Translating God

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by R. Gil Student

A long tradition exists of criticizing translators. The nuance of one language is often difficult to discern much less to transfer to a different tongue. Commentary, conventional wisdom has it, is inherent in translation.

Judaism has a quasi-official translation of the Pentateuch, and it isn’t Artscroll. It is Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic translation attributed to second century Onkelos the convert’s record of a tradition dating back to the biblical Ezra. Often just called Targum, which technically refers to any translation, particularly those in Aramaic, Targum Onkelos was more-or-less canonized in Jewish law as a weekly study requirement. (Oddly, as one scholar pointed out to me, Artscroll’s translation proudly follows Rashi even when he disagrees with Onkelos.)

As with any translation, Targum Onkelos contains commentary as part of its translation. One particular element captured the notice and imagination of Medieval philosophers. Onkelos regularly removes anthropomorphisms that imply God has a physical presence. God does not descend but rather reveals Himself (Gen. 18:21; Ex. 19:20). God does not pass by but rather his presence passes by (Ex. 34:6). God has no mouth but words (Num. 12:8) and no face but anger (Ex. 4:14).

Why did Onkelos change the literal text in his translation? This question, and Onkelos’ frustrating inconsistencies, engendered great debate over history. I present below five approaches to the issue, two of which may be explained as a linguistic debate.

1. Philosophical Approach

R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda (Chovos Ha-Levavos, Sha’ar Ha-Yichud ch. 10), R. Sa’adia Gaon (Emunos Ve-Dei’os 2:9) and Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:27) cite this translation activity as a precedent for their philosophical approach to divine unity (see also Kuzari 4:3). God cannot be divided or appear in physical form. While the Torah spoke in human parlance, Onkelos presented the true meaning to avoid philosophical confusion. Any exceptions to this approach in Targum Onkelos must be explained away.

For example, Onkelos translates Gen. 46:4 “I will go down with you to Egypt” literally, without removing the implication that God will physically dwell in Egypt. Rambam (ibid.) explains that this was a statement in a dream (Gen. 46:2) rather than a description of action. A prophetic vision of God can entail anthropomorphisms and therefore does not merit translational commentary. Additionally, Onkelos translates literally that God sees (e.g. Gen. 6:5), potentially implying that He has eyes, because the word means intellectual conception and not merely sight.

2. Kabbalistic Approach

Ramban (Gen. 41:1) disagrees at great length with the philosophical approach. Demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of Targum Onkelos, Ramban raises many examples that challenge the proposed translational rules. Why does Onkelos alter God’s hearing but not seeing, if both mean intellectual conception? Why does Onkelos translate literally “The Lord your God Himself crosses over before you” (Deut. 31:3) when that implies physical movement? And why does he allow for God’s hand (Ex. 14:31), finger (Ex. 31:18) and eyes (Deut. 11:12)? Ramban poses more challenges, too many to list here. Although note that some of Ramban’s examples do not appear as he claims in our texts of Onkelos, nor in most Medieval texts.

Rather, Ramban suggests that Onkelos utilized kabbalistic considerations in determining when to translate God’s descriptions literally and when not. Rashba (quoted by his student, R. Meir Abusaulah in Bi’ur Le-Feirush Ha-Ramban, Gen. 41:1) agrees. Neither explain these considerations but perhaps they intended what R. Chaim Volozhiner wrote centuries later (Nefesh Ha-Chaim 2:5 n. ve-zehu, tr. R. Leonard Moskowitz, The Soul of Life, p. 219):

And this is the context of all the descriptive names in the Torah that are applied to Him–eye, arm, leg and others like them–all are from the perspective of His relationship (blessed be He) to the worlds, that they are organized according to this organization in all these limbs/organs, and they are names reflecting essential characteristics of the powers and worlds, not metaphorical characteristics.

Later commentaries did not find Ramban’s critique of the philosophical approach compelling. Ritva (Sefer Ha-Zikaron, ch. 4) and Abarbanel (Commentary to Moreh Nevukhim 1:27) responded at length to Ramban’s detailed challenges. Onkelos changed God’s hearing, but not seeing or saying, because hearing implies that God is acted upon, an object of human activity in the physical world rather than an actor on his own divine terms. The Torah does not state that God crossed but that Moshe said that God would cross. Onkelos changed descriptions of divine activity, not human speeches about God. Onkelos did not allow for the sight of God’s hand but for viewing the glory of God’s hand, i.e. His might. God’s “finger” might mean a utensil used to write on the tablets and God’s eyes are clearly an allegorical reference. And so on, for each specific challenge.

3. Composite Approach

R. Yitzchak Arama (Akeidas Yitzchak, no. 31) took an entirely different approach to explaining Onkelos’ methodology. R. Arama identifies three of Onkelos’ terms for God that refer to three different aspects of his interaction with mankind. When the text means God’s presence or movement, Onkelos translates as His honor (yekara). He calls God’s providence His word (memra). And God’s continued involvement is called His presence (shekhinah). When a biblical should be translated into one of these three terms but for contextual reasons cannot, Onkelos renders the word literally.

God descending with the Jews into Egypt means His providence descends. However, Onkelos would have created an awkward sentence by translating it as His word descending into Egypt. Therefore, the Targum translates it literally, without altering it to remove the anthropomorphism.

4. Glorification Approach

Shadal (Ohev Ger, 1:19) quotes R. Arama. However, earlier (1:3) he proposes his own approach which focuses on the average reader (including converts). He suggests that Onkelos deviates from literal translation when doing so preserves God’s honor in the eyes of the average reader, who would lose respect for a God with body parts or physical presence. Similarly, he retains the literal wording when doing so does not detract from God’s honor. This seems to me a fairly vague and subjective criterion, although Shadal follows it through at length.

5. Linguistic Approach

R. Yosef Kafach (Moreh Nevukhim 1:27 n. 9) approves of Abarbanel’s specific answers to Ramban’s challenges but suggests a simpler explanation of Onkelos’ translational methodology. Rambam (ibid.) states that Onkelos was an expert in Aramaic. This statement of qualifications is unusual. R. Kafach suggests that Rambam meant that Onkelos knew which words in Aramaic have multiple meanings like in Hebrew and which do not. When a divine descriptor contains equal nuance in Aramaic, Onkelos translated literally to maintain the multiple meanings. But when the Aramaic translation fails to convey the rich Hebrew meaning, Onkelos deviated to avoid anthropomorphisms.

Language and Meaning

Perhaps we can explain the debate between Rambam and Ramban based on two of the many theories of language. According to the Idea Theory, language refers to ideas, mental concepts, that the words represent. According to Reference Theory, words represent actual objects. (Of course, I can’t claim to have even begun to adequately capture the nuances of the multiple theories subsumed under these broad categories. But this rough dichotomy should suffice for our purposes.)

If the Rambam accepts Reference Theory, then we can understand his profound concern for anthropomorphic language about God. The words actually refer to the Almighty as if He really has parts. If the Ramban accepts Idea Theory, he can easily say that the same words used for man refer to similar concepts on a different plane when used for God. He would therefore be content with kabbalistic meaning in anthropomorphic terms.

We can perhaps see a similar debate between Rambam and Ramban regarding the Hebrew language. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8), Hebrew is called the Holy Language because it lacks obscene terms. It is an entirely clean language, thus rendering it holy. If Rambam accepts Reference Theory, then he would believe that inappropriate terms must refer directly to inappropriate objects.

Ramban (Ex. 30:13), on the other hand, disagrees that Hebrew lacks obscene terms. Additionally, he is unimpressed with the entire claim. This would be understandable if he accepts Idea Theory, in which case he would not identify the words directly with profane acts and objects. The words would not be inherently impure.

(Reposted from Dec ’12)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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