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Original instructions

Local rabbi spins Torah using orthographic constraints

What happened to the world when God decided to put Noah, his family, and the paired menagerie on the ark, and then opened the heavens?

“On that singularly disastrous day, naturally occurring abyssal fountains burst forth … and an unforgiving sky was as if a gaping window, a flowing font, a colossal cosmic chasm. For forty days and forty nights, continuous global rainfall: downpour following driving squall; storm upon cascading storm, a primordial pluvious pounding!”

Wait. That sounds familiar. It sounds sort of like this: “On the same day were all the fountains of the deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” Right? “And the rain was upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights”?

That’s what we’re told in Genesis 7:11-12 – part of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Noach – but what’s with the odd translation?

That odd, flowing, word-drunk translation, made by Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is created using a formal literary structure called a lipogram, which demands that the writer entirely omit a letter of his or her choice, and work around it. There is no particular challenge to a refusal to use the letter Z, for example, and it would be fairly easy to boycott Js, but Rabbi Prouser has undertaken the task of translating all of the Book of Genesis without using the letter e, the most frequently used letter in English.

The translation is called Initial Instructions – a title that works on so many levels, including its entire e-less-ness as well as much of the contents, and Rabbi Prouser is blogging it at initialinstructions.wordpress.com. He also is using it in his own congregation, where, he said, it “is very well-received.”

The challenge itself is very Jewish, he said. “The Torah has the freedom of the Israelite nation and the Jewish people as one of its major themes and story lines, but another of its ongoing motifs is all of the constraints and restraints that the nation has taken on itself in order to realize its freedom and its ultimate meaning and purpose. So the translation is trying to merge form and content, and to express the text accurately while practicing principled restraint.”

Marriage is a good example of willingly accepted constraints, he said. “You accept an exclusive relationship, which means that everyone else is off limits, but within that exclusive mutual relationship you can explore all kinds of creative avenues of expression.” Jewish life is full of such constraints – kashrut, for example, or Shabbat. “Someone said, ‘We can accomplish in six days what is impossible to achieve in seven.’ You know that some options are off the table; given that assumption and those parameters, you are able to fully achieve what you want, and to explore all kinds of possibilities that wouldn’t necessarily occur to you or present themselves otherwise.”

In other words, accepting constraints sharpens your mind and energizes your senses; it allows you to see into the depths of the familiar and see the strange, glowing beauty there.

Rabbi Prouser’s immersion in words and his equally deep immersion in Jewish life both go back to his childhood in Northampton, Mass. His father, Melvin Prouser, was their synagogue’s gabbai for 43 years; his son estimated that his father called up about 25,000 people to the Torah. His mother, Anne Goldberg Prouser, was “an unforgiving grammarian,” he said. She was admitted to Smith College in 1936, although she was Jewish; because she was from Northampton, Smith’s home, she was able to go there tuition-free. In 1938, she was “awarded a fellowship to the University of Berlin, which she had to decline,” Rabbi Prouser said. “After all, it was 1938; not a good time for Annie Goldberg to be in Germany.”

Joe Prouser went off to the joint program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1979. He’d studied French and German since elementary school; in college, he read George Perec’s “La Disparition” in its original French. That’s where the idea of lipograming Genesis began.

Georges Perec was the French-born son of Polish Jews, surnamed Peretz, who died during World War II. “La Disparition,” a sort of parody noir thriller, written without the letter e (except in the author’s name) was about the search for Anton Vowl. (Yes, whimsy apparently is unavoidable in almost any art form.) It has been translated into English, also without Es, under the title “A Void.”

Rabbi Prouser decided to combine the literary constraint of the lipogram with the religious constraints of a Jewish life, and to use them to look at Genesis freshly. The form demands that each word be considered carefully before it can be used, and that the obvious answer is unlikely to be a usable one. “Once you’ve accepted the restrictions, you can revel in the flurry of synonymous terms and phrases,” he said. “The beauty of the restraint of the lipogram is that you can consider what the text is trying to say; you can look at the emotional impact and the baggage behind it.”

When God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the conversation is opened with “He said to him, “Abraham, and he answered, “Here I am. And He said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love…'”

In Rabbi Prouser’s translation: God said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Abraham said: ‘Anything for you!’ And God said: ‘If so, bring your son…your only son…your darling son…Bring Isaac!'”

The meaning is the same. The words “whom you love” in the well-known translation are devastating in their simplicity and directness. But somehow “your darling son” makes the horror of God’s demand on Abraham even more explicit, because it forces us to look at it as if for the first time.

There are some words that demand fancy footwork. Most of them are names. If there are Es in the English name – Benjamin, say, or Rebecca, or Leah – than Rabbi Prouser uses the Hebrew – Binyamin, Rivka, and Laya. Eve is Chava. Egypt is Mitzrayim. Alternate spellings can work – Ishmael becomes the Arabic Ishmail. As for some of the others – soon we’ll see what he does with Rachel, and Moses/Moshe does not appear in Genesis.

Any translation, of course, is an interpretation, inevitable of its time and place, but also tethered to its original world. Where Cain once asked “Am I my brother’s keeper,” his question here has become “Am I a watchman for all humanity?” That depends, of course, on our understanding of how broad the word “brother” is, but here it not only encompasses all but also makes us think.

Rabbi Prouser has been working on and off on this project for about a decade, and although he constantly tweaks his work until he publishes it, he has done most of the work for the first book of the Torah. He will publish Genesis chapter by chapter on his blog; posting at the rate of a chapter a week, it will take about a year before it is all up. He would like to attempt to translate all of the Torah and to use a formal constraining structure to do so, but he has not yet decided which one. “I am thinking about how best to merge form and content in Exodus,” he said.

There is some risk to this project. There are times when the poetic inevitably veers into the pedantic; when the words are less gentle rain and more sharp hail. But those times are rare. Most of the time, it is very good.

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