Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two-minute Torah, Mishpatim: Bible Translation and the Abortion Debate

Dear Friends:

Those of you who attend Shabbat morning services regularly hear me make the same point over and over: many of the translations we use are really mistranslations and that to be a truly knowledgeable Jew, a person needs to know Hebrew. Our values as Jews are rooted in Jewish texts, but in order to interpret these texts properly we need to understand them correctly.

I'd look to look at a few verses from this week's Parasha, Mihspatim:
Exodus, Chapter 21 (Revised Standard Version)  
22: "When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 
23: If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 
24: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 
25: burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.  
What does it mean in verse 22 that "no harm follows" (in Hebrew, lo yihyeh ason)? The Jewish tradition understands this to mean that if someone causes a pregnant woman to miscarry, he is fined; but if the woman herself dies, that is murder and subject to the death penalty. The corollary to this is that a fetus is not considered a full human person, since unlike the Code of Hammurabi, the Bible does not contemplate fining someone for the commission of murder. If the fetus were equal to the mother, the punishment for causing a miscarriage would be death, not a fine. This is the source of Judaism's fairly lenient approach to abortion (certainly as compared to the approach of Catholicism or most Evangelicals.)

And yet, they too have rooting in the text. The word which we read as "harm", ason, is understood in the Septuagint, the authoritative Greek translation, as "form."  In other words, if the fetus has “no form” then causing a miscarriage incurs just a fine, but if the fetus has “form” then it is life for life, etc. This difference between the Hebrew and Greek texts worked its way into Christian understanding as the Church became a Gentile movement and the normative text was not the Hebrew Tanach but the Greek Septuagint. So in Judaism the fetus does not achieve personhood until birth but in Catholic and evangelical Christian thought, the fetus achieves personhood at the point at which it has a recognizable form. I know that sometimes the concerns over the accuracy of translations can seem pedantic and picayune, but since the Bible still has a lot to say about the issues which concern us, this is an example where differences of translation have significant consequences.

1 comment:

Straddling the Border said...

At least as interesting, to me, as Rabbi Arian's comparison of translations of "ason" is Judaism's understanding that

וְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ

means "a miscarriage occurs" (implying the baby is not born alive) when the plain translation would seem to be "her baby comes out" (which allows the possibility that the baby is born alive). Understanding the text this way results in a very different understanding of the status of the unborn child.