Page 10 LJ Today
The most significant Hebrew and Jewish Studies publication of the century The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter (ISBN: 9780393292497) REVIEWED by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh THE completion of Robert Alter’s decades-long exercise in translating the entire Hebrew Bible is both a monumental event and achievement. Arguably this is the most significant Hebrew and Jewish Studies publication of the 20th century, and certainly the 21st. Several parts of this mammoth endeavour have been published over the years but none prepares the reader for the impact of the full set. Sumptuously boxed, the covers of each volume are taken from the vibrant tapestry The Creation by Mordecai Ardon. The pages are all cream, enabling sustained study without too much damage to the eyes. Alter’s structure is straightforward. Each book of the Tanakh is prefaced by an introduction which summarises the content as well as containing comments from Alter. The biblical text translation occupies the upper half of the page and the lower has Alter’s explanatory notes, which are highly informative and include text-critical, comparative cultural and linguistic points. The three volumes are divided as per the Tanakh: The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets and The Writings.
The first volume contains an introduction entitled The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation. Here, Alter outlines his approach and the reasons for it. This is set against a reflection on the translations that have gone before. He is not afraid to point up the shortcomings of those previous works and his most sustained and trenchant comments are reserved for what he entitles “the heresy of explanation”. Alter writes: “One of the most salient characteristics of biblical Hebrew is its extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity, but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrase.”
This expresses the kernel of the entire exercise and Alter’s motivation throughout, and his intention is thus to enable “readers to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling down through the ages”. He exemplifies it by citing part of Genesis 24 where Rebecca waters the camels of Abraham’s servant Eliezer. The biblical Hebrew contains a plethora of the conjunction ‘and’ which Alter faithfully replicates in his rendition. To contrast he also cites the Revised English Bible version, in what he calls with heavy irony “sensible modern English”. The latter is smooth and makes the meaning of the Hebrew clear enough, but it lacks the energy and action conveyed by the Hebrew and is bland by comparison. All of us who work with and study the Hebrew Bible have a tendency to smooth over the language when we translate, and this is a powerful corrective and an encouragement to try Alter’s approach. I encourage anyone who loves the Hebrew Bible to get and study this set of books. Present and future scholarship will long be in Robert Alter’s debt.
An extraordinary and controversial life Perlzweig: Pioneer of British Zionism by Maurice L Perlzweig (edited by David Caute) (ISBN: 9781910383957) REVIEWED by Alison Turner THE life of Revd Dr Maurice L Perlzweig was extraordinary and at times controversial. He was an active Zionist who was adopted as a bright star by the anti-Zionist Claude Montefiore - one of the founders of Liberal Judaism. He was chosen as apprentice minister at both The Liberal Jewish Synagogue and North London Liberal Synagogue before he had even started his studies at Cambridge in Hebrew and Aramaic. After graduation in 1924, he continued to serve both congregations until 1938, when he went to Alyth North Western Reform Synagogue and from there emigrated to America in late 1940. A lifelong Zionist activist, lobbyist and organiser, Perlzweig led the British section of the World Jewish Congress.
His position led him to meet many important figures and the story of his increasingly frantic attempts to rescue Europe’s Jews in the 1930s is especially well told. He tried to get Jewish refugees to safety through Franco’s Spain, and met the King’s mistress, Magda Lupescu, in Romania, aiming to reduce antisemitism. The final chapter tells his postwar story and his pride in assisting the United Nations in finding a way for Holocaust survivors to get on with their lives by declaring dead those they had lost. These oral history interviews were already available online. Maurice Perlzweig’s nephew, the historian David Caute, has added footnotes, a preface and no less than five appendices, which provide useful context and clarifications.
Caute has also edited out digressions and repetitions and split up one interview so that confusion is minimised between Perlzweig’s first visit to America in 193940 and his emigration there in late 1940. All changes are clearly documented and a full bibliography and sources list is provided. This work will appeal to many former and current members of the synagogues that Perlzweig served and it will be valuable to historians, researchers and all those with an interest in early Progressive Judaism and its relations with Zionism and international issues. • Liberal Judaism members can get 20% at www.vmbooks.com by using the code PERLZWEIG19 (offer ends 31 October).