Shabbat visitors to my congregation often remark that they are intrigued by the way I typically read Torah. While at most congregations the Torah is chanted using the time- honored system of trope/cantillation, I typically read from the scroll and immediately translate into English, often phrase by phrase. I learned this style of reading Torah from my childhood rabbi, Harold Waintrup (of blessed memory). I didn’t know there was another way to read Torah until I started going to b’nei mitzvah at other shuls.
What I hear more often than not is something like: “You know, rabbi, I usually just tune out during the Torah reading because I don’t understand what’s going on. But I really was drawn into it!” Occasionally I also hear from folks who are disquieted by my “non-traditional” Torah reading — they want to hear it chanted in the normative style. I am a fan of chanting Torah and would not advocate this reading/translating approach as the only practice. However, the claim that this approach is “non-traditional” is one this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, seems to dispel.
Deuteronomy 27 instructs the Israelites that upon crossing the Jordan, they are to set up large stones, coat them with plaster, and “inscribe every word of this Teaching Ba’EiR HeiTeiV — most distinctly.” A literal reading refers to the practice of etching into white plaster on top of black stones yielding a very readable text. Stone “steles” of this style were common in the Ancient Near East, and examples are seen in many museums today. However, the Jewish interpretive tradition has understood the phrase Ba’EiR HeiTeiV as perhaps referring to the idea that not only did our ancestors engrave the words of Torah on these standing stones, they also scribed translations of the words into 70 languages. In this way, all the peoples would be able to understand (and be held accountable to) the words of Torah. This view is advanced by one of the earliest Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, Targum Yonatan, likely dating to the second century CE.
The practice of translating the Torah portion aloud into the vernacular of the day is referred to in the Book of Ezra, where it is clear that in order for the residents of Jerusalem who had returned from Babylonian Exile to understand Torah, it was necessary for someone to call out translations as the scroll was read. The modern commentary DA’aT MiKRA to the phrase Ba’EiR HeiTeiV says Torah is to be engraved in Hebrew “so that it the eye might master it,” and translated “that it might be grasped through understanding.”
As a people, we have never abandoned the Hebrew of our Torah, even as we commit to deeply understanding the message.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland, and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.