The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible

Spiegel & Grau  2015


The Bible is one of the most published books in history, but what do we mean when we call it the Hebrew Bible? Within both Jewish and Christian traditions, there is no consensus on translation or what is included in the final canon. If there is no consensus on what constitutes the Bible, then how do we understand the meaning of this book?

Aviya Kushner grew up in a traditional Jewish home and learned at an early age to read the Bible in the original Hebrew. Her religious education included Hebrew lessons, but her parents were the greatest influence in reading, translating, and drawing meaning from the text. This book is the story of her return to reading the Bible as an adult in a graduate English course, interwoven with her family history of learning and reading the Bible. She quickly realized that different traditions have translations affected by source texts, and culture, and how that culture affects the understanding of man’s relationship to God as demonstrated in the translation.

Throughout the book, Kushner cites specific passages in the original Hebrew, and provides several competing translations from both Jewish and Christian traditions. For lovers of language this is a fascinating and compelling demonstration of how we read the text. Many modern translations are based on translations of translations. The Septuagint (Greek translation) and the Vulgate (Latin translation) are the basis for many current English translations.

Translations of translations filtered through differing theological lenses gives rise to interpretations that can be far from the original Hebrew. But while translation creates distance, it can also create opportunity for dialogue. Kushner begins her book with the beginning, Genesis 1:1, a passage that has given rise to much debate and conversation. The translation of just a few words to’hu va’vo’hu, has been discussed by scholars for generations. What does this phrase mean? Various translations offer meanings such as without form and void, wild and waste, formless and desolate, or, poetically, welter and waste. Evidently, the translation informs our understanding of the very nature of creation.

Kushner offers many source texts in her examination of translation, but it is curious that nowhere does she mention the Masorites. This group of scribes and scholars from the seventh through the tenth centuries that was extremely influential in the final codification of our modern Biblical texts with the addition of vowels, cantillation, and notes, but she offer no credit for their contribution to translation.

The book is very accessible to all readers, regardless of their level of Hebrew knowledge, and provides a thoughtful and personal journey of understanding the core text of Judaism.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Aviya Kushner

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Aviya Kushner and her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, a memoir of rediscovering in translation the Bible she knew by heart in Hebrew.

A warm congratulations to Aviya and the other four finalists: Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

Nonfiction demands an engagement with facts, and the challenge is to make information interesting. Sometimes the writer has to make the case that the seemingly arcane and nitty-gritty matters help us understand our world. The best nonfiction writing reframes reality and by providing essential context, makes the reader see the world we live in anew.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I became interested in the possibilities of nonfiction while working as a journalist in Jerusalem. I interviewed the 14-year-old brother of two sisters who were killed in the Dolphinarium bombing, and I could not stop thinking about him—and how his life was forever changed. Most journalists quickly moved on to the next bombing, because the news cycle focuses on event, but I felt that what happened to the brother after this tragedy was an important subject, and that how people live after terror was something worth exploring too. I realized that the essay was a place to explore aftermath, to look at the deep roots of events and to consider their longstanding effects.

Who is your intended audience?

I think the Bible should interest everyone—religious and secular—because it has shaped Western culture and has had a major influence on law, literature, politics, and finance. The Bible matters whether you are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or neither, in part because it has meant something so different to each of these groups. So my intended audience is intelligent readers who want to understand how different readings of the Bible have made our world.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m deep in a new book that takes place in the twelfth century. It was also a time of religious violence, and I am interested in one particular thinker who crossed boundaries of faith and thought.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading many books of contemporary global nonfiction, for a graduate course I am teaching. I recommend The Fault Line by Paolo Rumiz, which I recently taught for that class. I also loved a recent novel titled The Big Green Tent by Ludmilla Ulitskaya, as well as the masterful novel The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin.

Top five favorite books?

It’s hard to choose, but here are some books I love:

The Collected Poems by W. H. Auden
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai
And of course, the Tanach, especially the Book of Isaiah.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

We were reading a Faulkner story titled “Dry September”; I was eighteen and a college sophomore. I remember that every time I read that story I thought something else happened, and in class, there were several different readings presented. I remember thinking “I want to learn to do that” and “I will give it the best shot I have,” and I have never looked back. I loved the idea that a writer could make the reader question everything she believed, and that one story could be read in such wildly different ways. Faulkner made me see the power of rumor and accusation, and he made me ask myself what I really thought. I wanted to be able to do that.

What is the mountaintop for you? How do you define success?

All I ever wanted was to continue writing. Doing that is the only definition I have of success. Being able to write the books I want to write is the mountaintop; I want to work hard and to write something that will last. I love how James Baldwin phrased it: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s all there is, to tell the truth and write well.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props, do you use to assist you?

I often write my first and second drafts, by hand, in coffee shops.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I want readers to think about the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, and to consider what happened as the Bible became both the best-selling and most translated book in human history. I hope readers will be inspired to read translations from different faiths and centuries, and to think about how language shapes how we read and what we believe.

Aviya Kushner teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a contributing editor at A Public Space and a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.

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Read an Excerpt from the Book

Excerpt from The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner.

One of my biggest fears is that I will die because I have talked too much. In my yeshiva day school, I was taught that every human being has a limited number of words, and then that’s it—you’re gone. Every few months I start worrying about my tally, and I try to talk less. I warn my friends that a new, quieter life lies ahead, but they don’t believe me. Within days, my resolve fades and I’m chattering again, letting the words pile up danger­ously. Despite the fact that everyone in my family is familiar with the threat of the constant ticking of words, most of my relatives are cheerful, death-defying blabbermouths.

And yet, among the blabbermouths, there is my sister, who utters a normal amount of words. Maybe that’s why she gets so much done. Once, in the middle of dinner, my parents compli­mented her on her magnificent, chatterless efficiency. She had, as usual, brought order to a huge array of bowls of soup to be salted and spiced, mounds of food to be taken out of ovens and placed on platters and matched with serving spoons—without talking about it. But she had an unusual reaction to the compliment. “Emor me’at ve’aseh harbeh,” she said. “Say little and do much.” And then, very softly, she added: “It’s the first thing you learn in school, from Avraham Avinu.”

My sister was crediting Abraham, or, as she called him, Abra­ham our Father, for the way she goes about her work. The rest of us kept eating, stunned, for once, into silence. In the quiet, I thought again about how much our early life, how the way we read and heard the Bible, has affected all of my siblings. And so my sister, a management consultant and entrepreneur, sitting in front of me in perfectly ironed business clothes, cutting her food into pieces that were all exactly the same size—that sister noticed how Abraham rushed to get butter and milk, rushed to delegate, and coordinated all the tasks to welcome the visiting messengers who came to tell him he and Sarah would soon have a child. My sister noticed how swift he was, and how few words he needed to manage the entire experience. Slow and inefficient as I am, I never noticed how Abraham ran, how he did not make time to chat. In my universe of constant chatter, that grand, ancient, patriarchal quiet was impossible to hear.

I did notice something else about the story in Hebrew: how Sarah laughed. It is not a standard laugh. Va’titzchak Sarah be’kirba. Literally, it means “and Sarah laughed deep inside of herself.” Or maybe more accurately: “And Sarah laughed in her gut.” Many translations, like the 1989 New Revised Standard Version, Catho­lic Edition, try to make that neater, and so they say simply, “Sarah laughed to herself.” But it’s messier than that; it’s an unusual laugh, and I wish that would come through more clearly in trans­lation. Interestingly, some older translations like the King James and the Geneva Bible seem to emphasize the intense inner nature of this laugh more than newer translations do—they both choose “within herself” instead of the tamer “to herself.”

How Sarah laughed reminds me of an earlier scene in the Garden of Eden, which was the last time in Genesis that what a woman heard and how she reacted to something a little difficult to process were at center stage. Some of the Bible’s most resonant moments are depicted by gesture instead of speech. God sees; Eve eats the apple; Lot’s wife turns back; and Sarah memorably laughs. “One thing is clear,” my father says when the subject of Sarah comes up. “It was silent laughter, enabling Sarah later to deny that she laughed.”

I am not certain that the laughter is clear. Perhaps under­standing Sarah’s laughter involves understanding the verses that frame it. Her laughter comes after several chapters of challenging circumstances—from relocation to a foreign place, where Abra­ham introduces her as his sister, to years of barrenness, to strife with her maid, who is also her husband’s concubine. It comes after several verses that elaborately describe how old she is. They are verses full of speech, packed with detail.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by the biblical commenta­tors who have scrutinized Sarah for thousands of years. In the rab­bis’ hands, the discussion of the intriguing triangle of Abraham, Sarah, and God becomes a conversation on how to behave.

Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Aviya Kushner.

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