Tag Archives: Translation

Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.

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The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have A Stake In It

The New York Times of April 12, 2011 prepares the Roman Catholic communities of the English speaking world for a new translation of the mass. The maelstrom of charges and countercharges surrounding it illustrates how vital liturgy is in defining identity; at stake is a whole lot more than an ivory tower debate about the meaning of the Latin.

The “old” translation that the new one replaces followed a historic 1963 decision to authorize prayer in the vernacular in the first place. That ruling heralded a newly liberalized era for Roman Catholics. Among other things, it invited lay participation in a liturgy that had been dominated by priests; acknowledged the adverse impact of sexist language; broke down social distance between clergy and congregants; invited a new look at what united Christians rather than what separated them from each other; and abolished prayers that had fostered anti-Semitism.

The new translation heralds an equally significant shift in Catholic identity: a return of the Church to its conservative moorings.

Whereas Catholics now declare “Jesus Christ … one in being with the Father,” the new liturgy calls him “consubstantial with the father.” In the old liturgy, “he descended to the dead.” In the new one, “He descended into Hell.” In the old liturgy, the presider’s opening greeting, “The Lord be with you,” elicited the congregational response, “And also with you.” The new one has the people say, “And with your spirit.”

Critics of the proposed new liturgy charge it with (among other things) obfuscating meaning for everyday people (what’s “consubstantial”?); demanding word for word translation from the Latin at the expense of normative English word flow;  and actually missing the point of what the framers of the Latin would themselves have said if they had spoken twenty-first-century English. Advocates of change think the liturgy of the past forty or so years has twisted church doctrine and liberalized Catholic thinking to the point of encouraging moral laxity. The new texts are supposed to produce what the Vatican has labeled liturgiam authenticam, a liturgy that is “authentic.”

As an outsider, I have no legitimate standing in this internal debate. But as a liturgist, I know something about liturgical authenticity. It doesn’t exist.

We legitimately call a suspected Rembrandt or Ming vase “authentic” because we can compare them to a set of unarguably authentic specimens (the corpus of Rembrandt paintings or collections of undisputed Ming vases). When it comes to liturgical translations, however, there are no originals to point to. Nor can you point to the Latin, since it is precisely the meaning of the Latin that is at issue. The same is true of theology: what counts as authentic belief is what the argument is all about to start with.

Conservatives frequently use the word “authentic” to chide liberals for playing fast and free with “the real thing.” Using “authentic” that way is not, well, not “authentic.” It’s not the way “authentic” is authentically used.  By all means, let the Church do due diligence in debating what it wishes to pray, but not under the misleading rubric of authenticity.

The real issues are much deeper than a pseudo-debate on authenticity. What should Catholics believe about God, human nature, and the promise of salvation? What is the proper relationship between the laity and the clergy? Should Catholics be in communion with Protestants? What do Catholics believe about Jews?

How the church goes about deciding these deeper liturgical questions says a lot about who has power and who doesn’t. How hierarchical should the twenty-first century Church be? Who gets to weigh in on liturgical matters? Whose opinion counts and whose does not?

As a Jew, I have no say on Catholic doctrine, but I do have an interest in it. The whole world does. At stake is a great Church with a magnificent heritage. Under the impact of Vatican II, it apologized for anti-Semitism, and rejected its imperialistic past. It emerged from medieval triumphalism and sought common ground with others. Through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it has issued conscientious statements on matters of economic justice and human equality. We should hope that it remains a mighty force in the world, allying with good people everywhere in the fight for saving the planet, ending hunger, and achieving world harmony.

I don’t have to be Catholic to pray that the new translation does not further divide Catholics from others, or return the Catholic Church to the day when it thought Jews were damned, men counted more than women, and no one else had God’s truths. I hope the Church does not decide that “authenticity” to the Catholic past trumps possibility for the human future.