Gender and Bible translations

Gender sensitive translations of the Bible vs Gender neutral translations:

Women of the Wall reading Torah

I’m not a fan of gender neutral translations of the Bible or Siddur; instead of translating the sources, they rewrite them to make them say something different in English, from what they actually say in Hebrew.

Yet many traditional English translations are unconsciously sexist: God was always He, Him, His, or Father – even though a Hebrew speaking person versed in Jewish theology wouldn’t be reading these verses as “[Male] God”.

Many verses in the Torah refer to rules applicable to all Israelites – not just men. The context – and subsequent rabbinical tradition – makes clear that in many places the term included both women and men. Yet most English translations mechanically translated the terms in a masculine-only way.

Plainly, such translations are inadequate, possibly even misleading. Yet gender neutral can falsely rewrite the text. So how do we accurately approach this issue? Have a translation that is sensitive to how English speakers understand English translations; and that looks at the context of the verse. Is the verse really aimed only at men, or to all Israelites? This is the method used in the new (post 2005) version of the Reform movement’s Torah commentary. Here is an excerpt of their intro and explanation.


The Torah: Documentation for the Revised Edition, Part II.A.
Gender-Related Changes to NJPS

By David E. S. Stein, Revising Translator

Q. If male language in Hebrew can have a neutral sense, why not generally render it into English with male language (such as “man” and “he”) that likewise can have a neutral sense?

A. For several reasons. First, because the two languages operate differently with regard to gender. The gender implications of “male” language in Hebrew is actually often more inclusive than their so-called equivalent terms in English.
Take, for example, the word ach, which literally means “brother” when it refers to a specific individual. However, when it refers to a category of persons, by default they can be either men or women—just not solely female. (See my article “The
Grammar of Social Gender in Biblical Hebrew.”) Yet today’s English does not use “brother” in that way; it always has a male reference. So a translation that renders ach with “brother” can sound more “male-oriented” than the original.

Also from this document:

Q. Does a gender-accurate translation obscure a text’s underlying sexism?

A. On the contrary, my goal was to convey gender if and when the Torah
text places gender in the foreground. In striving for historical accuracy, we wanted to convey the text’s clear gender distinctions forthrightly.
In preparing our translation, we regularly avoided broadly gender-inclusive wording if it was likely to mislead our readers into thinking that women were in view.

Where the ancient audience would have perceived second-person language as addressing men only, the present translation reflects that. The same goes for passages where the text uses general terms when it refers to social institutions that were either all-male (the army) or typically male (the leadership council).

In those passages, the URJ translation is actually less “inclusive” than NJPS. As revising translator I did not pass judgment on how the Torah constructed gender. My renderings neither commend nor condemn how the ancients perceived the text. They merely attempt to convey it accurately and precisely.

Methodology: Frequently Asked Questions

…A second reason to avoid using a generic “man” or “he” is that contextual precision is the NJPS hallmark; for that reason, readers reasonably expect its male terms to refer to males. Especially in NJPS, such words, when used generically, are liable to be misread, especially upon first encounter.

Let’s look again at the word ach. When it refers to a category of persons,
NJPS variously renders it as “neighbor,” “kin,” and “kinsman.” Given the existence of gender-neutral options (“neighbor” or “kin”), a reader who encounters “kinsman” has good reason to infer that only the male gender must be in view. Yet such is not always the case. The ambiguity can be confusing.

A third reason to avoid using a generic “he” (and the like) is that readers today are all too likely to misread it, because we tend to perceive the translated Bible as more male-oriented than the original audience perceived the Hebrew text to be. We imagine the Israelites as having been more “patriarchal” (or as some would put it, unrelievedly sexist) than they actually were.

Such bias means that a substantial number of readers overlook that a male pronoun is being used generically. The clearly inclusive noun to which that “he” points can be drawn into the error and mistaken as referring to males only, too.

For example, take the clause v’nichr’tah ha-nefesh ha-hi me-ameha (“that person shall be cut off from his kin”; Lev. 7:20b).

Grammatically speaking, this Hebrew wording’s reference is unmistakably gender neutral. So is the topic: ritual impurity at a sacred meal. Thus the text’s ancient Israelite audience would have entertained no doubt that this language was gender-inclusive.

Yet some of today’s readers see the context and infer from it – specifically, from its mention of slaughter, sacrifices, and male-only priests—that women were not part of this ritual scene. “Surely women did not do those sorts of things,” they think to themselves.
“Surely a male was the only ‘person’ who counted in the patriarchal past.”

In short, they understand the NJPS translation incorrectly to mean “that man shall be cut off from his kin.”


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