Barukh Ata Adonai
Saturday January 27th 2007, 3:21 pm
Filed under: Slices of Life

The English translation of practically every Jewish liturgy ever published renders “Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheynu, melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzvivanu” as “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments and commands us…” Then as feminist conscious and women rabbis and teachers emerged, we emended that a bit, changing King to Ruler or Sovereign and circumlocuting around the masculine pronouns. It seems to me that we ought to continue this thrust toward a full new translation of this translation.

Back when I was in rabbi school (I know, it’s called ‘yeshiva’), a grad-fellow instructor (who’s name I don’t recall) used to insist that “Barukh” should not be translated as “Blessed,” since the act of blessing implies that the bless-or has a higher status than the bless-ee. The most notable example of bestowing a blessing is a king blessing his subject; subjects never bless a king.

That little gem of an explanation always made a lot of sense to me. As a result, I always cringe when I read any Jewish liturgy that translates “Barukh ata” into “Blessed art thou.” In the first place, there is no “art.” “Art” has not appeared in any declension of “to be” in at least 300 years. But even “Blessed are you” feels wrong to me. The passive voice here weakens the thrust of the sentence: Who is it that is doing the activity described here? Since “Barukh” derives from “berekh” which means “knee,” and “Barukh” is in the passive mode, I’d literally translate “Barukh ata” into “You are the recipient of knee-bending”. But since that passive voice masks the identity of who is doing the deep knee bend, I’d go with an active translation, not quite so literal but much more literate, which would have to be, “We praise you” (with no capital Y required, thank you.)

Recent liturgical publications have thankfully begun to let go of 19th century rendition of the Tetragrammaton into “Lord”. It never sounded Jewish in the first place. Spelling out “Adonai” and pronouncing it on the English side is a welcomed change. Though it rubs some of our most traditional brethren and sisteren as a violation of one of the Ten Words, in fact it is no more such a violation than is the “O Lord” it replaced.

When writing “Adonai our god,” god might not be capitalized. We are identifying Adonai as our god, where god is a generic category of active powers that includes Zeus and Brahma and the rest of the pantheon. However, simultaneously we assert that Adonai is God in the absolute sense, “God” indicating “the ultimate reality of the universe,” implying the others are merely pretenders.

The traditionalist “G-d” always strikes me at overly inhibited, stark and restrained. If we wish to remind ourselves that what we refer to as “God” is unique and beyond all human description and toward which we aspire, then we should do something a bit more joyous, expansive and celestial. Thus I use “G!d”, with “god” a close second.

“Melekh” equaling “king” has already been rejected as overly masculine and hierachical. “Haolam” is indeed “universe,” but it is also “forever.” Thus, “haolam” is the “universe in both space and time.” For “melekh haolam,” I’d suggest “beyond all time and space.”

“Kadosh” means “separate, unique, taboo, numinous.” For most us us, however, ritual mitzvot are the spice, the decorations, the extra-added’s of our time cycles which transform us into something more than we were before with perform them. When G!d “Kidshanu”‘s us “b’mitzvotav,” G!d is leading us to enrich our lives through mitzvot. And I’d rather keep “mitzvot” as “mitzvot” than struggle to find a modern analog to a “commandment” coming from the transcendent beyond with the implied threat of a cosmic zap if we blow it. No different than how we call “Torah” “Torah,” rather than “Law” or “Teaching.”

Therefore, in Internet Haggadah, I consistenly translate “Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzeevanu” into “We praise you, Adonai our G!d, beyond all time and space, who leads us to enrich our lives through mitzvot and directs us” to do whatever.

2 Comments so far

Very insightful!!! Thank you very much!

Comment by A.Weihmann 03.02.08 @ 4:31 pm

I love the “beyond space and time” idea. Is there a way to get rid of an external being “directing” us and “leading” us? Can one take “adanai” to be an idea rather than a thing/being?

Comment by jmk 10.26.12 @ 1:10 pm

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