Ki Tavo: To Each His Language

There was a time when the literary treasures of the Jewish people were accessible only to those with a reading knowledge of Hebrew. This is no longer the case. I know of no major Jewish religious work which has not been translated into English in recent years and, in most instances, into many other languages as well. The past several decades have witnessed the publication of multiple editions of the Bible and the Talmud, commentaries ancient and modern, liturgical works, historical tomes, biographies, and even cookbooks with recipes of our ancestors.


I must confess that when this phenomenon of translation began, I was not all that happy. I am a bit of a purist and have long clung to the belief that sacred Hebrew books should be read in the original. I was willing to make exceptions for those religious classics which were originally written in languages other than Hebrew, such as those works of Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, and Bahya ibn Paquda, which were originally written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew and eventually English as well. But for me, the Bible and classical commentaries were to be read only in the language in which they were written.


I was guided in my opposition to translation by the classic Italian motto, "traduttore traditore", "the translator is a traitor." No translation is exactly accurate, and ideas expressed in one language inevitably lose some of their meaning when rendered into another language. Every translation compromises beauty and forfeits subtlety and nuance.


Ironically, in recent years, I myself have become a translator. My first professional effort was with the elegies that are recited on the solemn day of Tisha b'Av, when Jews recall the seemingly endless chain of catastrophes that have marked Jewish history. Translating these poignantly tragic poems was a difficult challenge. But I undertook the task in the belief that an English translation was better than no translation, and that I was doing a public service by bringing these poems to the public, albeit in a far from perfect form.


Since then, and to this day, I have been involved in the process of translating classical Jewish works, and have come to terms with the fact that translations, although far from perfect, bring Torah study to multitudes of individuals who would otherwise be deprived from so much of our tradition.


These reflections bring us to this week's Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tavo(Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8). The relevant verses read, "As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching...On those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly" (Deuteronomy 27:2-3, and 8).


What does this phrase, ba'er heitev, translated as "most distinctly," mean? The Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sotah 32b suggests that the inscription of the "Teaching," that is, the Torah, should be done in seventy languages, in every language known to mankind. How fascinating! Moses himself, speaking on behalf of the Almighty, instructs the people to engage in that "traitorous" task of translation. He seems unconcerned with the difficulties of rendering the word of God from sacred Hebrew into the languages of all mankind.


Why? Why was it necessary to translate the Torah into languages which were incomprehensible to the people of Israel? Our Sages offer two very different answers to this question.


The Jerusalem Talmud takes a universalistic approach and suggests that these translations were to bring the teachings of the Torah to the entire world.


The Zohar, the basic text of the Kabbalah, notes that the members of the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, knew all seventy languages. But the Zohar does not take this literally. Instead, the Zohar understands the seventy languages to be a metaphor for the seventy facets of Torah, the seventy different avenues of interpretation with which the sacred text is endowed. The members of the Sanhedrin were thus not linguists, according to the Zohar, but experts in probing the depths of the Torah's meaning. Perhaps, the seventy languages inscribed on the stones in the River Jordan were also not the languages for the peoples of the world, but were seventy codes enabling so many different approaches to the Torah's interpretation.


Permit me to offer a somewhat different approach. I prefer to understand the word "language" more broadly. The word need not be restricted to its literal meaning, referring to French, Spanish, Swahili, and Portuguese. Rather, "language" can refer to a cognitive modality, or to a learning style. Thus, some of us prefer the language of humor, while others prefer the language of logic and reason. We speak of angry language, soothing language, and the language of love. Music is a language, play is a language, and there is even the language of war.


Every teacher worth his salt knows that he must use different "languages" for different students. This does not mean that he speaks to some students in English and to others in Yiddish. No. This means that some students will respond to clear and logical explanations. Others will require anecdotes and stories. Still others will require humor, or perhaps visual illustrations of the subject matter being taught. This is the lesson which every successful teacher learns sooner or later: no two individuals learn in the same way. Woe to the teacher who delivers his or her prepared lecture once, and expects all thirty pupils to learn the material. The successful teacher discerns the learning styles of each pupil and develops strategies and modalities that facilitate the learning of every member of the class.


Perhaps this is what the Talmud in Tractate Sotah is really teaching. Inscribed on those stones in the River Jordan were seventy different teaching strategies, seventy pedagogical tools, which would enable every recipient of the Torah to learn its messages in his or her own idiosyncratic way. Some would learn best by reciting the words by rote until they were memorized. Others would learn by breaking the text down into small phrases and reflecting on them, and still others would learn by using visual imagery to "see" the meaning of the text.


Indeed, the phrase "seventy facets of Torah" could be the Zohar's way of referring to seventy different learning styles, encouraging teachers to identify a "stone in the River Jordan" to match every pupil, even those who on the surface appear unteachable.


If I am at all correct in this interpretation of "the seventy languages” I am asserting that our Sages were very aware of a basic lesson in education. That lesson is that there is a need for individualized curricula so that diverse populations can all learn well.


This lesson is reflected throughout Talmudic literature. Here is one example:


"Observe the excellent advice given to us by the Tanna  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya: 'Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend...' If you do this you will find that your teacher will teach you mikrah, mishnah, midrash, halachot, ve'aggadot. Whatever is not conveyed in mikrah (Scripture) will be conveyed in mishnah; whatever is not conveyed in midrash will be conveyed in the halachot; whatever is not conveyed in the halachot will become clear in the study of the aggadot. Thus, the student will sit in place and fill himself with all that is good and blessed." (Avot DeRabbi Nathan, 8:1)


In this passage our Sages are advocating a richly variegated curriculum. They know that not every student will be fully informed by the study of one subject. The student who fails to gain from the study of mikrah, will gain instead from a very different type of text, mishnah, the early rabbinic codification of the Oral Law. And similarly for midrash, rabbinic lore; halachot, rules and regulations, andaggadot, legends and stories.


There are many erudite quotations that I could cite to summarize the point of my brief essay. But I prefer to conclude with a remark I hear from my teenage grandchildren: Different strokes for different folks. Arguably, this is an apt motto for getting along with people in all situations. But it is especially apt for teachers. And as I have repeatedly stated in this column, we are all teachers!