Kushner, Aviya. “The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible”, Spiegel & Grau , 2015.
The Bible, Family and Language
It was when Aviya Kushner took Marilynne Robinson’s class in The Old Testament (correctly known as the Hebrew Bible) at the University of Iowa that she discovered that it did not seem to be the same text that she had grown up learning with her family. In fact, the English translation that she studied in class sounded completely different than the one she was familiar with. She learned from Robinson, who became her mentor and she became wrapped up in the differences between the language of the Bible and modern English and she embarked on a project of reading different versions of the Hebrew Bible trying to understand what the great translators of the book were trying to say. The fact that some of these translators were regarded as heretics and even put to death made her want to learn more and more. This book comes out of that project and we learn how the various translations and their differences influence the way we understand the Bible and the languages, faith and beliefs that are part of our daily lives. It is also the personal story of Aviya Kushner and quite a fascinating read.
Reading the Hebrew Bible is important to me and I do so every day as I have done for many years. I am constantly amazed by some of the translations that I have read that come near to the Hebrew that the Bible was transcribed in yet for me do not really say what I think it should. If I could only count the number of discussions I have had about the meaning of the name of ”Jerusalem” and how many times what I think it means as opposed to what others do.
This is a book in which we feel author Kushner’s passion, both for the Bible and for her family. There is something beautiful in the attempt to try to understand what the Bible tells us and this is the primary focus of this book. Believe me when I say that frustration and love meet head on when we try to understand what is written in The Five Books of Moses. I continue to love the words yet be frustrated by what they are trying to tell us. That frustration never leaves us and each and every time we approach a Biblical passage we find something new.
Kushner beautifully combines meditation, exegesis, and memoir and she shows whence she came to love the Bible and how much it weighs on all that she does. She shares the beauty of the original language of the Bible. I have always felt that Hebrew is one of the most beautiful languages in the world and when we consider that it is a language that is more than three centuries old, we truly understand its importance and why it is so right that it be the language of the Bible. I have studied it for years and even though I speak it fluently, I am always surprised by its breadth and depth. Kushner tells us that the Jewish law that is found in the Bible is actually a dialogue between God and his people and that the laws that are there are meant to be shared.
This is a book about meaning and interpretation but it is also a passionate and passionate story about Aviya Kushner’s family and yes there is meaning in family as well.
Most have read the Bible only in translation so what Kushner has to say about it will be new to them. I am so reminded of my Saturday morning Torah study when we reflect on a passage and I am like only the person to say, “But that is not what it says in the Hebrew” and the discussions begin. Now I have one more book to add to my list of citations and in fact I am preparing for Torah study tomorrow as I am writing this review. I love that Kushner says, “Whenever I thought I nailed a passage, I found a new point of view.” “There is a real gap between the Hebrew and the English” and Kushner “tries to fill that gap with stories of her family members, teachers, and classmates—as well as both research and inventive prose”.
Kushner goal with this book was to find a balance between the exegetical and the communal. She wanted to make the text come alive in a way that includes those who don’t a background in Bible and certainly not the background that she has. She shows us the diversity and variance of the Bible and emphasized that it is the story of a people, a story of how the world came to be and a book of laws. Kushner allows us to see the process of her struggles and anyone who has sever spent any time studying the Bible knows exactly what she is speaking about.