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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-yikra 5756
Leviticus 1:1 -5:26
March 23, 1996    3 Nisan 5756

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Translations conceal as much as they convey. A translator may choose to bring the original to his reader or the reader to the original. In the first case, the translation is so smooth and idiomatic that the reader soon forgets just how foreign the original actually is. In the second, the translator sacrifices the comfort of the reader in order to effect a confrontation with the character of the original. The just published translation of the Torah by Everett Fox (Schocken Books) is a fascinating example of the latter, a bold attempt to make the reader feel the wholly otherness of the original.

Ever since writing his doctoral dissertation at Brandeis, Fox has been captivated by the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Hebrew Scripture into a German that kept the reader ever mindful of the language and thought patterns of the underlying ancient text. If the polished German translation of the Bible by Mendelssohn at the beginning of the modern era served to advance knowledge of German among Jews still largely illiterate in the language (the first edition was still printed in Hebrew characters!), the Buber-Rosenzweig translation, begun but a decade before the Nazis came to power, revealed and reaffirmed for their highly assimilated readers the undiminished vitality of the Hebrew original.

Neither Fox nor Buber-Rosenzweig make for easy reading. In their determination to convey as much of the substance and spirit of the text as possible, they adhere to the syntax of the Hebrew and create new words that jar the reader. The dissonance is a measure of the distance between our world and that of our ancestors.

Let me give you but one instance drawn from this week's parasha, which takes up the sacrificial system that will enliven the Tabernacle just finished. The Hebrew noun for sacrifice is "qorban," and makes its appearance, along with a related verb form, at the very outset of our parasha. "When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock (Leviticus 1:2)" is how the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1926 smoothly renders the verse. In contrast, Fox translates: "Anyone - when (one) among you brings - near a near-offering for YHWH from domestic animals: from the herd or from the flock you may bring-near your near-offering." It is hard to imagine that the two translations share a common text. The awkwardness both of Fox's language and syntax are meant to keep us cognizant of the archaic original, though he does depart from the Torah's internal punctuation in his placing of the word "domestic animals."

More specifically, Fox renders "sacrifice" as "a near-offering" and the cognate verb "yaqriv" ("presents" in the JPS) as "brings-near." Buber-Rosenzweig did exactly the same in their translation by innovating two new German words. The reason for the verbal violence is to catch the related root meaning of the Hebrew noun and verb, which is "to bring near." A sacrifice in biblical Hebrew is an existential act, bridging the chasm between the human and the divine. That force is utterly lost in the frictionless but anemic translation of "presents an offering." Also gone is the basic commonality of verb and noun.

The etymology of the Hebrew term preserves the purified theology of the Torah's conception of sacrifice. The ancient Israelite cult was not intended to provide daily nourishment for the gods, who had created humanity to free them from that chore. In the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, the flood inflicted a famine on the gods, and after the flood was over they "crowded like flies" around the sacrifice of the No·ah-like Utnapishtim, the flood's lone human survivor. For the Torah, it is humankind and not God who stands in need of sacrifices. Offered in the sacred precinct of God's presence, sacrifices grant the individual and the community a means to approach God in joy and contrition, in fear and gratitude. They are a ladder of ascent which rests on the ground of morality.

That is not, however, how the Zohar, the classic medieval work of Spanish Kabbalah, understands the direction of the movement, from below to above. In its comment on our verse, the Zohar proposes a radical reconceptualization of the notion of bringing near which restores a semblance of mutual dependence between God and humanity. Though a commentary to the Torah, the Zohar often makes its point in anecdotal form. Yet you have to read it slowly to fathom the full power and subtlety of its novel interpretation.

Rabbi Hizkiyah was in the presence of Rabbi Shim'on.
He said to him
"That which is called qorban--
it should be called qeiruv, drawing near,
or qereivut, nearness.
Why qorban?"
Rabbi Shim'on replied
"This is well-known to the Comrades!
Qorban, their drawing near,
the drawing near of those holy crowns,
drawing near to one another, connecting with each other,
to perfect the Holy Name,
as it is written: 'qorban to YHVH.' [Lev. 1:2]
The drawing near of those holy crowns is to YHVH
so that the Holy Name be perfected and united,
so that compassion fill all the worlds
and the Holy Name be crowned with its crowns
and everything be sweetened.
All this is intended to arouse Compassion,
not to arouse Judgment.
Therefore 'to YHVH,'
not 'to Elohim.'
'To YHVH'
We must arouse Compassion!
Not 'to Elohim'
We need Compassion, not Judgment!"
Rabbi Hizkiyah said
"I am so happy that I asked and gained these words!
This is the clarity of the word!"

[Daniel Chanan Matt, Zohar. The Book of Enlightenment, N.Y., 1983, pp. 145-6]

In this remarkable passage, a slight exegetical shift yields a theological upheaval. It is true that the word for sacrifice derives from the action of drawing nigh. If it were an abstract noun, we could understand it as implying the ascent of the sacrificer to God. But read as a concrete noun with a suffix meaning "their," it implies a movement within God, a bringing near and rejoining of aspects and attributes known as the sefirot (or crowns) of God made manifest to humanity. What God chooses to emanate into the universe is but a fractured mirror image of God's unknowable self. Sacrifice (or prayer for that matter) is the way humanity can effect a divine wholeness and harmony that would fill the world with compassion. To reunite God's four-letter name is to stem the flow of stern judgment.

Without getting lost in the unstated assumptions of this passage, it is clear that the Zohar has greatly enhanced the efficacy of sacrifices and prayer. They are more than acts of self-edification. They impact on God directly as agents of change. We have entered the realm of magic and mysticism, at which point I part company with the Zohar. For me, to be heard is also to be helped.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.