The Five Books of Moses., Robert Alter, Norton
The High Holidays synagogue services offer an annual re-encounter with two key texts from the Hebrew Bible – the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac on a mountain in Moriah, and the opening of Genesis depicting Creation. Each synagogue denomination prayer book presents its own version of these, in a variety of translations, but synagogue-goers, if they remain with a congregation for decades, will see the same rendering of the biblical Hebrew again and again. Some siddurim provide a form of scholarly context in footnotes, and there is always the possibility that a rabbi’s sermon will approach these readings in surprising ways.
Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary views these texts in a fresh light, by experimenting with a different rendering in English and via explanatory notes with unusual expansiveness. Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted a good portion of his scholarly energy to retranslating the Jewish biblical canon while treating it to his own idiosyncratic presentation of the Bible as literary art. Earlier projects include The David Story and The Book of Psalms, the latter being a provocative effort to reclaim Psalms from their familiar, one might say Christianized, context.
Alter’s translation counters the effect of translations that downplay the original character of Hebrew poetry and cultural context. In the case of the Psalms, Alter would have us remember their use in the ritual life of the Jerusalem Temple, and the fact that they were once sung to music, though our knowledge of the instruments on which that music was played is scant.
Reading Alter on the Psalms is eye-opening and offers detailed consideration of the context and language in which the poems were written. But there is in Alter’s translation enough odd, even willfully strange, language that readers may not be entirely convinced that his revision of the Psalms should offer the last word on how to read and become intimate with them today.
This is not the case with his Five Books of Moses, which utterly entertains, convinces and edifies. Once again, translation is key to Alter’s goals, as he insists on attentiveness to the sound and structure of biblical Hebrew, to word choice, repetition, the use of dialogue and the presence in the text of contradictory and even unintelligible elements. Alter’s rendering of the Torah may not seem as aggressively different as did his Psalms, but this may arise from the fact that more stridently Christianized rendering of Psalms have become dominant in our popular culture.
A glance at what Alter does with the beginning of the Creation story is revealing: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Gone is the conventional notion of God’s “spirit” reflected in the “face” of the water; the motif of “welter and waste” replaces the more common “unformed and void” and is closer to the unusual Hebrew words “tohu wabohu.”
The middle section of this verse is reshaped as a long Whitmanian line calling for sustained breath to maintain the line’s rhythm. These shifts change a great deal. Imagery, the idea of the divine and the way the words must be uttered are all addressed anew.
In the chapter presenting the would-be sacrifice of Isaac, translation is not so pointedly revisionary. But Alter’s commentary on this difficult story opens both midrashic and original possibilities for understanding the motivation and outcome of Abraham’s actions. In this, Alter teases out what might be understood to be divine motivation and human reaction.
In his introduction to Genesis, Alter highlights aspects of the text that we may not consider as we encounter it being read from a synagogue bimah. He argues that Genesis strives to “make clear that procreation, far from being an automatic biological process, is fraught with dangers, and is constantly under the threat of being deflected or cut off. Abraham must live long years with the seeming mockery of a divine promise of numberless offspring as he and his wife advance childless into hoary old age. Near the end of the book, Jacob’s whole family fears it may perish in the great famine, and Joseph must assure his brothers that God has sent him ahead of them to Egypt in order to sustain life. Genesis begins with the making of heaven and earth and all life, and ends with the image of a mummy – Joseph’s – in a coffin.”
Alter wants us to recognize how a family history reflects “larger, universal history,” as well as the way that the patriarchal stories connect with the “wider reach of known cultures.” In these characteristics he sees great similarity between the Bible and such literary masterpieces as Shakespeare’s plays and Greek tragic drama.
In his detailed commentary, Alter concentrates on how literary facets of the Bible further its goals. He points to the symmetry of the Joseph story; to the way that important figures’ first utterances reveal their character and motive; to the way that key motifs recur, linking disparate parts of the text; and he highlights the way that action and dialogue dramatize and energize narrative.
Alter’s approach tempts the reader to go back to theatre and film renderings of biblical stories to see how much was made of such serendipitous material by dramatists and screenwriters. Surely Alter’s Esau, with his order to Jacob to serve him up “some of this red red stuff, for I am famished,” would lead a casting director straight to a mid-career Gérard Depardieu.
Alter’s translation renders the Bible new in uncanny ways, as it highlights how much of what is familiar in earlier translations demands revoicing and even a share of patient relearning. As Alter reconsiders “the Torah as literary expression,” he insists on a return to Hebrew sources, a conservative approach whose outcome is a radical rethinking of how we read and take pleasure in the Torah.
Norman Ravvin’s recent novel is The Joyful Child (Gaspereau). His other fiction includes the novel Lola by Night and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish.