Monday, April 27, 2009

The Greatly Unkosher Swine Flu

There is a wonderful scene in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, where Robin Hood slams down a boar on a large dining table in front of Prince John. The unflappable Prince, portrayed by the very Jewish Richard Lewis, mutters to himself, "Treif."
There is an old saying in Jewish tradition of how shellfish is treif, but pork is anti-Semitic. This tradition stems from its use throughout history as a means of humiliating Jews. So it is not surprising Jewish communities are stating how they are not too concerned with the Swine flu because we pray in kosher institutions.
But all kidding aside, the notion of pandemics raises not just a troubling concern for the worldwide community, but for Jews as well. It has not always easy to be a Jew in times of great uncertainty. One of the greatest examples of this was the black plague where an estimated third of all of Europe died. Yet it appeared many Jews were spared this horrendous disease because they bathed frequently and worked hard to keep rats (another non-kosher animal) out of their homes. Sadly many Christian communities took this survival as an indicator of how Jewish communities were poisoning the wells of the local Christians and went on to destroy many of the surrounding Jewish communities. Though we should note there are still some in the world today who are blaming Jews for the swine flu despite our persistent historical aversion to all things pork (See link below).
Blaming the "other" for one's problems appears to be an inherent part of the human condition including the ever-present accusation of orchestrating the financial collapse traumatizing many of the world's economies.
So in an age of pandemics, epidemics, and economic implosions, it would be my fondest hope that the world would learn from its history and focus on actual causes and not so blindly blame those who would prefer pastrami on rye to ham on white.
At least for the swine flu, the doctor says have a bowl of bubbe's chicken soup with knaydelach, which should work even on the un-kosherly named H1N1.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lost in Translation

Recently there was a minor flap about the DVD subtitles used for "Let the Right One In" a Swedish Vampire movie. The movie is about the friendship between Oskar and Eli, a two hundred year old vampire child. Apparently the producers changed the subtitles from the original release for the DVD essentially dumbing down a more lyrical translation for a broader audience.
Reading about this controversy reminded me of issue of translation. As one of my professors in Rabbinic school liked to say, "all translations are interpretation." What we tend to forget whenever reading a translation of any text, but especially canonical literature like the Hebrew Bible, is somewhere along the line, an editor or editors made decisions about how to interpret words, phrases, and ideas. For the most part, these interpretations tend to be fairly innocuous, however, on occasion, it can be theologically significant, like the decision to translate a word as 'virgin' as instead of 'young woman.' All the more reason why it is worthwhile to learn more than one language. And if this is not possible, to at least look at multiple translations to see if and where there is consensus and disagreement.
This is in part what I find so wonderful about the Jewish approach. We may begin with the Bible, but only as a means of a broader sacred conversation. How we interpret the literature is as important as what is contained within its words. We may just need the help of a few lexicons to guide us along the way. For how we choose to translate and interpret our sacred writings really says more about us than it does about Scripture.

In Memory of Grandpa Ray