The Grammar of God, a Review
The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner. (Spiegel & Grau, 228 pp. $27).
Even in the Garden of Eden, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Sometimes, however, having fallen, it rolls away until it reaches a spot on the ground in the orchard where it may develop its own identity.
Similarly, Aviya Kushner’s creativity has been nurtured by her family. Her book, The Grammar of God, is filled with creative energy. Kushner tells us about her family—her animated mother, her brilliant mathematician father, her thoughtful sister, her three younger brothers—as they sit around the Shabbat table at their home in Monsey, New York, and discuss the weekly Torah portion. In their bustling conversations, they share insights based on their immersion in the Hebrew language, its intricate vocabulary and its meaningful grammar.
But this book is not merely a memoir of a childhood in an exceptional family or of the author’s various peregrinations in the world of poetry. It is a work of popular scholarship that has a point or two to make about what the Bible has come to mean to English speakers.
To accomplish her task, Kushner has gone to the sources, those translations of the Bible that have sought to bring enlightenment to an English-speaking world, from the King James Bible to the various Jewish translations that have proliferated in recent years. In the case of the Christian translations, she often points to the hazards of mistranslation caused by not being immersed in Hebrew grammar and thereby missing the spirit in which the Bible was written.
The Grammar of God is a marvel of creativity. Several chapters begin with a picture, a reproduction of a page from the Mikra’ot Gedolot, in which the Bible’s text is surrounded by a translation in Aramaic and more than half a dozen Jewish commentaries.
The picture is a visual clue, and Kushner’s English-language reader is not meant to delve into these texts but to be impressed by the volume of thought that has gone into the Jewish search for biblical meaning. Kushner presents a word-by-word translation of several verses, pointing out their Hebrew peculiarities, showing how both Christian and Jewish translations have rendered these phrases into English.
Then Kushner returns to her family, and the story, like that apple, begins to roll, mixing a platter of Shabbat chicken with the family’s discussion of a knotty problem in that week’s Torah portion.
The example of the first verse in the Torah, where it says—or maybe doesn’t say—“In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth,” will suffice. “It all depends how you read one word, bara,” Kushner’s mother, Rachel Kushner, says in the book. A Hebrew teacher, she cannot resist the temptation to enlighten her students about the beauties of Hebrew grammar and its role in the design of an entire culture. The ensuing discussion centers on whether bara (create) is a verb or a strange form of a noun.
There is also a moving memoir-style chapter on the author’s visit to her grandfather in Israel, a man who fled Hitler’s hateful Germany but still loves ha-devarim ha-yafim, “the beautiful things,” including the music of Wagner.
In her book, Kushner indeed takes us on the marvelous journey promised by the book’s title. It is a journey that, like a crisp apple, deserves to be chewed and savored.