The JPS Torah at Fifty by Leonard Greenspoon


A Celebration of a Translation and a Translator

Leonard Greenspoon, Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, Professor of Classical & Near Eastern Studies and of Theology, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska



As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first publication of the JPS Torah and the 20th yahrzeit of its editor-in-chief Harry M. Orlinsky, it is appropriate to take the time to consider how this translation and its lead translator fit into the long history (over 2,300 years) of Jewish Bible translations and translators. We observe characteristics shared by Jewish versions, as well as distinctive features of the JPS translation. This allows us to acknowledge the role played by tradition and innovation. In the process, specific examples from the text of the JPS translation and from the life of Harry Orlinsky are highlighted.


In early May 1953, Harry M. Orlinsky delivered an address at the annual meeting of The Jewish Publication Society (JPS). At the age of 45, Orlinsky was a professor at the recently merged Hebrew Union College and Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Handpicked by JIR founder and president Stephen S. Wise, Orlinsky had already established a formidable reputation as a Jewish Bible scholar in what was still a predominantly Protestant field.

The title of Orlinsky’s presentation on this occasion—“Wanted: A New Translation of the Bible for the Jewish People”—aptly summarized his goal that day, which in fact had by then been his goal for some years. He ardently argued for a new English-language edition of the Hebrew Bible, prepared by Jews for Jews (as well as others) that would take the place of the 1917 JPS translation.

No one was better prepared than Orlinsky to make this case and to play a pivotal role in carrying out the project. When Orlinsky, Canadian-born, completed his undergraduate education at the University of Toronto, he was determined to continue his studies at Philadelphia’s Dropsie College, in particular to work with Professor Max L. Margolis. As it happened—and as Orlinsky knew well—Margolis had been the editor-in-chief of JPS’s earlier Bible translation. A young Orlinsky arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1931 and immediately began his studies with Margolis and other Dropsie faculty. Alas, after a short period of time, Margolis fell ill and had to leave the classroom, never to return. He died some months later.

Although their time together was very brief, Margolis’ influence on Orlinsky was profound. Like his revered teacher, Orlinsky took a keen interest and active role in Bible translation, particularly in the Septuagint, the Greek text that was the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible.

In Orlinsky’s case, his participation in Bible translation can justly be termed groundbreaking. During the 1940’s, he was a member of the committee that produced the Revised Standard Version Old Testament, published in 1952, with the distinction of being the first Jewish scholar to participate in a Bible version otherwise prepared by, and primarily for, Christians. Later, Orlinsky was instrumental in the New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1990. Again, he was the only Jewish scholar to participate in that translation. (It is well worth noting, as Orlinsky convincingly argued, that the absence of Jewish scholars on translation committees was decidedly not the same as the absence of Jewish scholarship, which decisively influenced translations from the Vulgate to the King James Version and beyond.)

Orlinsky had once judged the shelf life of a Bible translation as about 50 years. So, in one sense, his pleas in the 1950’s to replace the 1917 JPS version might have seemed a bit premature. But it was not simply the passage of years that motivated Orlinsky’s call for a new Jewish translation. He was as aware as anyone that during the intervening years scholarship had made substantial advances toward a better understanding of the biblical text. This was true in terms of linguistics, grammar, and stylistic interpretation, as well as archaeology, paleography (the analysis of ancient forms of writing), and comparative religion.

But there was more. A conscientious reader of the JPS translation of 1917 could not fail to observe that it looked and sounded very much like the classic King James Version. This similarity was not by chance. Margolis, who was himself an immigrant from Lithuania, felt that the diction of the King James Version would serve as an appropriate model for teaching English to immigrant Jews. He saw his work in terms of instruction in language as well as in theology. In this regard, Margolis consciously modeled himself on the example of Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish Enlightenment leader who in the late 1700’s produced a Bible version in High German to replace earlier Yiddish (Judaeo-German) renderings for a community that was now able to join polite society—but only if they abandoned the “uncouthness” of Yiddish for the elevation of proper German.

There are many positive features that speak in favor of making use of King James-type language and diction in a Bible translation. It is for this reason that the King James Version and its descendants continue to be best sellers in the huge market that includes Bible translations and commentaries. At the same time, it must be admitted that it is not an easy task for a modern reader to get through a chapter or more of the King James Version, given that its style, diction, and vocabulary reflect the 16th rather than the 21st century. (Although the King James Version appeared in 1611, its language was already a bit outdated.)

For Orlinsky, the antiquated nature of the King James Version was not at all charming or suitable. Quite the contrary: it contradicted what was for Orlinsky the primary function of a translator of the Hebrew Bible: to make the text intelligible for those who are not able to read the Hebrew in its original. A translator needed to carefully gauge the style of English with which members of his audience were comfortable. The translation that resulted from this approach would look and read like most any other piece of literature contemporary with the translator’s audience.

And that indeed is how the JPS translation that first appeared in 1962 was intended to function.

Formal vs. Functional Translations

For many years, the overall differences between a version like JPS 1917 and the JPS 1962 were subsumed under the broad categories “literal” and “free,” respectively. While there is some truth to these designations, they are not necessarily the best way to characterize them. Today, it is more usual to use the terms “formal” and “functional.” A “formal” translation is more literal because every effort is made to retain the form of the original in the new rendering. A “functional” translation tends to be freer because the basic questions asked—What meaning were the original authors trying to convey to their audience? How do we say that today?—naturally lead toward renderings that are natural-sounding to the new audience. Because biblical Hebrew and American English are such different languages, a “formal” English translation will often sound foreign; a “functional” rendering will sound much more like natural English (but much less like the original Hebrew).

Harry Orlinsky was the primary proponent of “functional equivalence” translation within the Jewish world during the second half of the 20th century. Within the larger community of Bible translators, he was joined by a number of Protestants associated with the American Bible Society, who produced the Good News Bible and later the Contemporary English Version.

Average readers of a Bible translation, who are not scholars, will nonetheless quickly discern whether they are looking at a “formal” or a “functional” version. With respect to the Hebrew Bible, phrases such as “And it came to pass” or “Behold” and constructions such as “and. . . . and. . . . and” are clear markers that this is “formal equivalence” translation. Subordinate sentence structures (for example, “When . . . ,” “After . . . ,” and “Although . . .”) and easily recognizable vocabulary alert readers to the “functional” nature of the translation.

There is yet another way to differentiate between “literal” and “free” translations, which can be expressed spatially. With a “formal” translation, the reader must move toward the text. This movement is necessary to bridge the gap between the modern reader and the ancient text. With a “functional” translation, we can say that the text moves toward the reader. This is the result of the translators’ decision to minimize “foreign” elements in the text as a means of making it more immediately intelligible to the reader.

At first thought, it seems that a “formal” translation, with its literal approach, will always be more accurate than a “functional” version. But Harry Orlinsky argued against this view. He pointed to a number of biblical passages where the “functional” rendering conveyed what was to his mind the actual meaning of the Hebrew original, while the “formal” representation in fact misrepresented what the Hebrew meant.

In order to better explain such a comparison, here are a few examples from the JPS 1917 more “formal” version and the “functional equivalence” of the new JPS translation. (In each example, the 1917 rendering precedes the newer one; bolded words and phrases are key elements for comparison):

Deuteronomy 24:16

The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

Parents should not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.

Judges 12:9

And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he sent abroad, and thirty daughters he brought in from abroadfor his sons.

He had thirty sons, and he married off thirty daughters outside the clan and brought in thirty girls from outside the clan for his sons.

Jeremiah 31:29–30 (similar expression found in Ezekiel 18:14)

In those days they shall say no more: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

In those days they shall no longer say: The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

In other instances, as Orlinsky also insisted, the new translation revised and corrected older English renderings by mining the riches of the Jewish exegetical traditions:

Genesis 1:1–2

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth . . . And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters

When God began to create heaven and earth. . . . And a wind from God sweeping over the water

Isaiah 7:14

Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son.

Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son.

Nonetheless, I would not see all changes as positive:

Ezekiel 2:1 (and frequently elsewhere in Ezekiel)

Son of man

O mortal

Proverbs 31:10

A woman of valour who can find? For her price is far above rubies.

What a rare find is a capable wife! Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.

The JPS Torah and JPS Tanakh’s Contributions to the Jewish Community

The Jewish Publication Society has had a distinguished publication record since the first appearance of its new Torah translation 50 years ago and the entire Tanakh in 1985. The English-language text has appeared, in its entirety or in parts, in a number of different formats, acknowledging the fact that Jews use the Bible somewhat differently for worship, study, and presentation at celebrations and holidays. My favorite format is the one that first appeared in 1999, with the Hebrew original and the JPS English translation on facing pages. I especially like this side-by-side format because it serves as a constant reminder that for Jews the modern-language rendering should always point to the Hebrew original.

The JPS Tanakh has had an ever-wider and deeper influence within the Jewish community and the larger community of scholars and worshippers for whom the Hebrew Bible is sacred writ. It appears in both editions of the influential Reform commentary edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981; and URJ Press, 2005) and the current Torah commentary used in Conservative synagogues (David Lieber, Jules Harlow, et al., eds., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001). The scholars who wrote the widely praised JPS Torah Commentary (Genesis, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna [1989]; Exodus, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna [1991]; Leviticus, commentary by Baruch A. Levine [1989]; Numbers, commentary by Jacob Milgrom [1990]; and Deuteronomy, commentary by Jeffrey H. Tigay [1996]) used the JPS translation, as did the editors of the extraordinarily valuable The Jewish Study Bible (Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). The JPS Tanakh in a somewhat revised form can also be found in the thought-provoking Contemporary Torah (David E. S. Stein, ed., The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006]).

To conclude, the Bible, in its original and in translation, should function as the springboard for our interaction with the text, for it is not lifeless nor is it static. In the case of the JPS Tanakh, this interaction is enriched, for at least some of us, by our personal knowledge of and experience with one or more of its translators.

Orlinsky’s Genius

As editor-in-chief of the JPS Torah, Orlinsky exerted a decisive and, I would say, positive influence on the JPS rendering of the entire Hebrew Bible. It is very difficult for me to believe that his death took place 20 years ago. For, like all the texts he worked on, Harry M. Orlinsky is someone who invited us—one and all—to interact with him. When I read the JPS translation, especially those sections that he and I had discussed at length, I hear his voice and I experience again the pleasure of being in the company of one of the greats.

I remember, for example, asking Orlinsky how he felt about proposing a rendering for the first verses of Genesis that differed so markedly from the traditional wording of the King James Version. He told me that, prior to working with JPS, he had never heard or read other English translations of Genesis 1. Although I found this a bit difficult to believe, I knew better than to challenge him on a point such as this. Or in fact to challenge him on his memory of any of the hundreds of scholars and others with whom he had come into contact. He was, after, all almost always correct and always affable, at least with me.

His erudition, his sense of humor, his spot-on memory of just about everyone he ever met—the unique mixture of these and so many other traits—made Harry M. Orlinsky the unforgettable person he was. Moreover, it is in part these traits of his that make the JPS Tanakh the very fine translation that it is.

We will never again see another Harry Orlinsky, or Max Margolis, or Moses Mendelssohn. But hopefully, we will be fortunate enough someday to come upon another Bible translation that bears its creator’s genius in the way these three Jewish translators put their mark on their respective versions. We are, if I may put it this way, blessed and enriched by such individuals within our community.


For further discussion and analysis of the issues raised in this article, see the following publications by Leonard Greenspoon:

“Jewish Translations of the Bible,” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2005–2020.

“The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide,” Bible Review 21.4 (2005), 37–44.

“A Short History of Bible Translation,” in The Jewish Bible (JPS Guides Series; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2008), 33–51.

“Versions, Jewish,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), vol. 5, 760–765.

When Harry Met Max,” in New Essays in American Jewish History: Commemorating the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Founding of The American Jewish Archives, ed. Pamela S. Nadell, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Lance J. Sussman; Cincinnati: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, 2010), 289–304.

“The Septuagint,” in Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 562–565.

“Translation: The Biblical Legacy to Judaism,” in The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism (ed. Alan T. Levenson; Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 83–97.

Jewish Translations of the Bible (New York: American Bible Society, 2013).

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