The Necessary Bad Faith in Reading the Bible as Literature

For those who can’t say “I will obey,” but won’t say “I refuse to obey,” what other choice is there?

Last Word
Feb. 25 2019
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

I thank Jon Levenson and Leonard Greenspoon for their kind responses to my essay on Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible. I’ll address their pieces in the reverse order of their appearance in Mosaic.

Leonard Greenspoon wonders why I didn’t mention Isaac Leeser in my list of solo Bible translators. The reason is that Leeser’s The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures is not an original translation but a revision of the King James Version (KJV). Leeser took the KJV and made changes in it, sometimes more so and sometimes less so, while always retaining it as a baseline. Of the 90 words in the KJV’s rendition of the opening five verses of Genesis, for example, Leeser kept 85 exactly as they were.

As for Everett Fox, Richard Elliott Friedman, and Aryeh Kaplan, whom Greenspoon also mentions, they translated, as he himself observes, only parts of the Bible, mainly the Pentateuch, and their achievements, however great, aren’t comparable to Alter’s.

Greenspoon also raises the intriguing question of what might constitute a “Jewish” translation of the Bible, or of how one would be recognized. Should we look for specific places in Scripture where Jews and Christians have differed for theological reasons, such as the well-known verse in Chapter 7 of Isaiah in which the Hebrew noun almah in “Behold an almah shall conceive and bear a son,” taken by the rabbis and modern Jewish translators like Alter to mean “young woman,” was interpreted by the Christian church as “virgin” and as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth? But many modern non-Jewish translations of Isaiah—the 1952 Revised Standard Version of the Bible, for instance—also have “young woman,” while, conversely, the earliest of all Jewish Bible translations, the mostly 2nd-century BCE Greek Septuagint, has parthenos or “virgin.” Even more pertinent is the fact that there are simply not enough Jewish-Christian textual disputes of this sort to have a significant impact on any translation of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

Should we, then, seek out passages in which a Jewish translator has been influenced by traditional Jewish exegesis? Alter, clearly, has read and reflected on the opinions of the great rabbinic exegetes like Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and David Kimḥi and mentions them in his commentary.

But Christian translators turned to the rabbis, too. Jerome, in the prefaces to his Latin translations of the books of the Bible, speaks of consulting learned Jews when unsure of the meaning of Hebrew words or passages. Martin Luther read medieval Jewish Bible commentators and was particularly fond of the Kimḥis, David and his brother Moses. Several collaborators in the KJV translation, including John Rainolds and Lancelot Andrewes, were also accomplished Hebraists who availed themselves of rabbinic interpretations.

This was entirely natural. Although all of these men were fervent Christians who thought the rabbis failed to recognize the Hebrew Bible’s Christological nature, they had the good sense to realize that no Christian of their age was as steeped in biblical Hebrew as were Jewish scholars who had studied it from early childhood.

Greenspoon suggests that Alter’s commentary itself is what makes his translation Jewish. As an example of the Christian who likes “his versions of the Bible commentary-free,” he cites John Updike, who in a 2004 New Yorker review of Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch complained about its “sheer amount of accompanying commentary” and of “an overload of elucidation imposed on the basic text.”

But Christians have been writing their own Bible commentaries since the early centuries of Christianity. The Christian church fathers produced many; so, in medieval times, did Thomas Aquinas and others, one of whom, the 14th-century Nicholas de Lyra, visually arranged his verse-by-verse exposition of the entire Bible in rabbinic style, with the scriptural text in the middle of the page and his exegetical remarks surrounding it.

Protestant Bible commentaries followed, among the earliest in English being Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible (1679) and Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testament (1706). In recent decades, there have been a large number of Bible commentaries in English by Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike.

What might make a Bible translation Jewish? We are left—in Greenspoon’s humorous suggestion—with Seinfeld to fall back on. Or, less jocularly, with the notion of a supposed Jewish sensibility of which both Robert Alter and Jerry Seinfeld partake. To tell the truth, I haven’t viewed enough installments of Seinfeld to be able to judge what the two have in common; but, off-hand, it doesn’t seem much to me.


Jon Levenson, too, raises the question of a Jewish sensibility with regard both to the Alter translation and to a literary reading of the Bible in general. “A telltale religious connection still lies in the background of most who pursue . . . a secular approach to the Bible,” he writes. “Should we be surprised that the parameters of the Bible-seen-as-literature approach tend to correspond with the religious identity of the supposedly non-confessional interpreter?”

No, we shouldn’t be surprised. We all bring who we are to what we read, and if we are Jews, we bring as much or as little Jewishness as we have. This can express itself grandly in Levenson’s example of Northrop Frye’s “Christian typological reading of the Bible,” but also in less grand ways. Take for example a non-literary passage like the list of kosher and non-kosher animals in Leviticus. When a secular reader of Frye’s non-secular background reads this list, he has no particular emotional reaction, because he was taught by the Christianity he was raised in and subsequently lapsed from that it does not apply to him. When I read it, I have various emotions, because I was taught by the Judaism I was raised in and lapsed from that it does apply to me.

All of this may be stating the obvious; when, however, we come precisely to literary interpretation, it doesn’t seem to me obvious at all. Not that background isn’t involved here, too, but it’s involved in a different way.

I’m ten years older than Jon Levenson. When I received my B.A. from Columbia in 1960, I had been taught by teachers who believed that literary values were universal and eternal: Keats’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn” and David’s lament for Jonathan, though written 3,000 years apart in the context of different civilizations, needed to be read and appreciated in the same way and with the same understanding of human thoughts and emotions, since both were literary creations. However wisely or naively, I still believe this to be true. (As far as I can judge, so does Robert Alter, who graduated from Columbia a few years before me.)

Jon Levenson received his B.A. from Harvard in 1971. By then, the winds of intellectual fashion were shifting. Various schools of relativism were settling in—in literature, in art, in philosophy, and in other areas. It was increasingly assumed that there were no absolutes, no Archimedean points from which anything, including a novel or a poem, could be viewed. We were all prisoners of our time and place and could be freed only by recognizing the partiality of our vision and by refraining from imposing it on what we read. Thus it is that Levenson, in expressing such relativism in a sensible and moderate manner, writes that a literary work “must be accountable to the historical period in which the text was produced.”

Levenson takes as an example the story of Abraham and Isaac, Alter’s translation of which I discussed in my essay. It would be wrong, he says, to project our feelings about child sacrifice onto Abraham. Although we think of it as monstrous, we can’t assume that the author of the story did. For, if he did so think of it, why, at the end of the story, would he tell us that Abraham was “abundantly rewarded [by God] for his willingness to commit a murder?”

I respectfully disagree. If we wish to read the story of Abraham as a theological document from the distant past, we can read it that way. If we wish to read it as literature, we cannot. The only way to read it as literature is to project ourselves onto it, because this is the only way we can get it to speak to us as literature should. If we don’t do this, we will end up reading it as a Christian reads the list of kosher and non-kosher animals in Leviticus. It won’t apply to us.

As readers of literature, we are called upon to put ourselves empathically in Abraham’s place. There is no way of doing this if we assume that he was acting from motives, such as the permissibility of child sacrifice, that are horrifying to us. We can only do it if we assume that the thought of sacrificing his own son horrified him infinitely more than it does us—that every step he took with Isaac on their way to Mount Moriah was taken in the wild and increasingly desperate hope that a miracle of some sort would occur.

Is this an ahistorical reading of the text? It is indeed not a historical reading. It is a literary one.


Jon Levenson reminds us that, at the end of my essay, I criticize Robert Alter for nowhere dealing with the dilemma of reading the Bible as literature when this means reading the Bible “as it does not wish to be read.” Levenson in turn asks: “does a book have will or desire?”

That is little more than a rhetorical question. Books are written by authors with wills and desires—and the authors of most of the books of the Bible (there are, of course, exceptions, like Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, the Song of Songs, and perhaps one or two others) were convinced that they were communicating the will and desire of God. They were demanding that we obey them—and, clearly, “How beautifully this is written,” or “What great literature this is,” is not an entirely appropriate response to such a demand. Either “I will obey” or “I refuse to obey” would be more to the point.

However, I don’t wish to be misunderstood. For those of us who cannot say the first of those two things and are not prepared to say the second, reading the Bible as great literature remains the best option. Fourteen years ago, I published in Commentary an essay on the Alter translation of the Pentateuch. Since I can’t think of any way of improving on it, I’ll permit myself to quote its closing sentence:

To read the Bible merely as literature is to read it not so much without faith as in bad faith, although what better faith can be hoped for from the faithless than the faith in literature, which alone holds that every word in the Bible counts even if it is not God’s, would be hard to say.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays