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Lost or Gained in Translation

Friday, 24 July, 2020 - 3:40 pm

Canva - Biblical Hebrew.jpgSir Issac Newton is known for many things including his research in calculus and in the field of universal gravity. Yet a lesser known side of Newton is that he intensely studied the Hebrew language so that he could study the Torah in its original form and understand it properly without relying on translations that he felt were at times questionable and not so accurate.

Alongside that, Newton had a deep interest in the concept of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and what that meant on many levels. Newton left many manuscripts that dealt with these ideas and many of those are now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Newton's search for a true and accurate translation was certainly not the first by an outside scholar. The Talmud tells us of a story with Ptolemy, one of the Greek Kings who had seventy two Jewish sages locked up in individual rooms and tasked with translating the Torah accurately. Ptolemy was concerned that they would perhaps translate things wrong so as not to offend him or have him misunderstand things and he didn't want that to happen.

The Talmud tells us that a miracle occurred and there were several subtle changes that were made by every single sage that were all identical in nature and all done so that the king would not misinterpret the Torah and it's understanding of G-d.

All too often delicate ideas and concepts can be lost in translation and even totally misunderstood and it was these concerns that caused them all to make the same identical slight adjustments to the translation so that the right underlying message would still be conveyed in its purity.

However the earliest translation of the Torah in to another language was by none other than Moses himself just over a month before he passed away. The verse states that on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses began to explain the Torah very clearly. The commentaries and Jewish tradition explain this to mean that Moses had been instructed by G-d to translate the Torah in to seventy languages before he passed away.

The commentaries explain that G-d wanted to convey to the people that learning Torah and Divine ideas holds great importance and significance when studied in any language and is not limited to being holy and special only when done in Hebrew. In addition, Chassidic teachings explain that the purpose of translating the Torah in to other languages was so that the ideas of the Torah would be able to influence other languages and cultures and not simply remain in the realm of Hebrew.

Often we compartmentalize ideas and concepts with spiritual, material and pleasure all being separate realms in our lives which don't necessarily overlap. Yet by Moses translating the Torah in to many languages, he was sharing a powerful idea of Judaism, and that is that an underlying goal of what we seek to accomplish is to bridge the apparent barriers and divisions in the world, by spiritually uplifting and inspiring all of humanity and every culture and language.

This does not mean seeking to convert people, but it does mean sharing some of the uplifting universal ideas of Judaism and using them to inspire each human to be mindful of their inherent potential.

Moses was the first to break the divide and begin the process of taking the ideas of Torah to other languages and thereby other cultures. Then throughout history the Torah has been continuously applied and translated to be relevant to the needs and challenges of the time, all while maintaining the purity, underlying truth and non changing element of the Torah.

Thousands of years later the torchbearers of Judaism are none other than each one of us, and we need to mindful of our own ongoing responsibility as people of the book to constantly learn and inspire ourselves with new information and ideas from the Torah and Jewish wisdom in whatever language works for us. Alongside that we need to find a way to translate the Torah in to our lives and make it relevant for ourselves and our children while always remembering its eternal and unchanging truth.

Lastly, we must remember that we have been given and have access to the greatest gift that mankind ever received and at the same time learning it and having access to classes in this digital age has never been easier and more accessible.

Moses may have been the one who began the process but we are the ones that are continuing it.

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