September 4, 2021
by Bettijane Eisenpreis
“You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp …” — Deuteronomy 29:9
The lines quoted above are among the most famous in the Torah. They are part of Moses’ final address to the People of Israel, just as he is about to die and they are on the brink of crossing over to the Promised Land. In Temple Emanu-El, they are frequently read on Yom Kippur.
I have several versions of the Torah in my library, and most of them phrase the sentence quoted above in much the same way. However, when I read the sentence in “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” published by the Women of Reform Judaism, I was startled to see the words we say as “your children, your wives” rendered as “you children, you wives.”
At first glance, the two versions look almost identical. But what a difference the substitution of “you” for “your” makes! When Moses says “your wives,” he is addressing the men, but if he says “you wives,” he is speaking directly to the women. True, the women are positioned behind the children, but at least they are seen as people in their own right. Their husbands or fathers do not own them. The Women’s Torah Commentary, with a distinguished editorial board headed by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, brings a women’s perspective to the Torah. Is it wrong? No, but neither is the other translation wrong.
The famous Israeli writer Amos Oz once said, “Reading your works in translation is like kissing your sweetheart through a veil.” It is impossible to translate from any language and convey the exact meaning of every word. There’s a funny story about an ad for Coca-Cola in China. The translator rendered the slogan “Coke adds life,” as “Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead.” Understandably, this was unsettling to a number of Chinese. The ad was pulled off the air immediately.
In addition to the general difficulty of translating anything, we must remember that the Torah was written thousands of years ago and that there are competing versions. The Babylonian scholars who worked on one version may have intended the word to be “your” and the Jerusalem scholars, “you,” or vice versa. We may never know.
A good case can be made for the Women’s Commentary version. Moses is telling the Israelites that these commandments apply to all of them – male and female, young and old, those standing there and those yet to be born. It is, therefore, understandable and commendable that he says “you women” instead of “your women.”
It is women who rear the children, women who manage the household, and women who must – if the tradition is to survive – transmit it to the generations to come. Perhaps Moses was ahead of his time, or perhaps the words were translated in this fashion at a later date. What is important is that the someone appreciated the importance of the woman’s role and inscribed it in the Book.