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Muslims Say Spiritual Corruption, Jews Say Spiritual Growth – OpEd

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The Qur’an states: “And, behold, there are indeed some among them who distort the Bible with their tongues, so as to make you think that [what they say] is from the Bible, while it is not from the Bible; and who say, “This is from God,” the while it is not from God: and thus do they tell a lie about God, being well aware [it is a lie].” (3:78)

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The Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina, states that the Hebrew Scriptures are:”anthropomorphism from beginning to end” which is true but Ibn Sina also says: “One cannot say that the book is entirely corrupted (Musharraf) for how can this be the case with a book disseminated through innumerable peoples living in distant lands, with so different ambitions; like Jews and Christians with all their mutual antagonisms?” 

Thus, Ibn Sina reasons that while the text of the whole Bible is clearly “anthropomorphism from beginning to end” the written words cannot be corrupted because the book was disseminated through innumerable peoples living in distant lands. 

So Tahrif must be limited to oral interpretations of written texts that distort the Bible with their tongues, so as to make you think that [what they say] is from the Bible, while it is not from the Bible.

Jews say there is a verse in the Zabur Book of Psalms: “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard (Psalm 62:12) and its gloss in the Talmud, “One biblical verse may convey several teachings . . . In Rabbi Ishmael’s School it was taught: “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29) i.e., just as [a rock] is split into many chips, so also may one biblical verse convey many teachings” (Talmud Sanhedrin 34a).

In other words, multiple interpretations of each verse of Scripture can be correct, even if they contradict one another. Revelation is not simple. Open-minded study is required. The Jewish term for this concept of pluralistic interpretation is Shivim Panim LaTorah (each verse of Torah has 70 different facets). That is why translations, even literal ones, are always also interpretations.

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Dr. Shlomi Efrati (Times of Israel 7/15/22) points out a good example of this: Targum Onqelos usually offers a straightforward Aramaic rendering of biblical Hebrew verses, while the Palestinian Targums in contrast, offer more expansive, midrashic renderings of the verses. Numbers 24:1, in which the non-Jewish Prophet Balaam looks to the wilderness, offers us a glimpse into a Jewish world with multiple Targum traditions which I say would be called Tahrif (corruption) by most Muslim polemicists and additional insights by all rabbis.

The Jewish Aramaic renderings of the Hebrew Bible, collectively known as “Targum”—the Hebrew/Aramaic word for both “interpretation” and “translation”—were composed over several centuries, in various places and for different purposes. While the earliest Targums for the Torah and the Prophets, known as Onqelos and Jonathan respectively, were presumably composed during the first centuries of the common era in an Aramaic speaking environment, the latest Targums—for (most of) the books of the third section of the Hebrew Bible called the Writings—were probably composed sometime towards the end of the first millennium C.E., in a place and time where Aramaic was no longer a spoken language.

Unlike biblical translations into most other languages, which simply became “the Bible” for their respective communities, the Targums have always accompanied, but never replaced, the Hebrew Bible. This partly explain why the Targums are both more, and less, than simple translations. 

Less—because in many cases they fail to offer a straightforward rendering of the Hebrew text; More—because they tend to interpret, paraphrase, or expand the Hebrew text in various ways.

How, why, and for what reasons these interpretative renderings originally came into being is not altogether clear, and it is likely that different answers apply to different Targums. At any rate, the earliest rabbinic sources (dating from the beginning of the 3rd century C.E.) attest to—and attempt to regulate—the liturgical reading of Targums. 

Furthermore, throughout rabbinic literature various Targums are quoted and discussed—not always approvingly—as objects of study. Both these functions—the liturgical and literary-intellectual—continue to be relevant (in varying degrees) until this very day.

The plurality of Targums is perhaps most apparent in the Targums for the Torah. First there is Targum Onqelos (hereafter simply Onqelos), which offers a complete, continuous, and relatively literal translation for the whole Torah. Onqelos’ Aramaic has close affinities to the “official” Aramaic dialect, which was in use across the Near East during the last centuries B.C.E.

Some version of Onqelos served as the standard Targum for the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (roughly 3rd–5th centuries C.E.), who also preserved the tradition that a certain convert to Judaism named Onqelos translated the Torah (though in fact the Babylonian Talmud never refers to this Targum as “Targum Onqelos”). 

The Babylonian Scholars during the last centuries of the first millennium CE, referred to Onqelos as “the Targum of our Rabbis” and for most medieval Jewish communities Onqelos was the common—and in many cases the only—Targum, thus simply referred to as “The Targum.”

Onqelos was (and still is) widely read, studied and copied, and its text is remarkably uniform throughout its many manifestations. It is preserved in more than 450 relatively complete manuscripts (mostly dating from the 13th–15th centuries), which differ mainly in matters of orthography or occasional scribal mistakes. Only rarely and sporadically do revisions or additions appear, and even these usually concern single words or very short phrases.

Dr. Shlomi Efrati says another branch of Torah Targum are the Palestinian Targums (collectively referred to as Targum Yerushalmi). These Targums were composed in an Aramaic dialect similar to that of both the Palestinian Talmud and the midrashic and poetic literature of the rabbis from Byzantine Palestine (about the 3rd–7th centuries CE). They tend to be far more interpretative in nature, and contain many expansions of various types, such as exegetical, narrative, and even poetic.

The Palestinian Targums are attested in only a handful of manuscripts, which vary greatly in both form and content. Some manuscripts offer a continuous Targum text. Others contain excerpts of Targum—for single words, phrases, or verses—and are thus called “Fragment Targums.” A third group, which preserves small selections of Targum expansions, is commonly referred to as “Tosefta” (literally—”addition”). Lastly, there also exists another complete Torah Targum—apparently representing a late compilation, which among other sources also made extensive use of the Palestinian Targums—commonly known today as Targum pseudo-Jonathan.

Among these various sources, textual variation is the norm, not the exception. Though they do seem to have a common textual basis, in many cases it is a base for changes, such as rephrasing, reordering, additions, omissions, and so on.

Onqelos and the Palestinian Targums are radically different in their language, transmission, and reception. And yet, they are also interrelated in several ways, starting with their earliest stages of composition throughout their transmission and reception in various medieval communities. One of the manifestations of this complex relationship are additions to Onqelos which have close parallels in the Palestinian Targums.

Such additions can be, and many times are, easily discarded as mere interpolations. Seen as secondary to the fuller Palestinian Targum versions, and foreign to the “real” Onqelos, they tend to be considered of little value for the study of either Onqelos or the Palestinian Targum tradition. Yet this issue is both more complex and more intriguing.

One of the most widely attested additions to Onqelos appears in the story of Balaam’s oracles (Numbers 22–24). According to the biblical narrative, when the Israelites came near Moab towards the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Balak king of Moab got worried and hired Balaam to curse them. Yet—as Balaam expressly informed the king—he was only able to pronounce the words God put in his mouth (Numbers 22:38), and so he ended up blessing Israel rather than cursing them. Numbers 24:1 reports that, after having offered two oracles full of blessings and praise to Israel, Balaam saw that it pleased YHWH to bless Israel. So he did not go, as previous times, to look for omens but set his face toward the wilderness.

Why Balaam decided to turn to the wilderness remains unexplained in the biblical narrative.

Following its usual manner, Onqelos faithfully renders the Hebrew text into the Aramaic” and he set his face toward the wilderness”—a simple, literal translation. This translation, which can be found in common modern editions of the Torah with Onqelos, is also attested in multiple early and reliable manuscripts. Yet this is not the only version of Onqelos to be found. 

Numerous manuscripts (over 90 in my current database), as well as some early printed editions, preserve an expanded version of Onqelos: He set his face towards the Calf that the Israelites made in the wilderness.

According to this version, “the wilderness” in the biblical text refers to the infamous incident of the Golden Calf. Yet the link between Balaam and the Calf remains rather vague. It is not clear if Balaam intended to evoke Israel’s sinfulness, in the hope of kindling God’s anger at them and thus allowing him to harm them with his curses; or alternatively, if he was trying to employ some malignant power symbolized by the Golden Calf itself.

Secondary though it may be, the spiritual growth expansion concerning the Calf was integrated into Onqelos’ text at a relatively early stage—much earlier than most Onqelos manuscripts at our disposal. So it seems that both the expanded growth version of Onqelos and the Palestinian Targum sources preserve parallel, yet distinct, versions of an expansion concerning the Calf. Put differently, the expansion to Onqelos on one hand, and the Palestinian Targum sources on the other, represent different versions of the same tradition.

This is why rabbinic Jews quote the verse in the Zabur Book of Psalms: “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard (Psalm 62:12) and its gloss in the Talmud, “One biblical verse may convey several teachings . . . In Rabbi Ishmael’s School it was taught: “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29) i.e., just as [a rock] is split into many chips, so also may one biblical verse convey many different teachings” (Talmud Sanhedrin 34a). So, while Muslims say Spiritual Corruption, Jews Say Spiritual Growth.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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