’s a figure of speech in Deut 6:9, that we should consciously keep the commandments, thinking about them all the time, as if they were written on the doorway we pass through every day. It’s like saying to tattoo it on your brain, right? But we took that figure of speech and we literalized it. We actually, literally, put the words on the doorposts. In the mezuzah, the pretty little thing that we put on the doorway. If you were to ask a Jew, most Jews I think, what is this put-it-on-the-doorposts verse about, we would say that it’s about the mezuzah. It’s something most of us have lived with all our lives—I have no idea, now that I think about it, what percentage of Jews in America have a mezuzah on their door, but I would guess a lot. It’s a common housewarming gift, among other things, and of course it’s something parents give to kids when they move into their first apartment. And, perhaps most important, it’s easy—you affix the mezuzah to the side of the doorway, and there it is. You don’t have to give up anything, or work at anything. If your mother or your rabbi comes to visit, it’s nice to see, and my guess is that most non-Jews don’t even notice it’s there. For that matter, the people in the house probably don’t notice it’s there most of the time. When we actually, literally affix the words to the door we walk through every day, we should, logically, remind ourselves of the words’ actual meaning. The Divine commandment uchtavtam al-mizuzot beitecha isn’t to put an actual mezuzah on your actual doorpost; the literalization of the text is only a tool, and only useful as a tool if it works. Which, not so much always.
So the new translation reverses it: we know you have a mezuzah, it says. That’s not good enough. Do not leave them at the doorpost, it says. Bring them inside. It’s good advice. But is it a good translation?
When I learned the original text, which I did very young, nobody told me that it was a string of figures of speech, poetic exaggerations. I mean, if I had thought about it, I would have said that the Divine did not want us to actually put the words in our hearts; that’s clearly a figure of speech. And since the English in 6:7 is teach them diligently to your children, I’m sure nobody ever told me that the verb was not the usual verb for teaching but the verb for whetting. Like a sword or an arrow. The New International Version, by the way, has Impress them on your children, which is pretty good—beat them into your children wouldn’t be far wrong, either. It’s a figure of speech, you see. It goes on to say you should talk of them sitting in your house and walking on the street; it never occurred to me that this was a phrase meaning, more or less, whatever you do, inside outside upside down. That verse concludes when you lie down and when you rise up—again, we literalized this with rituals for those moments, but clearly this doesn’t mean just those two times of day but in the A-to-Z fashion bookending the entire day. Then the text says tie them onto your hand, and put them between your eyes; we literalized those with t’fillin, and again, these are clearly figures of speech reiterating that they should be always part of our lives, included in every part of our lives. And then, on the doorways and gates we pass, put them there, too. It’s a lovely rant, not unlike the things I try for myself, now and then, emphasizing the importance by piling on off image after image, the exaggerations growing greater and sillier and more memorable.
It seems to me that what the new translation is doing by unliteralizing the figures is making us look at the text again, just as it is making us look at the mezuzah again by saying do not leave it. It is insufficient to just hang a mezuzah and leave it there; it is insufficient to just translate the text and leave it there. The actions have become frozen (or petrified, or embalmed, although that last may be a bit much), the figures of speech in the text have become petrified. The translator is trying to revivify it all. And that’s awesome.
The problem, though, is that it only works in tension with that original text. If you don’t know about the original text, if you don’t know that it was this verse from which we derived the commandment about the mezuzah, it doesn’t perform that revivification at all. And then, well, then I’m not sure it isn’t just a bad translation. Which would be too bad, really.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,