Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Isaac Leeser's Jewish Translation of the Bible By Israel Abrahams 1920

Isaac Leeser's Jewish Translation of the Bible By Israel Abrahams 1920

See also 100 Rare American Bible Versions & Translations on DVDrom and Judaism and Jewish Writings - 200 Books on DVDrom

The twenty years around the middle of the nineteenth century witnessed the preparation of several Jewish translations of the Bible. Moses Mendelssohn had shown the way in the previous century; he did not, however, produce a complete German Bible. This was done with success by a body of scholars led by Zunz (Berlin, 1838). Ludwig Philippson, in the very next year, began an enterprise the accomplishment of which occupied him till 1856. His edition was not only annotated; it was also adorned with illustrations. In 1875 the Philippson Bible came out anew with the Dore pictures.

As for English versions by Jews, David Levi edited the Pentateuch in 1787. But, to pass over certain publications of separate books, no complete Bible appeared in England from a Jewish hand until the issue of Benisch's version (1851-56). This was a melancholy affair. Real and original scholarship is shown in every page. He claimed for his rendering "fidelity, uniformity and independence." But he had no sense for English style. He unnecessarily and grotesquely altered the familiar words of the Authorized Version. Hence, one is bound to speak of this monument of learning and earnestness as "melancholy"; it might so easily have been acceptable. His corrections of the Authorized were often necessary. Thus, in the Ten Commandments he rightly put "Thou shalt not murder" for the current "Thou shalt not kill." The Revised Version made the same correction. So, too, he was right when, for historical reasons, he made a change in Leviticus 23.15. In the Authorized Version this runs: "And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath." But by the Jewish tradition the Feast of Weeks is not counted from a Saturday but from the first day of Passover—on whatever day that happens to fall. Hence Benisch substituted: "And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest." Naturally, too, he corrected certain dogmatic prejudices of the Anglican Version.

Curiously enough, Isaac Leeser leaves "Thou shalt not kill" uncorrected. But he was vigilant with "the morrow after the Sabbath," for which he substitutes "the morrow after the holy day." On the other hand, he retained the word "Sabbath " (where the Hebrew has Shabbaton) applied to the first and eighth days of Tabernacle, e. g., Leviticus 23.39. This, however, he altered in his later editions to a rest; Benisch has strict rest. The Revised Version has a similar correction: _solemn rest_.

It is not my purpose to compare Leeser's Version with others. From the hour when his "Law of God" appeared in Philadelphia, in 1845, Leeser's Pentateuch won the affectionate regard of American Jews. The Pentateuch was issued in octavo, in Hebrew and English; the whole of the Bible came out in quarto, in English alone, towards the end of 1853. From that time it has been often reprinted in varying forms, simply and in editions de luxe. But it is not the printers who made the book popular, though I must remark that, despite the small public support the enterprise secured, the 1845 Leeser Pentateuch is a beautiful specimen of the printer's art. What made the book was the people's growing love for Leeser. Can higher praise be given, can a finer fate be wished, than that a man's book shall live in his brethren's hearts because of him?

This is not the time to criticise Leeser's work. Like Benisch, he had no feeling for English style. He could, in the twenty-third Psalm, alter the wonderful melody of "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures," into "In pastures of tender grass he causeth me to lie down." He could take the haunting rhythm of Job's "There the wicked cease from troubling, there the weary are at rest," and give us "and where the exhausted weary are at rest," which is no nearer the literal Hebrew ("the wearied in strength"), and is incomparably farther from its beauty. Or again, the felicitous opening lines of the nineteenth Psalm, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork," become in Leeser "The heavens relate the glory of God; and the expanse telleth of the works of his hands." It is this more than anything else that made it impossible for English Jews to use Leeser's Bible. Revision of Leeser on scholarly grounds was also necessary, no doubt. Thus, in his rendering of Esther 6. 8, where Haman suggests the details of the pageant in behalf of the man whom the king delighteth (why did Leeser substitute desireth?) to honor, Leeser has: "Let them bring a royal apparel which the king hath worn, and a horse on which the king hath ridden, and let there be placed a royal crown on his head." But, as Ibn Ezra had in part already pointed out (as Leeser notes), and as we know to be almost certainly the case, the crown was for the horse's head. In the Revised Version the passage runs: "Let royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and on the head of which a royal crown is set."

Naturally, in what precedes I have turned to familiar passages. My comments only touch the fringe of the problem of Bible revision. In one important particular, Leeser anticipated the Revised Version: he arranged the English in paragraphs and not in verses. Since Leeser's day, however, not only have we learned more as to the precise meaning of words, but we have won a closer insight into the idiomatic use of the Hebrew tenses. The American revision, now issued under the auspices of the American Jewish Publication Society, has given us at once a scholarly translation, and one which remains true to the English excellences of the version made in the reign of King James.

Leeser's Bible, therefore, is more or less doomed. It cannot but pass out of general use. But it can never pass out of our esteem and affection. Leeser, though he indignantly repudiated sectarian bias, did not translate the Bible as an exercise in scholarship. He belonged to those who believed in the Bible. Quite naively he tells us in his Preface (dated September 20, 1853) that he is "an Israelite in faith, in the full sense of the word; he believes in the Scriptures as they have been handed down to us; in the truth and authenticity of prophecies and their ultimate literal fulfilment." Nor did he think that the age of miracles was past. He admitted that there were sources of information which he had not consulted when preparing his Bible. But he had done his best, and felt that he was therefore working with a hand stronger than his own. "I thought, in all due humility, that I might safely go to the task, confidently relying upon that superior aid which is never withheld from the inquirer after truth." What a combination of sophistication and simplicity we have here! In the mid-nineteenth century such a union of rationalism and faith was rare; it is growing rarer every day. We shall soon be thinking of putting Isaac Leeser's memory in a museum of Jewish antiquities as a specimen of a lost type.

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