Printer Friendly

Yiddish Christology? Der bris chadasha and translation as responsive theology.


When it comes to crafting theology that might communicate ideas across religious boundaries, there is perhaps no one at once more and less suited than a convert. One who leaves the religion in which she was raised for another tradition no doubt brings unique knowledge of her former faith to those with whom she now shares a spiritual home. She is also likely to have, literally, a convert's zeal for explaining the religious choices she has made to those from similar cultural circumstances. At the same time, however, a convert's relationship with--even his understanding of--his previous religious identity can only be suspect to those who maintain the tradition he has left behind. With such complications inevitably arising in both the creation of any theological work one might attempt and its reception, the contributions a convert as theologian might make to communication between two traditions may be less likely to build a bridge than a wall.

One area in which this can be clearly seen is in the translation of religious ideas and texts for the purpose of missionary work. Christian missionaries have long relied on native speakers of the languages used in the far-off lands they visit to provide an access point to a new cultural and linguistic context. When St. Frances Xavier visited Japan, for example, he likely would have gotten nowhere without the help of the samurai-warrior-turned-Christian who became his translator and guide. It was only with this native linguistic assistance that he was able to communicate anything at all of the gospel message to the Buddhists he had come to evangelize. Francis later learned that, when attempting to describe the miracles of Jesus, his samurai companion had been encouraging him to use the name Dainichi, an honorific usually reserved for the Buddha. As Francis sang Jesus' praises, his audience heard only further exploits of a man they already revered. (1) When it comes to the translation of religious ideas, the nature and identity of God can often be found, or lost, in the details.

Translation in other contexts has brought its own complications. Within the area of Jewish-Christian interaction, the translation of Christian texts into Jewish languages is uniquely fraught with questions of the identity and intention of the translator, as well as the extent to which one who abandons a religious tradition may understand it well enough to communicate with its members who remain.

In recent Jewish history, "missionary Yiddish" was a term used derisively to refer to Christian efforts to use the language of Eastern European Jewry in its evangelizing efforts. (2) From the seventeenth century on, rough renditions of the Second Testament and other devotional works had appeared in editions that native Yiddish speakers regarded as highly suspect. Little more than Luther's German translation phonetically transliterated with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, these editions gave every indication of having been crafted by Christian missionaries who knew little of the language of the Jews--and less of their culture. (3) If conversion due to evangelization was rare among Jews of this period, it may have been because missionaries failed to recognize the extent to which Jews were not ignorant of the gospel message, just dismissive of it. (4)

Beginning early in the twentieth century, however, more sophisticated Christian materials began to find their way into Yiddish. Translated by native-Yiddish-speaking Jewish converts for audiences of immigrants in England and the United States, the new missionary materials directed at Jews were not only of much higher quality, but they were also obviously products of careful consideration of how best to express the content of the gospel message in a Jewish environment. The best of these new materials represented a Christian theology responsive to Judaism crafted with a tool that, until then, had seemed resistant to Christian use: Yiddish, a language that more than any other had arisen in opposition to all things Christian.

It might seem strange to suggest that a language could form in opposition to a faith. Neighboring languages may influence each other, as can neighboring spiritual traditions, but it is difficult to envision how the religion followed by the speakers of one language could influence the language of those who follow another. Yet, this was precisely the case with Yiddish. Originally a variant of Middle High German dialects, Yiddish spread through Europe and the Russian Empire, wherever Jews traveled for safety, for commerce, or under duress. Eventually, the language developed its own distinctive characteristics, primarily due to increasingly confining strictures placed on Jewish life. Formalizing a longstanding practice of exclusion and containment, the ghetto system created in 1555 by the papal bull Cure nimis absurdum limited Jewish interaction with the Christian world in Italy, with similar restrictions both preceding and following throughout Europe and Russia. (5) As Irving Howe has written, "Yiddish was a language intimately reflecting the travail of wandering, exile, dispersion." (6) Whether this exile took them beyond a kingdom's borders or locked them behind a ghetto's walls, Jews were forced primarily by Christians into the difficult circumstances they faced in Europe, one result of which was the development and persistence of distinctively Jewish modes of communication.

Yiddish, then, was born in the crucible of Christian threat. As such, it presents a unique field of inquiry within which to explore questions of religiously motivated translation of Christian texts. That Christianity might be written about in Yiddish is no surprise; it is no different from reading about Roman rule in the writings of Josephus. Yet, to read Christianity expressed in Yiddish is entirely unexpected and challenging of cultural and religious assumptions. Certainly, other languages have become primarily associated with particular religious traditions. Arabic, to use the obvious example, is today considered the linguistic marker of Islam, just as Hebrew is the spoken language almost exclusively of Jews. As Sidney Griffith has pointed out, however, the long tradition of Arabic-speaking Christians has ensured that the holy tongue of the Qur'an would also be used for Christian exegesis and devotional writing. (7) Likewise, the long history of Christian engagement with the books of the Hebrew Bible has secured for Hebrew a place of non-Jewish interest, but it is not so with Yiddish. In the Yiddish lexicon, one finds vocabularies uniquely preoccupied with negative assessments of Christians and their faith. The well-known term "shiksa," for example, refers generally to a Christian woman, but its literal meaning is closer to "something that crawls out from under a rock." The male equivalent of this--"sheygetz"--is even worse: an "abomination." (8) The word "krist"--"Christian"--was not a neutral descriptor in traditional Yiddish-speaking society any more than "Juif" or "Jude" was in medieval Christendom.

Yiddish was the rockiest soil imaginable for reception of the gospel; yet, paradoxically, Yiddish may also have proved to be a language with unique capabilities for communicating a particular thrust of Christian theology to a Jewish audience. It seems that translating a text into a language formed in opposition to the culture most identified with its promulgation may offer a translator an opportunity to alter the authority of the text, not through intentional changes of meaning or through mistranslation but, rather, through the recasting of materials long used for anti-Jewish purposes within a self-consciously Jewish mold.

That the translations to be discussed here did not prove successful in their primary mission--put simply, the conversion of the Jews--does not make the questions they raise any less interesting. Nor should the squeamishness today caused by the unabashed evangelism these translations represent prevent discussion of the relationship between religious identity and linguistic affiliation. This essay will explore these themes by way of examination of the possibilities and challenges presented by a most unlikely religious and cultural compound: Yiddish Christology.

Historical Context

Attempts to convert Jews to belief that Jesus Christ is the messiah foretold in the Hebrew scriptures have been entwined throughout the entire saga of Christian history. I will focus here only on the modern attempt occurring among the mostly immigrant Jewish population of North American urban centers early in the twentieth century. It was in this milieu that shifts in theology and crosscultural literacy resulted in the translations of the Second Testament that will be my primary subject.

Late in the nineteenth century, missions to the Jews were established by a number of Christian denominations in cities including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, and even Louisville, KY. As the Rev. A. E. Thompson, a participant in this missionary upsurge, put it: "The phenomenal increase of Jewish population in America during the last two decades of the nineteenth century has had scarcely a parallel in the history of this wandering race." (9) For American missionaries, this population increase offered a similarly unparalleled opportunity for evangelism. According to Yaakov Ariel, such missions "advocated a premillennialist messianic theology and emphasized the central role of the Jews in the divine program for the End Times." (10) Jews were to be converted, in other words, to hasten the arrival of the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Finding Jews important mainly for the role they might play in Christian eschatology, little effort was made to engage with Jewish religion or culture. Instead, the missionary work of this period was rooted largely in social services, with a special interest paid to Jewish children. (11) It was generally assumed that "[h]atred of Jesus is instilled into the heart of the child, who is taught to spit at the sound of a name so accursed." (12) The goal, then, was to attract Jewish children before their cultural connections were firmly established. As a result, there was considerable backlash and suspicion, which only made the work of missionaries more difficult.

Shortly after World War I, when the torrent of Jewish immigration had slowed and Jewish populations proved more attached to their culture than the mission societies might have thought, certain American evangelical organizations sought a change of approach. Foremost among them was the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, which in 1923 began offering its own program in Jewish Studies. No strictly scholarly pursuit, the program was created and maintained for the purpose of educating non-Jewish missionaries in the basics of Jewish religion, culture, and language. Following Moody's example, other seminaries in both the U.S. and Great Britain followed suit with Jewish offerings of their own. Jewish converts were welcomed in this environment that was newly open to experiential exposure to Judaism. Among the earliest of these were two men-Henry Einspruch in Chicago, Aaron Krelenbaum in London, both born in Poland to Yiddish-speaking, religiously observant Jewish families--who almost simultaneously would become the first translators to complete modern Yiddish translations of the Christian scriptures.

There is no question that Einspruch and Krelenbaum shared many if not all of the religious assumptions offered during their respective theological formations. Trained thoroughly as ministers (including extensive work in Greek and Hebrew), both men were supported through Protestant denominations and mission societies. Einspruch operated what he considered a "literary ministry" out of a Lutheran church in Baltimore; Krelenbaum, though he lived and worked in London, was supported by the Million Testaments Campaigns of Philadelphia.

Despite their connections to mainline Protestant denominations, however, both Einspruch and Krelenbaum remained firmly rooted in questions of deep interest to the Jewish immigrant community. They found existing translations of Christian scripture to be, in Einspruch's phrase, a "horrible mutilation" of their people's language, for which they continued to have much respect. There is no better evidence of the esteem in which they held Yiddish--which even Jews sometimes derided merely as dzargon, "jargon"--than the translations each created. Moreover, their translations provide a view like no other into the concerns among Christians of how best to communicate religious ideas across a seemingly unbridgeable theological divide.

Before turning to examples of the texts themselves, more must be said about the Yiddish language generally and about the unique set of questions and opportunities that it set before the translator of a non-Jewish religious text.

Linguistic Context

In his account of the Jewish mission field as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Thompson described his encounters with the peculiar language of those whom he hoped to bring to Jesus:
   Its basis is low German, with an admixture of other modern tongues,
   and a strong savor of Hebrew in idiom and inflexion, as well as in
   vocabulary. Naturally it derives its religious words from the
   latter source. The Hebrew characters are employed in writing it. It
   defies all rules of grammar, overleaps all boundaries and carries
   off from any land a word or construction that seems to meet
   exigencies. Beginning with colloquial German, it may suddenly swing
   off into Rabbinical Hebrew, flounder through a corruption of French
   idiom, and then plunge into the mysteries of enigmatic English in
   the expression of a single idea. (13)

This unflattering assessment of the language undoubtedly has anti-Jewish sentiments embedded within it, but there is also some truth to it. Yiddish is indeed a remarkably flexible language that draws on an incredible number of cultural and linguistic sources, not least of all because it was a language spoken by a people who were almost universally polyglot to one degree to another. Within Yiddish one can detect elements of German, Russian, French, Italian, and Polish origin, as well as significant contributions from more traditionally Jewish languages, as both Hebrew and Aramaic vocabularies have been incorporated into the language. With such influences, there is the same richness of descriptive capability in Yiddish that is often ascribed to modern English, which itself is a linguistic "mishmash," to use a Yiddish expression that proves the point by fitting nicely among our language's myriad borrowed elements.

Thompson may have lacked imagination in his failure to see compelling complexity in a language he regarded as merely a muddle, but there is truth at the core of his description. A Yiddish translator facing a complex series of thoughts might draw upon any number of linguistic wells--Hebraic, Slavic, Germanic, Targumic, etc.--almost any source with which Jews had come into contact as they settled and were dispersed throughout Europe.

When Yiddish is the receptor language (that is, the language into which a text is to be translated), the primary choice that must be made--particularly when dealing with religious subjects--is between the sacred and vernacular elements of a highly varied but easily divided lexicon. It may only further complicate matters to say so, but Yiddish can be thought of as an internally bilingual language, for two distinct strains of Jewish communication are held within it. One is a set of words (thought to comprise between twenty and thirty percent of the lexicon) usually identified as "loshn-koydesh," which means literally "holy tongue." These are words imported into the living, spoken language from ancient textual sources written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The other set of words, the bulk of the lexicon, is sometimes called "daytshmarish," words tracing obviously to their Germanic roots. Use of one vocabulary over another is mostly determined by circumstance. It is the rough equivalent of Old English versus Latinate elements in the English we speak today: Certain locutions articulate the formality of specialized language; other words are chosen to set a more casual tone.

The same is true within Yiddish but with an added element: Because of the elevated role of loshn-koydesh language elements within Jewish culture, the words one chooses indicate a tendency to lean either toward the sacred or away from it. This is perhaps the most distinctive challenge facing a translator of texts into Yiddish. Translators working with any language will have questions of appropriate vocabulary with which they must contend; the translator of Christian texts into Yiddish has to answer questions of religious significance with every word.

Theological Contexts

With what questions might a translator of Christian texts into a Jewish language need to grapple? In his book Translation as Mission, William Smalley provided a list of concerns any biblical translator must keep in mind:
   Theological assumptions, the Greek and Hebrew languages, biblical
   exegesis, hermeneutics, understanding of the nature and
   significance of language and culture, realization of the
   differences between languages and between cultures, perspectives on
   the process of communication, and understanding of specific
   receptor languages and cultures ... can all intersect, enabling
   translators both to gain greater insight into their task and to do
   it better. (14)

Every culture has specific concerns that must be addressed whenever new religious ideas are introduced by either translation or innovation. For Yiddish translators of the Second Testament, the problems of the twentieth century no doubt bore some resemblance to the problems that existed among Jews who first encountered the Jesus story: Who is this man? What is God in relation to him? How can Jesus as God be understood within the context of Jewish monotheism?

In his book God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Richard Bauckham rightly identified these as questions of identity rather nature. Jews of the Second Temple period, he contended, were likely less concerned with the "what" of God than with the "who." Another way of expressing this concern might be that it was largely one of relation. Never mind endless speculation about divine ontology; how does a transcendent God relate to humanity? He noted: "The term 'identity' is mine, not that of the ancient literature, but I use it as a label for what I do find in the literature, which is not of course necessarily a notion precisely the same as modern ideas of personal identity, but is nevertheless clearly a concern with who God is." (15)

Bauckham presented the matter of identity versus nature as an alternate model for considering the religious milieu in which the Second Testament was written. It is not the case, he suggested, that the Jews who became the earliest Christians needed to believe in Jesus as an intermediary figure between humanity and the divine in order to fit him within their existing monotheism. On the contrary, it was precisely their existing monotheism that, by allowing for discussion of the identity and attributes of God, opened the theological door to the understanding of Jesus as inseparable from the divine. In this sense, Bauckham argued, Jesus was not thought of as a break from Jewish religious tradition--not a Greek repurposing of Hebrew expectations--or as a supersession. Rather, Jesus was understood from earliest encounter as an expression of the ongoing relationship with a divine that is able to reveal its identity to humanity.

As Bauckham noted, "Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is." (16) Jews of the Second Temple period were most concerned with the former question. For some of them in the first century--as well as for Einspruch, Krelenbaum, and other Jewish converts centuries later--the answer was Jesus.

Daniel Boyarin has broadened this discussion with the assertion that, while Jews of the first century were concerned with divine identity, the nature of God was not entirely removed from the question. In particular, he has described the ways in which an understanding of the divine memra, used in Aramaic literature as the spoken word or creative force of God, resulted in a Jewish flirtation with binitarianism within the Second Temple Period. (17)

Using the Prologue of the Gospel of John as his primary source, Boyarin suggested that the memra on which he based his argument might have been identified with the logos nature of Jesus Christ by the Jews who first heard the gospel. While the Jewishness of Jesus (and thus to a certain extent the logos) is taken for granted today, Boyarin has reminded us that this has not always been the case, even in the recent history of theology. Rudolph Bultmann especially (and typically for theologians of his time) hoped to distance logos from memra, or any Jewish echo at all, even coming to the conclusion that Christianity "very quickly distanced itself from its distinctively Jewish matrix and from a characteristically Jewish Jesus." (18)

Bauckham and Boyarin have different areas of focus within their discussion of the Second Testament, but for each the overall task has been to suggest ways in which Christianity and Judaism took longer to separate fully than has usually been supposed. The theology of the Second Testament, then, should be considered from the beginning as a Christian theology responsive to Judaism, just as the work of Yiddish translators of the Second Testament would be nearly two millennia later.

Cultural Context

The concerns Bauckham and Boyarin have suggested were important in the Second Temple period were doubtless also on the minds of those attempting to introduce Jesus to a Jewish audience early in the twentieth century. However, to these concerns would have been added questions far more pressing to Jews living in the long shadow of the cross.

By the nineteenth century, Jesus had become a figure of both fear and derision in the Yiddish-speaking world. No doubt to blunt the blade of Christian persecution, the Christian savior was regularly referred to by playful nicknames such as Yoizel, Getzel, and most creatively Yoshke Pandre. (19) The layers of meaning in this last name are astonishing: Using the diminutive Yiddish suffix "-ke," Yoshke might be translated as "Little Joe," tweaking Jesus' nonbiological relationship to the credulous husband of Mary. Pandre, meanwhile, is Yiddish for "panther," a reference to the allegations dating to Origen (and repeated in the Talmud) that the father of Jesus was neither God nor Joseph the carpenter but a plundering Roman soldier called Pantera (Latin for "panther"). Thus, the name slyly makes Jesus' birth illegitimate and those associated with it either rapists or fools. Thanks to the multilingual flexibility of Yiddish (and perhaps to its capacity to add insult to injury in the most scathing ways), this nickname was further elaborated upon. Taking the first part of Pandre as the Polish honorific Pan ("Sir" or "Lord"), and adding a letter to the second syllable to form the Yiddish drek ("excrement"), Yiddish speakers spoke derisively of Yoshke Pan Drek, applying to Jesus Christ a name roughly equivalent to a vulgarized version of Joe the Plumber.

Admittedly, this was the language of the streets, where both Jewish religious figures and Jewish culture generally often did not fare much better. (20) Yet, anti-Jesus sentiments expressed in Yiddish were not unknown in polite society. In literature, for example, a well-known poet delighted in labeling Jesus the shvakhling fun nazaret ("weakling from Nazareth"), (21) and in Jewish folk tradition Jesus appears occasionally as combination magical trickster and Frankenstein's monster. Another account by Thompson relates how he has heard Jews describe their knowledge of Jesus. Some Jews, he wrote,
   having heard something of the gospel, have been prejudiced by tales
   that to us seem so absurd that we marvel at the credulity of the
   dupes who are blinded by them. One sample will suffice to show
   their tone. They are told that Jesus was able to perform miracles
   because He stole into the Holy of Holies, secured the sacred name
   of Jehovah, and inserted it in a slit made in His heel. As He was
   flying through the air, on a certain day, a Rabbi, who had resorted
   to the same means of securing superhuman power, flying above him,
   struck Him to the earth; whereupon the women and children pelted
   him with stones and rotten vegetables. Judas, crouching to kiss His
   feet, secured this charm, broke His spell and made possible His
   capture. (22)

The most remarkable aspect of this passage is that it bears a striking resemblance to the Jewish folktale of the golem, in which a man made of earth has the divine name inserted into the clay that is his body, and by that act he is animated with superhuman strength and magical powers. Far from casting doubt on Thompson's account of having heard this from Jews, it suggests that Jesus--a figure ubiquitous throughout the Catholic and Orthodox lands in which Yiddish speakers endured centuries of co-habitation with Christians--had by the late nineteenth century become a boogeyman figure of folklore.

To be sure, there was also, mainly among secular Jewish intellectuals, a counter-tradition that sought to understand Jesus as a teacher and leader. Most famously, the Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch wrote a series of "christological novels" (as his critics called them) in which he explored the theme of Jesus as a Jew whose memory had been corrupted by Christendom. This approach to Jesus was the minority position within the community, however. Asch, at one time the most popular Yiddish writer in the world, suffered for his reappraisal of the Christian savior. After he published the first of his christological novels, The Nazarene, his work was no longer welcome in the Forverts, the main Yiddish newspaper in New York. Around the same time, a protest was staged at a Jewish school in Brooklyn that bore his name; several of the parents declared they would not allow their children to attend until administrators removed a sign honoring the famous Yiddish writer who had become infamous for his interest in Jesus. (23)

It was in this complex cultural context that the converted translators of the Second Testament began their work. The challenges of what lay before them were many: Not only would they contend with the same sorts of theological questions of continuity with Jewish monotheism described by Bauckham and Boyarin, but they would also be doing so for an audience that was not only indifferent but hostile to the figure at the center of the text.

Thus, even as the translations show themselves to be, in keeping with the assessments of the original gospels by Bauckham and Boyarin, more interested in presenting a theology of divine identity than of divine nature, they are by necessity concerned first all of with presenting what might be called a "reparative Christology." They do so not through argument or sermon as other missionaries might, but through the most basic act of translation: deciding which word will best stand for another.

From Hebrew to Greek to Hebrew-as-Yiddish

Given the range of options within the Yiddish language mentioned above, the most remarkable thing about the translations of Einspruch and Krelenbaum--completed almost simultaneously in the late 1930's, 5,000 miles apart--is their similarity of intent. They are both titled Der Bris Chadasha, "The New Covenant," an intentional and telling difference from titles given the previous treatments mentioned above, Das Neu Testament.

As a title, Der Bris Chadasha makes double use of the loshn-koydesh ("holy tongue") vocabulary. A term that by now is familiar in English, "bris" means "covenant" in Yiddish and Hebrew and so appears throughout the Hebrew Bible. It refers to the circumcision rite only when it appears as the compound "brit milah." "Chadasha," meaning "new," is likewise drawn from scripture. The two words together appear once as a compound in the Hebrew Bible, in Jet. 31:31 :
   "The time is coming," declares the LORD,
   "when l will make a new covenant
   with the house of Israel
   and with the house of Judah."

In Yiddish, then, the translators are able to make explicit from the very beginning a detail that in other languages is left for commentators to explain. As Bris Chadasha, the "New Testament" is given a name that makes the case that it is the story of the fulfillment of a promise made by God to the Jewish people.

For each translation, the title is only the beginning of the ways in which the linguistic options within Yiddish are used to frame the text that follows. Take, for example, the front matter of Krelenbaum's translation. Printed just inside the cover, on the first two facing pages, a set of instructions offers advice on how best to read the book. Like the title, these instructions make liberal use of loshn koydesh scriptural vocabulary. In the passage below, the words rendered in Yiddish with terms borrowed from scripture are italicized, with the Hebrew elements in brackets following each:

We recommend you:
   Read one or more chapters from this book [sefer] every day.

   Be prayerful [mispalel], so that God should reveal the truth [emet]
   of what you read.

   Carry this book [sefer] with you whenever possible. Look up the
   verses [psukim] mentioned that can be found in the Tanakh. (24)

After this initial instruction--again, before the title page or the table of contents--Krelenbaum's translation provides a prayer, once more making liberal use of the loshn koydesh, beginning with a title offered for the invocation:

A Psalm [Tfilah]
   God of our Fathers [avot], of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, open my
   eyes to the truth [emet] at the time I read this book [sefer]; and
   help me to walk in the light, which you wish me to see.

Einspruch's Bris Chadasha likewise opens with an effort to frame the text that follows unmistakably within the Jewish tradition. The cover of the earliest edition of Einspruch's work comes decorated with the same eight-pronged candelabra found in nearly every Jewish household. Within the front matter, an artist's rendering of an old Jewish man bent over a holy scroll makes the book indistinguishable from many siddurim, prayer books, of the same era. Again, the intention from the cover image to the text within is to reframe the story of Jesus, removing it from the elements of Christian history that might scare off many Jews, and placing it within an understanding of Jewish continuity that seems to ignore centuries of strained relations between the faiths.

A thorough study of the full translations following these framing techniques would be too much to hope to accomplish here. Instead, I will focus, as Boyarin has done, on the prologue to the Gospel of John, which offers rich territory for exploring the translation choices made in bringing a first-century Greek text into twentieth-century Yiddish. As we will see, the deep linguistic resources of Yiddish allow it to function as a commentary of the original text's relationship to the Jewish ideas that played a role in its formation:
   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was near God, and the
   Word was God. He was in the beginning near God. All through him was
   made, and without him was made not any thing. In him was life, and
   the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the
   darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

   There was a man, from God sent, whose name was John. He came as a
   witness [eydes], to bear witness [eydes] about the light, that all
   might believe through him. He was not the light, but came as
   witness [eydes] to speak about the light. The true light, which
   enlightens to every man, was coming into the world.

   He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the
   world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did
   not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in
   his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were
   born not of blood, not of the will of the flesh, also not from the
   will of a man, but of God.

   And the Word became flesh [boservedom] and dwelt among us, and we
   have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full
   of grace [chesed] and truth [emes].

   John as witness [eydes] spoke about him, and cried out, "This was
   he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because
   he was before me.'"

   And from his fullness we have all received, grace [chesed] upon
   grace [chesed]. For the law [Torah] was given through Moses; grace
   [chesed] and truth [emes] came through Jesus the Messiah [Yeshua
   HaMoshiach]. No one has ever seen God; but the son-of-the-only
   [ben-ikhid], who is at the Father's side, has made him known. (25)

It would be a mistake to put too much stock in any pattern or code that might be suggested by a translator's word choices. Undoubtedly, translation is driven as much by the translator's aesthetic sensibilities as by his theological intentions. However, a close reading of the Gospel of John's Prologue as it appears in Yiddish translation does reveal something of the particular understanding of Jesus that the translator hoped to convey to his Yiddish-speaking audience. Using the occurrence of loshn koydesh terms as a guide to determining which words in the translation above seem to bear the theological weight of the Prologue, we find these:
   Witness [eydes]
   Flesh [boservedoml
   Grace [chesed]
   Law [Torah1
   Truth [emet]
   Messiah [moshiach]
   Son-of-the-only [ben-ikhid]

The seven words rendered using scriptural language provide more or less an outline of what the entire text will be about: The Gospel provides a witness to the occurrence of God's becoming flesh to provide grace on top of grace, adding to the law both grace and truth through the figure of Jesus, the messiah. With the exception of "Son of the only," these would likely have been common Hebraisms within Yiddish. "Eyries," for example, has the legal implications that "witness" has within English. "Boservedom" goes further than merely indicating "flesh" and calls to mind mortality. The Hebrew word used most often in the Prologue, "chesed," became widely known outside of scripture as the root word from which Hasidism derives its name. "Emes" (spelled and pronounced "emet" in Hebrew) is used colloquially not only in this sense of truth, but also as a word of insistence of the truthfulness of something. And the two words used together "chesed un emes" appear identically paired in Genesis as "chesed v'emet": "And the time drew nigh that Israel must die: and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him, If now I have found grace in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal with me with Iovingkindness and truth [chesed v'emet]; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt." (26)

As in the case of the title Der Bris Chadasha, with "chesed" and "emes" Yiddish presents the opportunity for the translator to make manifest within the text connections that commentators have suggested for centuries. While the Greek rendering of "grace and truth," "karitas kai aleythia," has long been assumed to have connection to the Hebrew "chesed v'emet," "lovingkindness and truth," Yiddish was, at the time these translations were undertaken, the only living language in which the connection could be made manifests. (27)

This is, generally speaking, what the Yiddish translators' use of loshn koydesh allows them to do. Thus, the connections they chose to make are as intriguing as the ones they chose not to make. Looking over the list of words above, there is only one crucial phrase left outside this system of borrowing from Hebrew words that are meant to bear the theological weight of the gospel. That word is "word," "logos." In Yiddish, this all-important Second Testament concept is rendered simply as "vort," an adequate literal translation, but one that does not give "Word" the emphasis one might expect. The other options before each translator included the scriptural "dabar," and, intriguingly, given Boyarin's treatment of the word, "memra." Yiddish freely makes use of both words; yet, when it came time to select a term by which Jews might encounter logos, each translator chose a word with no connection whatsoever to Jewish religious tradition, the plain and simple "vort."

To recap a few of the word choices made in these translations: In Krelenbaum's front matter, the book itself is not a "bukh" but a "sefer"; the title of the book is not "Neu Testament" but "Bris Chadasha." Moving into the text itself, love is not "leib" but "chesed"; truth is not "richtung" but "emes." Jesus Christ is not "Yezus Kristus" (as would be perfectly acceptable in Yiddish and more respectful than the available nicknames); he is, instead, "Yeshua HaMoshiach." And yet "word"--"logos"--is not the "dabar" of Genesis, not the "memra" of the Targums, but "vort." Arguably, the most important word theologically in the Gospel is not rendered with the loshn koydesh, the holy tongue, but with the vernacular.

It can only be speculation to ask why, but speculation can be useful. As Bauckham would be pleased to note, one thing that the words rendered with Hebraic elements have in common is that they are all words concerned more with divine identity than divine nature. Witness, Grace, Law, Truth, Flesh, Messiah, Son-of-the-only: The witness John offers concerns who Jesus is, not what; just as Moses is identified as the giver of the Law, Jesus, who is messiah in-the-flesh and son-of-the-only, is identified as the one who brings grace and truth. Of the other significant words in the Prologue, "logos" in particular speaks of the what of Jesus. The fact that this word alone is singled out for a different kind of translation suggests a reluctance to look to Hebrew scripture for the nature of God, even as Hebrew vocabulary is readily employed to speak of God's identity. On the one hand, this reluctance seems to echo the sentiment of Bultmann mentioned earlier: To focus on Jesus as logos is to deemphasize his identity in favor of his nature. On the other hand, these translations seem to invert that implication: To focus on Jesus' identity, as the Yiddish rendering of the Prologue does, is to deemphasize the logos.

Given that both translators in question here were trained in an environment that likely embraced something similar to Bultmann's understanding of the quick separation between Christianity and Judaism, it is remarkable that both Einspruch and Krelenbaum produced works that subtly challenge that model, and did so, it is worth nothing, long before the likes of Bauckham and Boyarin came along.

Through their translations, both men contributed to a theology responsive to modern Jewish concerns about the identity of Jesus and his relationship to Jewish continuity. Facing the question of whether to render the text of the Second Testament as if it is part of Jewish tradition or a complete break from it, these translators seem to have split the difference: The identify of Jesus, as described through a loshn koydesh litany of terms drawn from Hebrew scripture, shows him to be part of Jewish tradition. The logos nature of Jesus, though, the translators have left unstressed. Thus, the "Yiddish Christology" presented by Einspruch and Krelenbaum seems to suppose that Jews intrigued by Jesus in the twentieth century would be less interested, as Jews of the Second Temple Period may have been, with the what of "Yeshua HaMoshiach" than the who. Given the prevailing Yiddish attitudes toward Jesus at the time, it seems the translators suspected that ideas about Jesus' nature--as logos, as Christ--would be difficult to separate from the long-troubled history shared by Christians and Jews. Ideas about Jesus' identity, however, could be expressed anew thanks to the unique ability of a Jewish language to make connections to the Jewish past.

While proselytizing work on the part of converts is today regarded as religious treason within the Jewish community--due to a lingering sense that, as an old Yiddish proverb goes, "a shmad (apostate) is worse than a goy"--it may be the case that the efforts of the likes of Einspruch and Krelenbaum laid the groundwork for an understanding of Jesus more firmly rooted in recognizing the value of the religious culture from which he sprang. While their intention clearly was the conversion of the Jews, they have in a sense been more successful in converting the new faith they found. Today the notion of Jesus as sprung from Jewish soil is taken for granted by Christians and Jews alike. It is often overlooked that Yiddish-speaking Christians may have been among the first to articulate this is a distinctively Jewish way. Attempting to plant the seed of Christianity in the rocky field of Yiddish culture, they have perhaps planted a few Yiddish seeds in Christianity as well.

(1) Robert Schreiter, "The Legacy of St. Francis Xavier: Inculturation of the Gospel Then and Now," East Asian Pastoral Review, vol. 44, no. 1 (2007), pp. 17-31.

(2) The translator Henry Einspruch as quoted in Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000 (Chapel Hill, NC, and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 89.

(3) Dovid Katz, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (New York: Basic Books, 2004), p. 65.

(4) See Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 95, and throughout.

(5) Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 205.

(6) Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers." The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p. 12.

(7) Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam, Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World (Princeton, N J, and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 75.

(8) Alexander Harkavy, Yiddish -English-Hebrew Dictionary (New York: YIKO Institute for Jewish Research, 1988 [orig.: New York, 1925]).

(9) A[lbert] E[dward] Thompson, A Century of Jewish Missions (New York and London: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1902), p. 235.

(10) Ariel, Evangelizing, p. 9.

(11) Ibid., chap. 2, "The Missionary Work," pp. 22-37.

(12) Thompson, A Century, p. 46.

(13) Ibid., pp. 37-38.

(14) William A. Smalley, Translation as Mission. Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement, The Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991 ), p. 105.

(15) Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (London: Paternoster Press, 1998; Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 8.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Daniel Boyarin, "The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John," Harvard Theological Review 94 (July, 2001 ): 243-284.

(18) Ibid., p. 245, quoting James D. G. Dunn about Rudolf Bultmann, in Dunn's The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity, 1991), p. 9.

(19) These nicknames and the brief discussion that follows are found in various editions of Mendele Review: Forum for Yiddish Literature and Yiddish Language (available at http://, particularly Vol. 3 (May, 1993).

(20) Moses is a particular target. As the Yiddish expression has it, "Not even Moses could get along with Jews.'" See Shirley Kumove, More Words, More Arrows: A Further Collection of Yiddish Folk Sayings (Detroit, Ml: Wayne State University Press, 1999), p. 23.

(21) "Once I Was Young" by Anna Margolin, in Irving Howe, The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 218.

(22) Thompson, A Century, p. 46.

(23) Chaim Lieberman, The Christianity of Sholem Asch: An Appraisal from the Jewish Viewpoint, tr. Abraham Burstein (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953).

(24) Aaron Krelenbaum, tr., Der Bris Chadashah (Philadelphia: Million Testaments Campaigns, 1959), front matter; my translation.

(25) My translation here is rendered from Krelenbaum's Yiddish. A translation of Einspruch's Yiddish of the Prologue would look inuch the same, with slight differences in word choice throughout but overall the same decisions made about which words to render with loshn koydesh and which to translate with the vernacular.

(26) Gen. 47:29.

(27) The translation of Jn. 1:17's "karitas kai aleythia'" as "chesed v 'emet'" today appears in modern Hebrew translations of the Second Testament, which are also called Brit Chadasha, though in each context the Yiddish translations used these Hebraisms first.

Peter Manseau (Catholic) expects to receive his PhD. in religion from Georgetown University, Washington, DC, in 2012. He holds an M.A. in religion from Georgetown (2011) and a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. He has been a lecturer in the English Dept. and the Graduate Journalism Program at Georgetown since 2008, having previously been an instructor at the University of Southern California in 2006. He was co-founder and editor of the online, 2000-08; and editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture, 2008-09. He has received numerous journalism and book awards. His six books include Songs for the Butcher's Daughter: A Novel (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2008; also published in Australia, Israel, and Europe); Believer, Beware: First Person Missives from the Margins of Faith (co-edited with Jeff Sharlet; Beacon, 2009); Rag and Bone: A Journey among the World's Holy Dead (Henry Holt, 2009; also published in Spain, Italy, and Latin America); and "Twenty Gods or None: The Making of a Nation from the Margins of Faith" (forthcoming in 2013 from Little, Brown). His articles have appeared as book chapters and in both scholarly and popular publications. He has also lectured or served as a panelist at events in several universities and appeared in over 100 radio, TV, and print interviews related to religion and culture.
COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Manseau, Peter
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
Previous Article:Divine embodiment and the mysteries of phylacteries, fringes, and the rosary.
Next Article:Alvin Plantinga on religious pluralism: a Catholic appraisal.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters