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Dr. Orlinsky and Mr. Green

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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A.Schreiber on January 4, 2013 at 10:24 am (Reply)
You say Dr. Orlinsky's transaltion of the the first verse in the Torah is "confirmed" by other sources. There can be no such thing. There are notable authorities in favor of both "In the beginning" or "In the beginning of God's creating . . ."

You also neglected to mention Dr. Orlinsky's contributions to the Linear edition of Chumash with Rashi. For about 40 years, that was the way untold thousands learned rashi on the Torah.
Don C on January 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm (Reply)
It's sad to read the characterization "Orlinsky is little remembered today." He taught at JIR/HUC-JIR for over 40 years, training hundreds of Reform rabbis over the years. In addition, he was a prime mover behind the International Organization for Masoretic Studies, and the International Organization for Septuagine and Cognate Studies, in addition to his stint as president of the Society for Biblical Literature. And rather being "best known as 'Mr. Green,'" (have you seen the comic book version of that story in "Keeping Posted" magazine?), it is more likely he'll be remembered as the guy who deflowered the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 (see his article in IDB).
He did say to me that he had some disappointment at not having numerous doctoral students out there like the other big-time Bible professors, but it was a trade off he lived with in order to teach rabbis who would fill pulpits and teach many.
Jerry Blaz on January 5, 2013 at 11:26 pm (Reply)
I consider myself to be a casual dilettante Bible enthusiast who relishes reading the Hebrew Scripture in the original language, and comparing some of the translations of it to my own understandings as a "read." People like myself can get "stuck" in the scripture forgetting what came before and what came after it, and how extended that period of before and after might be. While I understand and agree to the metapoetic approach to the text, modern research takes us far afield from that approach, and Orlinsky's book "Ancient Israel" was a great pathfinder for me in that period when the 24 Books were reaching their final redactions.

In our period of relative comity between Christians and Jews, much research is being done by members of both faiths in examining the late second Temple ideas that became mainstays in Christianity but were, as it turns out, both commonplace but minor aspects of the Jewish approach to the Scriptures. Thanks to this research Christians are gaining a greater appreciation for the Judaic roots of Christianity since most of the early Christian Testaments were written by men who thought of themselves as Jews who happened to experience and deified Jesus. He was, as he turned out, a more successful incarnation than Bar Kochba.

Harry Orlinsky's contribution to making this research possible awaits evaluation.
Mindy Portnoy on January 6, 2013 at 9:42 am (Reply)
"Forgotten"? Hardly! I remember well his charm, his wit, and his fanatic support of the Boston Red Sox!! Had I known about the Yahrtzeit "observance" and program, I would definitely had made every effort to be there...

I remember coming into his classroon one Purim, dressed as Bette Midler in the movie THE ROSE...Dr. Orlinsky had no idea who I was, but played along with the disguise. Even though I had interrupted his class, he was a man who related to people first (before protocol).

I remained in touch with him years after my ordination, and he would send clippings, cartoons, comments in the mail.

I continue to use notes from his classes and also his texts. Thank you for writing the article, it brought a smile on my face just to see his name (and "alias") in the title.
Josh on January 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm (Reply)
"one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century: Harry Orlinsky." Come on now, he was hardly one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century. He doesn't even make the top hundred, or even the top thousand.
Michael Carasik on January 7, 2013 at 8:42 am (Reply)
@Josh: You're forgetting the thousands of Jews who read the JPS Torah translation every week.

Anyone interested in Orlinsky can find more about him in my newest "Bible Guy" blog post:
Manuel Gold on January 8, 2013 at 8:10 pm (Reply)
Thank you for a truly wonderful piece on Prof. Orlinsky. I was present at this event which powerfully captured the man and the scholar.
I recall, in the 1970's attending a Yankee-Red Sox game at Yankee Stadium with Orlinsky, his wife, and students and faculty.
For all of us his scholarship, sense of humor, and humanity were without peer.
I would like to suggest that there were also other great teachers and mentors who produced many students who went on to teach all over the world. I had the privilege of studying with H.L.Ginsberg, Albright, , Speiser, and Cyrus Gordon. All of them influenced so many, and each provided their unique perspective and wisdom. Together with Orlinsky, Sarna, Moshe Greenberg, and Yochanan Muffs, they enriched and inspired generations of students of TANAKH.
Loei L on January 8, 2013 at 11:04 pm (Reply)
He sounds like the Nate Silver of translations--just the facts, without the spin.

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