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December 24, 2017 12:43 pm

New York Times Mangles Hebrew Translation in Op-Ed on ‘Assault’ Forgiveness

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A New York Times op-ed by a journalist trying to apply Jewish traditions about repentance to what she writes was an “assault” on her by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit manages to mangle a Hebrew translation.

Danielle Berrin wrote in Saturday’s Times:

In Judaism, a religion that prizes deeds over faith, atonement is not an easy process. And why should it be? It is designed to effect nothing less than personal transformation. This is why the Hebrew word for “atonement” is “teshuva,” or return — as in a return to your higher self, a return to your essential goodness, a return to recognizing your own dignity and the dignity of others…

Judaism requires that transgressors seek out those they’ve hurt and ask forgiveness of each and every person. If rebuffed, the tradition demands the transgressor ask no fewer than three times before moral responsibility is lifted.

Actually, the Hebrew word for “atonement” isn’t “teshuva,” but “kapparah.” The Jewish holiday known in English as the “Day of Atonement” is Yom Kippur, not Yom Teshuva. “Teshuva” is the Hebrew word for repentance. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a difference nonetheless.

There’s more to quarrel with in the Times‘ Berrin op-ed. The sweeping and unattributed, unsourced claim that Judaism is “a religion that prizes deeds over faith” is something of a false dichotomy. In fact the first two of the Ten Commandments are about faith. So is one of the fundamental prayers of Judaism, the Sh’ma — English translations vary, but it is a passage from Deuteronomy (6:4) to the effect of “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One,” followed by a passage from Deuteronomy (6:5) about how “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul,” followed by another reference to Deuteronomy (11:13) about loving God and serving Him.

The Babylonian Talmud, in Sotah 14a (I’m grateful to Rabbi Shai Held’s teaching earlier this year at the Rabbi Samuel Chiel Genesis Forum of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston for this reference), links faith and deeds almost inextricably:

And Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “After the Lord your God shall you walk, and Him shall you fear, and His commandments shall you keep, and unto His voice shall you hearken, and Him shall you serve, and unto Him shall you cleave” (Deuteronomy 13:5)?… He explains: Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He provides several examples. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.

Inserting myself into the public conflict between Berrin and Shavit is just about the last thing I want to do. But if the New York Times is going to make its op-ed page, of all places, a forum for analyzing that conflict through the lens of Jewish religion, it’s reasonable for readers to ask the Times editors to do better for accuracy in both Hebrew translation and characterization of Judaism.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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