Should the Bible be Translated in a Gender-Sensitive Way?

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Martin Lockshin

Review of The JPS Tanakh: Gender-Sensitive Edition, edited by David E. S. Stein et al. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2023)

It was probably inevitable that increased interest in gendered language would lead to something like The JPS Tanakh: Gender-Sensitive Edition, also known as “Revised JPS” (RJPS). Edited by David E. S. Stein in consultation with other scholars, RJPS reworks the “New” Jewish Publication Society translation (NJPS) of 1985. Until recently, NJPS has been the authoritative English translation used by many Jewish homes and synagogues in the English-speaking world and by most Jews (and many gentiles) in academia.

RJPS was completed in partnership with Sefaria, the popular and extremely useful website that brings thousands of Jewish works in Hebrew, English, and other languages to anyone who can access the internet. On the Sefaria website, the default English version for many biblical books is now RJPS, making it the first experience of the Bible for many non-Haredi English-speaking Jews.

As language is always changing, new translations of the Bible are needed. The King James Version of the Bible, published in the 17th century, was for centuries the gold standard for English-language Bibles (particularly for Christians). In the 20th century, its usage was felt to be archaic, driving the creation of many new translations in both the Christian and Jewish worlds.

The introduction to RJPS argues that English-language sensitivities and conventions about gendered language have changed considerably since 1985 when NJPS appeared. The original Hebrew readers of Exodus 21:12, a law against murder, understood that its masculine verb (makkeh) and noun (ish) did not mean that the law applied only to males. NJPS translated, “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death,” expecting the reader then to understand that “he” implied “he or she” and that “man” implied “man or woman.” But in 2024, RJPS argues in the preface, “Such usage has since been swept away—largely disappearing from everyday parlance.” So RJPS reads: “One who fatally strikes another shall be put to death,” a reasonable translation.

But Hebrew readers know that often when we encounter the word ish in the Bible, we simply don’t know whether it is referring only to men or to both men and women. The gender-sensitive translator has to go out on a limb every time. Sometimes, RJPS’s decisions are surprising. Almost all translations of Exodus 21:7 read: “When a man (ish) sells his daughter (bitto) as a slave…” RJPS reads: “When a parent sells a daughter as a slave…” Based on the masculine language of the verse, the rabbis in the Talmud taught that only a father and not a mother can sell a daughter as a slave (m. Sotah 3:8 and Sotah 23b). While a modern Jewish translator of the Torah need not follow Talmudic tradition, we might wonder why RJPS is attracted to this reading, especially when the traditional understanding imposes greater limitations on the institution of female slavery.

While RJPS provides no explanation for this specific translation decision, Stein published an earlier version of a gender-sensitive translation of the first five books of the Bible back in 2006 (The Contemporary Torah). There, in a footnote, he writes that the selling parent is “typically but not necessarily male” and cites 2 Kings 4:1 as alleged proof. The story there is of a poor widow who is afraid that a creditor might seize her children as slaves; it hardly proves that a mother has the legal right to sell her daughter into slavery.

Ish is not the only word that forces a gender-sensitive translator to take a stand. The Hebrew word ben (plural banim) often means “son,” but already the classical rabbis realized—and said explicitly—that sometimes banim means “children” and not sons. When Deuteronomy 11:21 asserts that we should observe various mitzvot “to the end that you and beneikhem may endure,” certainly males and females are included, and the appropriate translation is “your children.” As the Talmud (Kiddushin 34a) asks rhetorically, “Do men require life while women do not?”

But when ben/banim refers to young priests, NJPS and RJPS agree that the reference is to sons, not daughters (e.g., benei Aharon ha-kohanim; “Aaron’s sons, the priests” [Leviticus 1:5 and frequently]). But Leviticus 10:14 (in the NJPS translation) merits an exception:

But the breast of elevation offering and the thigh of gift offering you (attah), and your sons (u-vanekha) and daughters (u-venotekha) with you, may eat in any clean place, for they have been assigned as a due to you and your children (banekha) from the Israelites’ sacrifices of well-being. [emphasis mine]

On the peshat level and as understood by the classical rabbis, this passage teaches that some priestly gifts (mattenot kehunah)—here specifically, the breast of elevation and the thigh of gift offering—may be consumed by males or females from the ranks of the kohanim. It seems obvious then that, when the verse finishes by saying that they were assigned as a due to you and to banekha, it has a non-gendered force: “your children,” not “your sons.” Everett Fox adds a helpful footnote to his translation of banekha as “children” at the end of the verse: “The Hebrew can be read as ‘sons,’ but surely both sons and daughters are meant here, as earlier in the verse…”

RJPS, though, opted for a gendered translation of the verse:

But the breast of elevation offering and the thigh of gift offering you [and your wife], and your sons and daughters with you, may eat in any pure place, for they have been assigned as a due to you and your sons from the Israelites’ sacrifices of well-being. [emphasis mine]

The addition of “[and your wife],” which is not in the Hebrew, conforms with Jewish law (see m. Zevahim 5:6) and with logic (although we can still wonder whether this type of addition is in the purview of a translator). But the end of the verse in RJPS seems strange: you and your sons and your daughters may eat these gifts since they were given to you and to your sons? Considering that RJPS frequently renders banekha as “your children,” why not here?

The editors of RJPS claim not to be rewriting the Bible to reflect more palatable modern values; their stated goal is “‘to render the Hebrew text as they believed the original author of that text meant it to be understood’ by the original audience.” But this worthy goal may not be the strongest factor at play. For example, King James translates Ecclesiastes’s disturbing line in 7:28: “one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found.” NJPS softens it somewhat: “I found only one human being in a thousand, and the one I found among so many was never a woman.” RJPS goes even farther, implying that Ecclesiastes’s problem wasn’t misogyny, only the failure to find a compatible mate: “I found only one [true] human being in a thousand, and among all these I did not find a [truly compatible] woman.” We may not like it, but of these three translations, the most accurate rendering of how the text was understood by the original audience is probably King James.

RJPS sometimes elegantly accomplishes the goal of making the English less gendered. For example, nothing is lost when NJPS’s reference to God as “The Rock!—His deeds are perfect,” becomes in RJPS “The Rock!—whose deeds are perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:4). At other times, RJPS substitutes clumsy prose for gendered language. It renders Exodus 22:25-26: “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is the only available clothing [NJPS: ‘his only clothing’]—it is what covers their skin [NJPS: ‘his skin’].” In the story of creation, in order to avoid using a masculine word to translate “ha-adam,RJPS offers strange formulations including “the two of them were naked, the Human and his wife” (Genesis 2:25), perhaps implying that only one of the two was human.

RJPS makes the debatable claim that ancient Israelites, the original readers of the Bible, may have understood God as beyond gender. So RJPS never refers to God as “He.” In RJPS, the moving poetry of Psalm 78 contains 25 awkward uses of “[God]” in square brackets to avoid writing “He.” For obvious theological reasons, RJPS never uses the pronouns “They” or “Their” about God. For the purpose of gender sensitivity, it sometimes does use those plural pronouns when referring to one human being.

Clumsiness aside, RJPS unfortunately distorts the meaning of many biblical texts in its quest to rid the Bible of gendered language. Here are just two examples, one about God and one about people.

NJPS translates Deuteronomy 28:45: “because you did not heed the LORD your God and keep the commandments and laws that He enjoined upon you.” In order to avoid using “He,” RJPS has: “because you did not heed the ETERNAL your God and keep the commandments and laws enjoined upon you,” removing the clear reference in the Hebrew to God as the one who commanded the laws. An important nuance is thus lost. Throughout that chapter, the speaker, Moses, refers to God in the third person, as the one who blesses or curses people depending on their allegiance to the law. Moses, speaking in the first person, portrays himself a few times as the source of the laws. For example, in verse 1: “…to observe faithfully all the commandments that I [= Moses] enjoin upon you” (RJPS); and verse 14: “do not deviate… from any of the commandments that I [= Moses] enjoin upon you” (RJPS). The decision of RJPS in verse 45 not to translate using an active verb about God (“the… laws that He enjoined”), but instead to refer impersonally to “laws enjoined,” makes the reader miss the fact that verse 45 is the first time in this chapter where God, not Moses, is named as the one who “enjoined” or commanded these laws.

As mentioned above, the Hebrew word ish (plural anashim) in the Bible is not always a gendered reference to men; sometimes, though, it is. RJPS’s dedication to minimizing the use of the words “man” and “men” leads to some strange results.

Genesis 19 relates the disturbing story of a mob of anashim in Sodom surrounding Lot’s house and demanding that Lot hand over to them the anashim who had taken refuge in his home so that they could “be intimate with them.” Shockingly, Lot tries to dissuade them by offering his two virgin daughters to the mob.

Anybody reading the story in Hebrew, or in any reasonable English translation, understands that a male mob thinks that male guests are inside Lot’s home; the mob wants to rape them homosexually. (We, the readers, know that the guests are divine messengers or angels. The mob does not know that.) The problem with RJPS here is that it studiously avoids using any masculine noun or pronoun to describe the guests in Lot’s home! How is the reader to understand this central point of the plot? Another recent (2004) Jewish translation of the Bible of much higher quality, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary makes sure that we understand. It uses the word man/men consistently in the translation, adding a helpful note: “Throughout this sequence there is an ironic interplay between the ‘men’ of Sodom, whose manliness is expressed in the universal impulse to homosexual gang rape, and the divine visitors who only seem to be ‘men.’”

Translation problems continue. After Lot and his daughters are miraculously saved from God’s destruction of Sodom, the daughters decide they must get their father drunk so that he will impregnate them, since, they mistakenly claim, there is no other ish alive from whom they could conceive (Genesis 19:31). RJPS gratuitously changes NJPS’s reasonable “there is not a man on earth to consort with us” (i.e., to impregnate us), to “there is nobody left on earth to consort with us.”

Translations can have many purposes. This one’s main goal is neither elegance nor accuracy; it is to give English-language readers of the Bible a more gender-sensitive experience than the experience of reading the Bible in the original Hebrew. Even granting the debatable wisdom of this goal, it could have been executed with more skill and common sense.

Martin Lockshin is University Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and earned his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications are his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah and a two-volume edition of Rashbam’s commentary with Hebrew annotations. He now teaches at the Givat Washington Educational College.