1. Who is This Guy who Thinks He’s so Smart?
Before I try to answer that question, let me reveal some of my philosophy. I believe that we should approach anything holy, such as the Tanach, the Hebrew bible, with love, reverence, care, intelligence, and a sense of the profound. Only in this manner may we perceive and acknowledge the intricate wisdom of what is contained in it.
We ourselves have to be ritually clean and holy in order that our coming in contact with the holy does not profane it. What does it mean to be holy? Although the Talmudists wrestled with understanding what it means, in a simple sense, it means to be separated, held apart. That may be adequate for people and things, but what about God? Is He holy in that sense? We are holy when we separate ourselves from the profane in life. God tells us to be holy, for we are His chosen people, and He is holy. Does that mean He is separated from human beings and the mundane world? But we are told over and over again in the Torah and bible that the Lord is near, that He “hears” our prayers, sees our actions, knows our thoughts, speaks to us, inspires our dreams and visions. He is everywhere. Maybe this means that God has His own kind of holy, at least as applied to Him. That meaning may be beyond our understanding.
Now some believe that holy also means eternal. Certainly God is eternal, and the Jewish people is eternal. The problem I have with expanding the simple definition is that God tells us that individuals can be holy and in no way can living material individuals be eternal. Animals that are prepared for sacrifice, or at least some of their body parts, are holy as well. And they are not eternal. So I believe we must stick primarily with the simple definition -- that of separation. However, another aspect of holiness applies to people and to the Temple. One who is anointed with blood or holy oil is holy. And an object in the Temple is made holy by anointing with blood. Yet even that holiness must be guarded by separation from the profane.
Now I doubt that I would be considered holy by most Torah-educated Jews, by many among the orthodox, or by most rabbis. I would be a heretic to many of them, a sinner. For one thing, by tradition we Jews are forbidden to study the Torah by ourselves. We are encouraged, if not commanded, to study with a learned teacher, or at least, paired with another learner. I had never understood that. I always had resented it, assuming it to be an elitist point of view. But once I started my isolated work and began to make some startling discoveries, I realized that the reason for this supposed elitism was to protect the sanctity of the Torah and bible, to protect the tradition. In studying the bible, one will encounter many questionable and controversial passages. And while Judaism is said to permit – even encourage – questioning, the answers are, for the most part, prepared and within the bounds of tradition. No other answers are entertained. To suggest other answers, even by some rabbis, might be considered heresy. In this translation of the bible, I suggest many other answers that are not part of our tradition. And in some important cases, I present strong arguments and evidence for these nontraditional alternative answers.
I tell you, though, that if you spent 15 years translating the bible from Hebrew to English as I have, you would likely come to believe. You would probably believe in God. You would probably believe in Judaism. You would probably believe in the miracle of the perpetual existence of the Jews. You would probably believe in the purpose of the Jews to be joyful witnesses to the God of Israel before the nations of the world. You might come to believe that the ancient talmudic scholars were misled in some of their interpretations of the Torah. These are now my beliefs (for which I must admit, I am a heretic).
For the Hebrew of the bible is powerful, mysterious, and inspirational. Unless you have a hardened heart, you cannot be exposed intimately to biblical Hebrew without deriving a stunning appreciation for its immense profundity. I feel uniquely privileged – to put it mildly! – to have been inspired to embark on this incredible journey. It has been a journey of discovery and adventure, exhilarating but not always comfortable. It has been permeated by intense uncompromising self-doubt that at times has left me debilitated and temporarily unable to continue.
Alternately it has been the dogged single-minded pursuit of the fulfillment of a dream, one that was at once unique, startling, and wonderfully exciting.
A dream? Yes! Twenty-one years ago (as of 2012), at 3:15 in the morning, I was abruptly awakened from a sound sleep by a dream like no other dream I had had in my entire life. All my previous dreams had been in monochrome – brooding blacks, drab grays, and dull whites. This dream was in brilliant almost unreal color. I had experienced all my previous dreams in my adult years only as a passive spectator, not as an active participant. I had always been looking in, feeling virtually no emotion, as if from outside a window. In this dream I was me interacting with everyone around me. I could feel myself moving about, talking to the others with me, witnessing their expressions, hearing their words, and feeling superb emotion. I sensed that everyone was skeptical of what I was doing. The dream reached a crescendo of excitement as I made a discovery that filled me with such astonishment, wonder, and exhilaration that, as I ran to show my discovery to the others, I flew up from the dream into wakefulness, my entire body shivering uncontrollably as I awoke. Too excited to sleep, I quickly arose, sat down before my computer, and over the next three hours described the dream in great detail. Meanwhile, I was shivering so hard from the excitement throbbing throughout my entire body, I had trouble pressing the keys on the keyboard. Forty-five minutes elapsed before the shivering finally subsided and I was able to be more accurate and sure on the keys.
That dream altered my life and awareness from the moment I experienced it. As hard and as often as I try, I don’t believe I have adequately conveyed the spectacular difference between this dream and previous dreams, or the miraculous effect of the dream on my psyche.
[Return to rubinhood.org Messages 1]
I spent much of a year after the dream trying to understand it and its message. At the end of that time I became convinced that I was supposed to translate either the bible or the Torah. In that process I would encounter the remarkable discovery that got me so exhilarated in the dream. I chose to work on the entire bible to make sure I did what I had come to believe the dream had shown me. I was 63 years old at the time and was unsure that I could complete the task ahead of me. But I persisted through the ups and downs, and after almost fifteen years, I finished in October 2006. Since then, I have been busy editing and preparing to publish the result on this web site. [Return to rubinhood.org Part 5, Continued]
Now you may ask, as I have asked myself an untold number of times, who am I to try to translate the bible, and then to interpret what I had translated. I have had no formal Hebrew or Jewish training. When I started the translation, I knew at most about 10 or 15 Hebrew words, was almost totally ignorant of Hebrew grammar. I knew little about the bible, having been exposed to it only in synagogue services, without any awareness of its contents other than what I was told by rabbis. Although a bar mitzvah at 13, I had been hurriedly tutored privately over a three-month period in preparation for the ceremony, memorizing my Torah portion and the haftorah reading and the respective blessings. The tutor even wrote my speech for me. I know little about the Talmud or the ancient sages or Jewish history, and have had no training in worship. So it is evident that I am not a Torah scholar.
I am truly a babe in the sense of knowledge, experience, and naiveté with respect to the bible. However, I must say, with humility, that I was/am perfectly suited to take on the challenge that was placed before me. Because of my ignorance, however, I also accepted the fact that I was poorly suited (as I still do at times). But I had been a student for much of my middle years, having earned three university degrees, while working full time to support my family. I know what hard, concentrated effort is, and I can persistently immerse myself in it over long periods of time, even when strong doubt in the future and in my ability invades my consciousness and clouds my thinking. So if God chose me for this task – and I believe He did – that’s probably the reason for it. In fact, I believe my biblical ignorance contributed to the success of the task.
2. The Peculiarities of Biblical Hebrew
In those almost fifteen years, I had discovered and learned the marvelous and subtle intricacies of the Hebrew of the bible. I’ve put the discussion of its peculiarities on a separate page, in order not to burden readers who have no interest in the subject or already know enough about it.. But if you are curious or interested in learning some fundamentally strange and mysterious aspects of biblical Hebrew, I encourage you to read About Hebrew at this point before going on. It will help in understanding many of my discussions you’ll find throughout this web site. Maybe more important, you’ll learn about how meanings are lost in the English translation. I discuss the impact of these meanings in the text where it is pertinent.
Biblical Hebrew may be unlike any other language, current or past. Sometimes I whimsically think that God chose the ancient Israelites, our ancestors, because of their written language (the truth may be that He chose us for that and our obstinacy). I suspect that almost any given aspect of Hebrew grammar is present in some language of the world. But I believe that there may be no other language that exhibits all of its strange peculiarities. [Return to Deut. 28:1]
Please examine the About Hebrew page before going on to Genesis. I refer to the Hebrew continually and point out why my translation differs from others. My reasons will be clearer to you if you have first read and understood that discussion.
3. My Approach to the Translation
Before I started translating I believe I was directed to follow the Hebrew grammar precisely. I say “directed” because I had no obvious basis for coming to this decision. Yet I felt a strong compulsion to do exactly that. This was before I knew anything about what I would encounter. For some reason I implicitly understood how I had to do it that way. From the beginning, I was persistently certain, without ever any hint of a doubt, that I would approach my translation with consistency and precision. I think I felt an unconscious reverence for biblical Hebrew even before I began.
As I got into the translation I soon realized that other, typical, translations took many liberties with the grammar. I soon got the feeling that early translators must have assumed that the scribes of the various books of the bible (1) were careless in their grammar, or (2) followed long-lost, perhaps arbitrary, grammatical rules, or (3) deliberately distorted the grammar to suit the poetry where it occurred – and more than half of the bible is said to be poetry. Understanding from the outset that my translations were to follow the grammar closely, I struggled to make sense of the many grammatical oddities I encountered.
Many of the grammatical oddities in the bible were found in verbs prefixed with a vav (see About Hebrew for the discussion of the “inverting” vav). Too many of the vavs appeared to be “non-inverting.” That is, they did not seem to invert the tense of the verb they prefixed from past to future or vice versa. Instead, the indicated tense of the verb appeared to be appropriate to the context without the tense being inverted. Other oddities include seemingly inappropriate number, i.e., plural as opposed to singular, for example, and verb tenses that appear to be incorrect. The latter might be an imperfect (future) verb form where a perfect (past/present) tense appeared to be called for.
At first, because I was keenly aware of my inadequacies in this endeavor, I often followed other translations that I consulted from time to time when I got stuck on a verse with difficult Hebrew. But I eventually came across a chapter in Exodus in which almost all of the vavs appeared to be non-inverting. The verbs they prefixed were consistently spelled as perfect verbs when they should have been imperfect (inverted to perfect by the vav prefix), because they related to events in the past. Troubled and disturbed by the frequency and uniformity of this apparent “error,” I became obsessed with explaining the incongruity for myself. Eventually, I reached an interesting conclusion: That these vavs were indeed inverting and that the resulting tense, the imperfect tense of biblical Hebrew, was more complex than is outwardly acknowledged. I believe that, along with portraying future or unfinished events, imperfect verbs could also indicate the presence of helping verbs, such as would, could, might, must, would have, could have, might have, must have, etc., thus portraying hypothetical or repetitive events that could have occurred in the past.
This conclusion eventually caused me to speculate that all the verb-prefixing vavs in the bible were inverting. From that moment on, even going back over my earlier translations as well, I carefully examined every vav prefix I encountered to ascertain whether I could indeed interpret it as an inverting vav. I almost found that I could successfully do so. Now I am convinced that non-inverting vavs exist only in certain types of phrases (see About Hebrew).
Finally, I struggled with the numerous translations of verses I came across that made little sense when translated in a straightforward manner. They often seemed to be saying something that appeared not to fit in the sequence of verses. They seemed to be out of context, having nothing to do with the subject of neighboring verses. In every case, by following the strict grammar of the verse, I found alternative translations that made sense in the context in which the verse appeared. In some instances, these alternative translations must be viewed as quite controversial.
4. Faith Versus Logic
You should notice almost immediately, or will have already noticed, that many of my remarks throughout this web site are logical in nature. I frequently suggest and sometimes argue for logical interpretations of what is written. Admittedly, I place a great deal of weight on reason, on the ability of the mind. But I believe that the biblical scribes were logical as well. In interpreting their writing, I have been continually struck by the apparently inherent logic in their explanations. Occasionally I find it to be too innocent or inappropriate in the context of our current state of “knowledge.” At those times, I’ve tried to put myself in the scribe’s place and time, imagining what he might have been describing by his words, trying to understand his worldly outlook. Logic itself usually isn’t enough.
Yet I reason that while God may desire our faith, He would not want us to adhere blindly to some belief that defies or denies logic, except when there is no other way to interpret or explain an event. If God did not encourage both logic and faith, why, then, would He have granted us the gift of free will and the ability to reason? Here is what I believe: Reason, to understand! Faith, to do!
At the same time, I am constantly influenced by my faith, as the ancient scribes must have been by theirs. I believe that their descriptions of events were based on deep faith – what some (not me) might call superstition. I assume they truly believed they heard from God, as I believe with a firm conviction that God exists, and that He communicates with us all the time. We have to learn to recognize that communication. If we tune in – or are selected as His receiving vessels by God – we can feel His expressions of love, approval, and disapproval, as He imparts a measure of knowledge and, perhaps, understanding. I believe that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophets, all heard from God and interpreted what they heard, felt, or dreamed in their own words, and wrote them down, or had them written down by a scribe, one who was fluent in the Hebrew of the time. After all, no one told them that God doesn’t communicate with us humans.
[Return to Rubinhood.org, Part 5]
Now when articles of faith clash with logic, as they sometimes do, I am torn. But if I can’t reconcile the conflict, I will usually side with logic.
Look at it this way. Is there anything in the universe as we know it that is not logical (except possibly some aspects of quantum mechanics)? As we learn more and more about the world around us, we encounter more logic, not less, more consistency, not more contradiction. Our ability to explain grows with our discoveries. Think of the ancient notion that the world was flat and we were at the center of the universe. How long blind faith held out against the scientific evidence! Truth -- today undisputed -- was heresy for a long time. What if someone had spoken of radio waves, or x-rays, or ultraviolet or infrared radiation, or space travel, or black holes as if they could exist, 200 years ago? He or she would have been deemed a heretic or insane. Misplaced faith, especially when seemingly supported by observation, may eventually reveal its shortcomings in the face of understanding and logic, but usually only long after the fact.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that faith must be based on logic, that faith must be born of reason, or that faith must have evidence to support it. In this discussion of faith and reason, I contrast faith that is disputed by evidence with faith that has no evidence supporting it. An example of faith disputed by evidence is the belief that the bible can be interpreted literally and precisely and each verse has only one meaning. Only someone who has not translated the bible from the Hebrew for himself can have such faith. Faith that has no supporting evidence is described in the beliefs stated next.
My faith is not all steeped in logic. And some aspects of my faith are based on contradictory evidence. As one example, you will soon discover that I believe the world is good and right. A reason for this faith is that in Genesis 1, God repeats His observation that His creation is good six times. And I believe it even in light of the horrific realities of human existence. My faith in the goodness of the world breeds yet further faith. I believe that all the evil in the world ultimately produces good, and I have virtually no evidence to support that faith.
I also harbor faith based on inconclusive evidence. For example, I believe that anti-Semitism, because it is totally illogical and unfounded, is a necessary and semi-permanent element of God’s world, and can be explained only as the mechanism by which the impossibility of Jewish survival will ultimately be recognized by the rest of society. And when this realization arises, it will translate into a universal belief in the One God and thereby transform the world.
My next-to-last point about faith and logic: I firmly believe that even blind faith must be based in one way or another on a logical decision, usually a subconscious one. When, for example, we admit and believe that God exists, what is our motivation for that belief? Have you ever thought about that? I have, a great deal. When I say God exists, it stems from an early-on more-or-less unconscious decision that life and the world are worth nothing if God doesn’t exist. Others may take it on faith that God exists because they were told so by one or more authority figures. Somewhere in their minds they reach the more-or-less logical conclusion that it must be true. Still others believe that the complexity of the world is a demonstration of “conscious” design. See? All based on logic!
One last point: I firmly believe that faith without an element of doubt is not appropriate faith. I believe that true faith is born of a bout with doubt, or persists despite bouts of doubt. Some say this doubt is the influence of demons. I say it is natural, and that most likely all saints have had their periods of darkness -- of doubt.
I conclude this discussion with an observation: I believe faith and doubt both reside in the house of Wisdom. Therefore, the house of Wisdom is a house of struggle. But the struggle between these two residents brings discernment.
So please try not to fault me for either my faith or for my being logical (or for my personal views), even if you disagree with me. And I welcome your feedback.
[Welcome] [About Hebrew] [Acknowledgment] [Bible] [Torah]