As is usually true with Robert Alter’s Bible translations, it’s hard to say whether this book is more valuable for its elegant, polished rendering of text or for the richness of its insightful educational commentary. Containing some of Alter’s most successful poetry, this work illustrates Alter’s mastery of biblical texts; especially notable are Job 38 – 41 and Proverbs 3, 8, and 18. Although the choice to render Ecclesiastes primarily as poetic prose rather than set poetry is somewhat unexpected, this translation is no less successful than the other two — chapters 4, 8, and 12 are especially potent. Although Alter renders Ecclesiastes 12:12 faithfully, “…of making many books there is no end, and much chatter is a weariness of the flesh,” his own work gives the lie to Ecclesiastes’ scholarly ennui, keeping even these oft-feared or ‑overlooked books of the Tanakh fresh, compelling, and occasionally breathtaking. No Jewish scholar, no rabbi, no synagogue or library, and no one even a little interested in studying the Tanakh should be without this book. It is a priceless aid to teaching, learning, understanding, and even to aesthetic appreciation of Tanakh.
Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He teaches and writes in Los Angeles, CA, and has been published in Sh’ma and Jewish Bible Quarterly.