Breathing, prayer, the planet
How Caretaker takes care of me

What's in a name? Torah, meanings, translation.

TorahFive holy books are treasured in the innermost heart of my tradition:

Beginning. Or "in the beginning" or "as God was beginning." The beginning of creation. The beginning of our tradition. The beginning of our story. The beginning of our ancestry. How the world came to be what it is.

Names. The names of our ancestors. Their histories and stories. The name of the narrow place where we were held constricted, and the names of those who led us free. Names have meaning. Names tell us who we are.

God Called. God called to us. God calls to us still. Though we've replaced the service of the altar with the service of the heart, God is still speaking. God calls us to ethical behavior. God calls us to love one another.

In the Wilderness. The wilderness is the place where we open ourselves to transformation. The place where we most clearly see God's work in the world. The place where we hear the Voice calling us to covenant.

The Words. These are the words; these are the memories; these are the stories we tell about the journey we've been taking. These are the words of our teachers, spoken in the last moments before their deployment in this incarnation comes to an end.

Beginning. Names. God Called. In the Wilderness. The Words. To me these names evoke an entirely different set of associations than Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

The names we most often use in English come to us via a few levels of translation. A few millennia ago, these books of Torah had colloquial Hebrew names: Ma'aseh B'reshit ("The work of creation"), Yetziat Mitzrayim ("The going-forth from Egypt"), Torat Kohanim ("The laws of the priests"), Pekudim ("Countings / census"), and Mishneh Torah ("The repetition of the Torah"). Those names got translated into Greek, probably when the Torah was translated into Koine Greek in what eventually came to be called by the Latin name Septuagint. (That translation happened sometime around 300 B.C.E.) And then from Greek, the names were translated again into English.

Our English names for these Biblical books, therefore, have echoes of Greek. For instance, the name "Deuteronomy" comes from Deuteronomion, "the second law," which is a translation of mishneh Torah, "the repetition of the Torah," because that book of Torah contains a recapitulation of some of what has been said before. But I don't speak Greek, so deuteronomion doesn't have much meaning for me. I have to pause and translate the English Deuteronomy into the Greek deuteronomion and then translate again from that word to the concept "second law." That name is always at a remove.

And yet those are the names which English-speaking Jews most often use. They're considered to be the standard English names, and we speak English, so it makes sense, right? But in using these names, I think we reinscribe a certain kind of foreignness in our minds and hearts. The fact that many of us know these names better than we know the books' Hebrew names shows the distance between us and the words of our tradition. Our minds have been colonized. The words we use for our tradition are not our own.

For those of us who understand at least some Hebrew, the Hebrew names of the five books are far more resonant than the Greek-inflected English ones. B'reishit / בראשית , Shmot / שמות, Vayikra / ויקרא, Bamidbar / במדבר , Dvarim / דברים -- each of these Hebrew words evokes other related words, cousins to those words, descended from the same word-roots. As Rabbi Marcia Prager has written in The Path of Blessing:

Like leaves and branches growing from a tree trunk, most Hebrew words derive from what is called a root. Just as each leaf must be understood as a part, fed by the roots of the whole tree, individual Hebrew words cannot be fully understood without reference to their whole tree. The root stores all the meanings flowing into each one of the leaves.

(For more on this, check out my review of Rabbi Prager's book -- and consider picking up a copy of her book, which is tremendous.) The word "Deuteronomy" is foreign, but דברים / D'varim -- "The Words" -- now that speaks to me. As a writer, as a poet, as a Jew, I know that words matter. If I think of that last book of Torah as "The Words," something opens up in me. I want to know: which words? Why these words, and not others? What story do the words join forces to tell?

In an ideal world, every Jew would speak enough Hebrew to be able to name the books of the Torah using our tradition's own names, and would understand what those names mean and feel the ripples of the other related words and ideas which those names evoke. But we don't yet live in that ideal world. It's fine to argue that we should be using our own tradition's native names for these books, but for those who don't yet speak much Hebrew, the Hebrew names may feel as foreign as the Greek ones do.

I wonder how the books of the Torah might feel different to English-speakers if we called them by English names which evoke the meaning of their Hebrew names, instead of by English names which evoke Greek words which most of us don't intuitively know.