Rabbi Dvora Weisberg ’11, Ph.D., Director, School of Rabbinical Studies; Professor of Rabbinics, Skirball Campus, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, presented the Los Angles Ordination address on Sunday, May 14, 2017 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Her address is below.
In one of Susan Howatch’s novels about the twentieth century Anglican Church, a history professor explains her decision to seek out a religious community in the following way:
I saw eventually that a good religion resembles a language – it can be spoken by adults and children alike, by the uneducated and the educated, the geniuses and the morons, and like all languages it’s powered by metaphor, symbol and analogy…. And once I started thinking of religion as a language which expresses truths so complex and profound… I was hooked. I started reading in order to acquire the basic skills in this new language, and eventually I found that in order to gain fluency I needed to go to a place where the language was regularly spoken. (Howatch, Absolute Truths, 302)
If religion is a language with its own unique vocabulary and symbols, what is the task of a rabbi? I want to posit that the rabbi is, first and foremost, a translator, a מתוגמן.
The מתורגמן as described in rabbinic literature functions as a mediator between Jewish texts and traditions on one hand and the community on the other. He translates Torah, both in its narrow and its broad sense, into language that the people can understand. From the moment when the Levites translated as Ezra read the Torah before the Water Gate in Jerusalem, to Moses Mendelsohn’s translation of the Penteteuch for German Jewry in the eighteenth century, to the practice of my home congregation of having Bnai Mitzvah read a verse from the Torah scroll and then pause to offer an English translation, Jews have received Torah not only in the original but also via a translator.
But it is not only the text of the Torah that needs translation. Our tradition is marvelously complex, often grounded in events and cultural assumptions lost in the mists of time. It requires constant translation if it is to inspire and guide the lives of each subsequent generation of Jews. The rabbi, then, becomes the translator of the Jewish past for the Jews of the present.
What are the qualities of a good translator, the qualities to which I believe rabbis should aspire?
First, a translator must be proficient and comfortable in the language that she is translating. She must be sensitive to that language’s usage and idiom. When she translates, she must be attuned to the nuances of the language from which she is translating, so she conveys not just individual words, but meaning. A good translator hears the power and beauty of what she reads, and seeks to help her audience hear it as well, despite their lack of familiarity with the original.
During your years at the College, you have gained some proficiency in the idiom of Judaism. From the structure of the Hebrew language, to biblical parallelism, from Talmudic terminology to the vocabulary of Jewish philosophy, from the metaphors of the classical liturgy to the imagery in a poem by Yehuda Amichai, you have immersed yourselves in the language of the Jewish people. Our hope is that these years devoted to intense study will allow you to deepen your knowledge of our tradition in the years ahead. But your engagement with Jewish tradition cannot be merely mechanical. The Torah that you share must be rooted in your love of and appreciation for Judaism, and that passion must be conveyed in your translation of ancient words into modern idiom.
Second, a good translator must also know the language of his intended audience. The translator needs to be up-to-date with the language of his listeners so that he can render the unfamiliar familiar. Ownership of the language from which one is translating is never enough; one must be equally sensitive to the language into which one translates. The idiom and imagery of one language cannot be rendered into another language mechanically, through word for word correspondence. Anyone who has read an English translation of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, and tried to imagine how a woman’s hair resembles a flock of goats, knows how great the gap is between translating words and conveying ideas. The translator must use skill and judgment to craft a translation that speaks to his audience as powerfully as the original language.
At HUC, you have learned the skills of translation. Not merely translation of Hebrew and Aramaic to English, but the translation of Torah to adult education materials, of the charges of the biblical prophets to the work of community organizing, of rabbinic texts that speak of healing to the extemporaneous prayers offered at a hospital bedside. Through course work, and fieldwork, and conversations with your rabbinic mentors and supervisors, you became more sensitive to the language of the mind and of the soul, to what it means to truly hear and to respond to the voice of the other. Now, as you become rabbis, your task is to embrace the language of your community, and translate Torah into words and ideas that will inspire the people around you to engage with and to act upon the values of Judaism.
Third, a successful translator must know how to set a pace that matches both her ability to share information and the capacity of her audience to receive that information. Mishnah Megillah (4:4) teaches us that a Torah reader should not read a number of verses without pausing, but should stop after each verse to allow the translator to render that verse into the vernacular. This limit allows the translator to focus on the material and to convey it to the listeners clearly and correctly.
You go out into the rabbinate having learned a great deal. I know that you are eager to share your Torah with the communities that you will be serving. You may be incredibly excited about mussar or theology, eager to offer four adult education courses in one year, or offer a new vision for worship. But remember, neither you nor your community can offer or take all of your Torah at once. As rabbis, you need to gauge where to invest your time and energy, and you must be sensitive to your community’s capacity for change.
Finally, the translator must understand and appreciate, perhaps even love, both the language that he is translating and the language of his audience. He must want the listeners to gain an appreciation of what is being shared with them. When we think of teachers who have inspired us, we tend to think of the love they projected for the subject that they were teaching. While they taught us information and skills, above all else they taught us to approach learning with enthusiasm. As rabbis, your love of Torah should be contagious. People will study with you, listen to you, follow your lead, not because of your title, but because they see in you a passion for learning, for prayer, for social justice… for living a life that is animated by your love of Judaism.
In the Book of Proverbs (18:21), we read מות וחיים ביד לשון “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” A language lives only when it is used; when people can no longer speak or read it, it ossifies and eventually dies. Similarly, the language of religion can animate the soul or desiccate it. Religions survive and thrive when they speak to each new generation of believers despite changes in the world in which those believers live; when a religion ceases to speak to circumstances, it dies.
Our tradition has thrived for thousands of years because the leaders of the Jewish people were able to translate the words and ideas of the past into a language that was understandable and meaningful to their community. As rabbis, you have the privilege and the responsibility for translating what you have learned for others and teaching them the language of Judaism. You can breathe new life into old texts and ideas, through teaching, preaching, praying and counseling. You can expand the vocabulary of the Jewish people, reintroducing old idioms and coining new ones.
As you leave our beit midrash and go out into the world to teach the Torah we have taught you and the Torah you have shaped for yourself, I want to bestow on you the blessing that was offered when the students of Rabbi Ammi left the beit midrash – my translation
May you realize your vision of the world in your lifetime and may that which you dream of come to pass. May you pursue understanding. May you speak wisely and sing joyfully. May your sight be focused on what is ahead of you. May your eyes shine with the light of Torah and your face glow like the heavens. May your lips utter knowledge and may your being rejoice in righteousness, and may you always run to hear the word of the Eternal One. (Bavli Berakhot 17a)
Ken y’hi ratzon.