Die Schrift: A Non-Territorial Translation of “The Land”
The Buber-Rosenzweig Translation: Background
In undertaking a German translation of the Bible, Die Schrift, Martin Buber (1878–1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) were caught between the wish to produce a manifestly Jewish translation, which by its very nature would heed the rich midrashic and later rabbinic traditions, and the obligation they felt to the biblical text bared of any and all commentary. Buber and Rosenzweig tackled this problem with remarkable insight, resourcefulness, and creativity.
As modern thinkers immersed in German high culture and versed in the innovations of critical scholarship, Buber and Rosenzweig openly expressed their indebtedness to giants such as Goethe, Herder, and Hölderin. Awed by Martin Luther’s translation, considered a masterpiece of German rhetoric, they initially contemplated creating a “revised” Luther Bible but ultimately conceded the futility of their attempt.
In order to produce a translation that would reflect their multiple allegiances, the translators developed a distinctive approach formulated in a string of essays that Buber published as a volume in 1936. This approach may be divided into three tenets:
(1) Authentic—Attunement to the structure and aesthetic features of the biblical text. Led by a concept we may call here loosely “the medium is the message,” Buber and Rosenzweig intentionally retained in translation the repetitive use of words or word roots, to a striking effect.
(2) Jewish—Adoption of the rabbinic exegetical tradition as the translation’s compass. They considered the masoretic text as the definitive rendition of the speaking voice of God, overseen by a quasi-mythical redactor (of the biblical sources E, J, P and D) they denoted as R for “Rabenu.” They understood the traditional function of the text as publicly read to congregations in days of yore, an “oral” written Torah, as it were, complemented by the so-called oral teachings of the rabbis.
(3) Modern—Receptiveness to modern discourses of Bible scholarship. Buber and Rosenzweig were suspicious, but not dismissive, of higher criticism, and addressed in their work the concerns of both Jewish and Christian theologians.
Ever so carefully, Buber and Rosenzweig sought to establish with their translation a delicate balance between a traditional conception of scripture and modern sensibilities, which would make it palatable to skeptics and enthusiasts alike. Their rendition of the Haazinu poem in Deuteronomy 32 is a splendid example of how they worked.
Haazinu’s Rich Description of the Land
Haazinu is premised on the conception of berit, covenant: a triangular bond between God, His chosen people, and the Land of Israel. This is reflected in the poem’s imagery, threats and promises. Hearkening back to the primordial history of nations (32:8–9), the poem seeks to ratify the continuity of God’s relationship with Israel, in which the Promised Land functions as both a prize and a scourge.
Haazinu is presented in Deuteronomy as Moses’ song to the people of Israel on his dying day in the Transjordan, having never entered the land himself. Yet the poetic descriptions of the land throughout the poem pose a challenge to this origin story, since they show its author has an intimate familiarity with Israel’s landscape, climate, and living conditions.
The Torah neutralizes this problem by framing the poem as a divine prediction, telling Israel what will occur when they live on the land, and warning them of the consequences if it does. In fact, after explaining to Moses what will happen, God specifically instructs Moses to teach them this poem. Clearly, God knows what the land of Israel is like and can include authentic descriptions of its climate, etc., in a poem.
For critical scholarship, however, this answer doesn’t suffice, and thus scholars believe that the poem was written by someone already living in the land, and that the Torah artificially placed it in the wilderness period.
A very different challenge, also posed by the poem’s “authentic” knowledge of the land, was faced by interpreters who lived outside the land and tried to understand what the images conveyed. The problem is particularly acute for translators who must offer an interpretation of every single word without exception.
The Non-Native Imagination: Capturing the Realia in the Poem
Translators of the Hebrew Bible, of any persuasion, era, and language, who never saw the Land of Israel with their own eyes, had to rely on their imagination in rendering scenic passages describing its flora and fauna, landscapes, and climate. Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s express wish to have their translation reflect the “ground zero” stratum of the biblical text posed a unique challenge in this respect. Yet like all readers, Buber and Rosenzweig were forced to interpret and translate what they read through the prism of their own experience.
At the time of they worked on their Deuteronomy translation, published in 1927, neither had visited Palestine: Suffering from an advanced-stage ALS, Rosenzweig had been stranded in his home since 1922, while Buber first visited Palestine in 1928 and emigrated there ten years later. Thus, retaining in German an authentic sense of the Hebrew imagery in Haazinu, which draws on Israel’s native living conditions, would prove to be a daunting task, and one that they were unable to fully realize.
Cloud-bursting Storms or Foggy Drizzles
In 32:2, Moses likens the message of his song to the life-giving force of abundant precipitation (Robert Alter translation):
יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי
תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי
כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי דֶשֶׁא
וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי עֵשֶׂב.
Let my teachings drop like rain
my saying flow like dew,
like showers on the green
and like cloudbursts on the grass.
The elegance of Robert Alter’s translation of the verse is redolent of the charming simplicity of Martin Luther’s German rendition. Both Alter and Luther use generic terms for precipitation:
- Luther’s 16th century Bible renders matar and se’irim as rain (Regen), tal as dew (Tau), and revivim as drops (Tropfen).
- Alter’s millennial Bible does the same with matar (rain)and tal (dew), but introduces a slight variety by translating se’irim as showers (and not repeating the word rain as Luther does) and revivim as cloudbursts, a colorful term.
For their part, Buber and Rosenzweig go to greater length in their attempt to capture the idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew of the second couplet:
wie Nebelrieseln übers Gesproß Like foggy droplets on grass sprouts,
wie Streifschauer übers Gekräut Like patchy showers on lawn.
This rendition is meant to accentuate the delicate nature of the precipitation Moses invokes in his metaphor, in an attempt to bring the reader closer to the resonance of the Hebrew. Yet inadvertently, Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s translational choice connects the German reader with the lushness of the German Fatherland, where regularly occurring foggy drizzles and scattered showers sustain the verdant landscape. In the heart of the levant, green pastures such as those that the poem conjures thrive on precipitation that may come in sudden outbursts (as Alter, who knows Israeli climate well, aptly chose “cloudbursts”) or in sizable rain showers.
Between Earth, Soil and Land
A poetic admonishment of terrible beauty, Haazinu is rigged to the soil of the Promised Land in a variety of ways. The poem’s admonishment of Israel is based on their infatuation with foreign gods (vv.15–18), which the poem associates with the decadence that Israel suffers from arising from the fecundity of the land:
דברים לב:יד חֶמְאַת בָּקָר וַחֲלֵב צֹאן עִם חֵלֶב כָּרִים וְאֵילִים בְּנֵי בָשָׁן וְעַתּוּדִים עִם חֵלֶב כִּלְיוֹת חִטָּה וְדַם עֵנָב תִּשְׁתֶּה חָמֶר. לב:טו וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַ עָשָׂהוּ וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ. לב:טז יַקְנִאֻהוּ בְּזָרִים בְּתוֹעֵבֹת יַכְעִיסֻהוּ...
Deut 32:14 Curd of kine and milk of flocks; with the best of lambs, and rams of Bashan, and he-goats; with the very finest wheat, and foaming grape-blood was your drink. 32:15 So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—You grew fat and gross and coarse—he forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of his support. 32:16 They incensed Him with alien things, vexed Him with abominations. (NJPS)
The land, thus, plays an important theological role in the poem, and any reading must take its centrality into account. But “land” is a nuanced concept with more than one referent—territory, dirt/earth, etc., and the semantic range differs depending on what term is used and in what language. In Hebrew:
- eretz/aretz (ארץ) can mean either “land/territory” or “earth.”
- adama (אדמה) can refer to either “soil/earth” or “land.”
The translator, therefore, is presented with a formidable challenge here, as Haazinu’s sophisticated employment of Hebrew's pluri-dimensional terms, eretz/aretz (ארץ) and adama (אדמה), has left the meaning of certain phrases open-ended, unclear, or polyvalent. While exegetes have the luxury (and space) to suggest several possible meanings to a given phrase or line, translators are forced to commit to a single interpretation conveyed by word choice alone. Thus, the interpretation of scripture in translation is shaped not only by translators’ knowledge and perspective, but also by the medium’s limits; in the end a word must be chosen.
As a general rule, Luther prefers to emphasize the territorial relevance of God’s concerns by translating both adama and eretz (earth/land and soil) as Land, while Buber and Rosenzweig take the semantic difference into account and try to capture it with Scholle and Land/Erde, respectively, and they avoided translating two words with the same German term, because of their policy of consistent translation of words.
Adama as Scholle
The easier term was adama, for which Luther’s standard is Land, while Buber and Rosenzweig go with Scholle (soil). For example, in verse 43, which ends with וְכִפֶּר אַדְמָתוֹ עַמּוֹ, a very difficult phrase to translate Luther goes with Land, amplifying the territorial resonance of the term. He further “corrects” the ungrammatical phrase (which awkwardly reads “and cleansed His adama His people” without a separating comma) to reflect the Hebrew re-reading וְכִפֶּר אַדְמָת עַמּוֹ (“and purified His people’s land”): "und gnädig sein dem Lande seines Volkes."
In this case, Buber and Rosenzweig stick with the awkward grammar, and thus their direct translation of adama as Scholle is actually quite startling. In their translation, the verse identifies the soil with the people of Israel: "und deckt seine Scholle, sein Volk,” meaning, “and compensate for [the sins of] His soil, His people”). What Buber and Rosenzweig made of the double possession of land and people is unclear, but their rendering of adama connects the reader to the physical dirt as opposed to the geographical territory.
Eretz – Land or Free Translation?
The more complicated term to translate is eretz. Indeed, a comparison between the Buber-Rosenzweig translation and Luther is quite revealing in this respect. Both favor the word Land. Neither translation remains consistent in its renderings of eretz, but they don’t always agree with each other either. This fact discloses a sophisticated interpretive strategy that bypasses the abovementioned limits of the medium, while it also hints at conflicting ideological considerations that guided Luther’s choices in one direction, and Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s in another.
Eretz as Erde: God’s Wrath Reaches the World
Moses’s appeal to the heavens so that he may speak (הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה), and for the earth to listen to the utterances of his mouth (וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי פִי) in v.1, is rendered by both translations as earth (Erde). This makes sense, since earth here parallels heavens.
In verse 22, however, in which fire comes forth from God’s nostrils, וַתֹּאכַל אֶרֶץ וִיבֻלָהּ, “and consumes the eretz and its produce,” Luther goes with Land while Buber and Rosenzweig opt again for Erde. Rendering ha-aretz as “the earth” forces translators to downplay the dominance of the land/territory of Israel, whereas opting for “the land” misses the clear reference to God’s cosmic outreach, from the heavens to the earth.
Though the Grimm Dictionary (the German equivalent of the OED) indicates that both terms are linked to the Latin terra, it stresses the territorial specificity of Land, and the universal outreach of Erde, much like the English parallels land and earth. Therefore, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation’s employment of Erde in this case implies that God’s wrath reaches out the world over, a reading that the verse reiterates in both the antecedent and consequent of this statement (Alter translation):
דברים לב:כב כִּי אֵשׁ קָדְחָה בְאַפִּי
וַתִּיקַד עַד שְׁאוֹל תַּחְתִּית
וַתֹּאכַל אֶרֶץ וִיבֻלָהּ
וַתְּלַהֵט מוֹסְדֵי הָרִים.
Deut 32:22 For fire has flared in My nostrils
and blazed to Sheol down below
eaten up earth and its yield
and kindled the mountains' foundations.
Aretz as Land
In verse 13, in the phrase יַרְכִּבֵהוּ עַל [בָּמֳתֵי] אָרֶץ, “he set them atop the aretz,” we see the opposite: Luther uses Erde while Buber and Rosenzweig designate it as Land. Here the modern translators, Buber and Rosenzweig, appear to follow the traditional commentaries of and R. Behaye ben Asher (ca. 1255–1340) and R. Obadia ben Jacob Sforno (ca. 1475–1550), in line with the second pillar of their translation project: Jewishness. The medieval exegetes understood בָּמֳתֵי as referring specifically to the elevation of the Land of Israel above all other lands. Luther’s rendition, in contrast, dissolves this bond by universalizing aretz to mean the earth as a whole.
In other words, in translating the phrase as Kuppen des Lands (literally, the peak of the land), over and against Luther’s hoch herfahren auf Erden (which roughly translates as high sojourn of earths), Buber and Rosenzweig heed the unique bond of Israel with the Land. Nevertheless, if we look at the translation in the context of Rosenzweig’s philosophy, it turns out that “land” here might actually be metaphorical rather than literal.
A Non-Territorial Translation
Rosenzweig’s interpretation of the God-Israel-land bond in his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption (1921), offers some theological context for any discussion of Land:
To the eternal people [i.e., Israel], home never is home in the sense of land, as it is to the peoples of the world who plough the land and live and thrive on it, until they have all but forgotten that being a people means something besides being rooted in a land […] In the most profound sense possible, this people [Israel] has a land of its own only in that it has a land it yearns for—a holy land.
In this passage Rosenzweig lays out his conception of the People of Israel as residing “outside of history,” that is, as refraining from participating in world-historical event as a Jewish nation since the destruction of the Second Temple. If political passivity is the downside of Israel’s predicament, according to Rosenzweig, the upside is that it became “the eternal people”: a nation whose life is dedicated to perfecting its spirituality and its calling to be the arrowhead in the redemption of the world, humanity and God itself.
Therefore, Rosenzweig explains, any reference to the Land of Israel should be interpreted metaphorically and not concretely: Jews’ rootlessness had transformed the Land of Israel into an ideal and severed it from the historical reality.
Reading their translation in light of the above-quoted passage from Rosenzweig's Star, we may understand it to mean that Israel’s relationship with God began at the highest point possible, but only deteriorated since then. According to this reading, vv. 13–18 emerge as a critique of Jewish history since the beginning of exile as a bitter struggle against idolatry and spiritual decay. The land’s fecundity, portrayed in great detail in vv. 13–14, may then be understood as referring to the spiritual abundance God has been offering to Israel throughout the ages, which Israel chose to ignore.
Inheriting the Soil… Anywhere on Earth
The most striking effect of Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s emphasis on the universal importance of the God-Israel-land bond, as opposed to its territorial relevance, emerges in the contrast between their translation of verses 47 and 52, two verses that are not part of the poem itself (the first is part of the narrative framing, and the second introduces Moses’ death scene).
דברים לב:מז …כִּי הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 32:47 … it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the adama that you will inherit once you cross the Jordan.
דברים לב:נב כִּי מִנֶּגֶד תִּרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְשָׁמָּה לֹא תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 32:52 You may view the aretz across from the other side, but you shall not enter it—the aretz that I am giving to the Sons of Israel.
Faithful to their attunement principle, they distinguish between the terms, using Scholle (soil) for adama and Land (land) for eretz. Yet in both verses, adama and eretz are used strictly in the territorial context of Israel’s arrival to the Promised Land. Luther makes this clear by translating literally the phrase תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ (v. 47) as euer Leben verlängern in dem Lande, da ihr hin gehet über den Jordan, daß ihr es einnehmet (KJV: you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess).
Buber and Rosenzweig beg to differ, not only by consistently translating adama as Scholle (soil), but also by rendering lerishtah not as “possessing” (einnehmen) like Luther, but as zu erben (“to inherit”). Thus, by “inheriting the soil” (rather than “possessing the land”), the people of Israel appear to be given God’s will and testament to sustain a spiritual bond that may take place at any point on the globe, rather than a specific location.
Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s insistence on distinguishing between soil and land in verses that both refer specifically and without a doubt to the territory that God is handing over to the People of Israel west of the Jordan River, is not simply slavish adherence to the principle that each Hebrew word should be translated, to whatever extent possible, with the same German word. Instead, it is an interpretive move premised on the controversial idea that the authenticity of God’s bond with Israel does not involve territorial ownership and material gain.
In other words, it reflects a spiritual connection that is sustained any place on the face of the earth where the People of Israel worship God. In the Buber-Rosenzweig translation, the Land of Israel’s sanctity, upon which the poem is premised, supports a reading that separates the land’s holiness from the issue of physical presence and territorial ownership.
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Dr. Orr Scharf is a lecturer at the Cultural Studies M.A. Program, The University of Haifa. He holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of Melbourne, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Haifa. He is the author of Thinking in Translation: Scripture and Redemption in the Thought of Franz Rosenzweig (De Gruyter, 2019), and editor of volume 5, Lectures on Judaism and Christianity, in the critical edition of Martin Buber’s complete works, Martin Bubers Werkausgabe (2017), co-published by the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities and Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf. Orr was awarded in 2019 the Hans Ehrenberg Award for Young Scholars for the advancement of research on Jewish-Christian dialogue for his article “Whose Bible is it Anyway: The Buber-Rosenzweig Translation as a Bible for Christians,” published in Magdalena Waligorska and Tara Kohn, eds, Jewish Translation – Translating Jewishness (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018).
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