Dr. Orlinsky and Mr. Green

By Michael Carasik
Friday, January 4, 2013

Jews and Christians share the 24 books of what Jews call the “written Torah” and Christians—arranging them in a different order—call the “Old Testament.”  But it’s reasonable to wonder how much actual sharing has gone on over the centuries.  The intersection of the two religions over Scripture has more often been a realm of conflict than of cooperation.  For Christians, the Jewish failure to accept the New Testament must be considered a deal-breaker; for Jews, the Christian insistence on seeing Jesus in every part of the Bible is an equally annoying form of blindness.  Even the Christian division of the Hebrew Bible into chapters—now long naturalized in Judaism—was most likely originally adopted as a result of Christian pressure to have a common reference for arguing about the Bible’s meaning, and perhaps even through the influence of the Christian printers and editors of Hebrew editions of the Bible. 

That very fact, though, demonstrates that technical, commercial, and other practical aspects have often led to cooperation and interchange between Jews and Christians over the Bible.  The “Crossing Borders” exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, with works from Oxford’s Bodleian Library including the Kennicott Bible, provides one display of such interaction,in a presentation that is both informative and beautiful.  On a recent Thursday evening, a visitor could cross borders of another sort, traveling five miles south and 500 years along the historical timeline, for a celebration of another example of biblical border-crossing, this one in the person of one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century: Harry Orlinsky. 

The occasion was “The JPS Torah at Fifty: A Celebration of a Translation and a Translator.”  The catch-all event (also marking the 90th anniversary of the Jewish Institute of Religion, which merged with the Reform Hebrew Union College in 1950, and a rather loosely-defined yahrzeit for Orlinsky, who died in March of 1992) was sparsely attended: Orlinsky is little remembered today, being best known as “Mr. Green,” the scholar who authenticated the four Dead Sea Scrolls offered for sale in a Wall Street Journal want ad.  But his legacy as a Bible scholar is enormous.  He was the first editor-in-chief of the “New” Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible, whose Torah translation has found its way into the pews in both Reform and Conservative congregations.  Even more significantly, he was also on the committee that created the Christian “Revised Standard Version” (RSV) translation of the Bible, earning him both praise and hostility, and later the New RSV as well.  He was the first Jewish scholar ever asked to participate directly in the making of a Christian Bible translation. 

Orlinsky’s position at the Reform Jewish seminary left him open to attack from fundamentalist Christians as a Jew and from fundamentalist Jews as a Reformer.  But according to Leonard Greenspoon, a scholar of biblical translation who spoke at the New York event, Orlinsky’s only concern was that a translation should accurately reflect the meaning of the original Hebrew.  A story told by Orlinsky on himself provides an illustration.  “Mr. Green” was rather quickly satisfied that the scrolls of the Wall Street Journal ad were authentic.  But Orlinsky, the scholar and translator, insisted that the Great Isaiah Scroll be unrolled all the way—so that he could check the reading at Isa 43:19 to see whether it had netivot (“paths”) rather than neharot (“rivers”).  It does, though both the NJPS and NRSV translations continue to say “rivers in the desert,” as does the Hebrew of the standard Masoretic text in use today.

Orlinsky certainly understood his task for JPS to be the creation of a Jewish translation, but not one that distorted the original meaning of the Bible.  The first words of that translation are the best and most obvious example.  Instead of the traditional “In the beginning,” a misreading of the Hebrew to match the beginning of the Christian Gospel of John, the JPS Torah has “When God began to create,” following the commentary of Rashi, the great 11th-century Jewish commentator—a translation confirmed since Rashi’s day by other examples of creation stories from the ancient Near East.  (For more examples of Orlinsky’s translation decisions, see Greenspoon’s article on “English Translations” in the Jewish Study Bible and Orlinsky’s own Notes on the New Translation of the Torah.)

Orlinsky himself, though trained at the Jewish Dropsie College in Philadelphia, is identified with the “Albright school” of Protestant biblical scholarship, centered in the middle of the last century at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Orlinsky’s once well-known book Ancient Israel is very much in the Albright tradition.  Despite his major place in Jewish biblical studies during that era, he left no “Orlinsky school” of scholars to continue his work.  American Jewish biblical scholars of today are more likely to trace their academic ancestry to H. L. Ginsberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary or Nahum Sarna of Brandeis.  (It is curious that all three, though not refugee scholars, were born outside the United States,Orlinsky and Ginsberg in Canada and Sarna in England.) Orlinsky’s fate seems likely to be that of many translators: his own memory will continue to fade, while the enormous influence he exerted through his work of translation will continue to grow.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcastHe teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.


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