Yiddish Christology? der Bris Chadasha and Translation as Responsive Theology

By Manseau, Peter | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Yiddish Christology? der Bris Chadasha and Translation as Responsive Theology

Manseau, Peter, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


When it comes to crafting theology that might communicate ideas across religious boundaries, there is perhaps no one at once more and less suited than a convert. One who leaves the religion in which she was raised for another tradition no doubt brings unique knowledge of her former faith to those with whom she now shares a spiritual home. She is also likely to have, literally, a convert's zeal for explaining the religious choices she has made to those from similar cultural circumstances. At the same time, however, a convert's relationship with--even his understanding of--his previous religious identity can only be suspect to those who maintain the tradition he has left behind. With such complications inevitably arising in both the creation of any theological work one might attempt and its reception, the contributions a convert as theologian might make to communication between two traditions may be less likely to build a bridge than a wall.

One area in which this can be clearly seen is in the translation of religious ideas and texts for the purpose of missionary work. Christian missionaries have long relied on native speakers of the languages used in the far-off lands they visit to provide an access point to a new cultural and linguistic context. When St. Frances Xavier visited Japan, for example, he likely would have gotten nowhere without the help of the samurai-warrior-turned-Christian who became his translator and guide. It was only with this native linguistic assistance that he was able to communicate anything at all of the gospel message to the Buddhists he had come to evangelize. Francis later learned that, when attempting to describe the miracles of Jesus, his samurai companion had been encouraging him to use the name Dainichi, an honorific usually reserved for the Buddha. As Francis sang Jesus' praises, his audience heard only further exploits of a man they already revered. (1) When it comes to the translation of religious ideas, the nature and identity of God can often be found, or lost, in the details.

Translation in other contexts has brought its own complications. Within the area of Jewish-Christian interaction, the translation of Christian texts into Jewish languages is uniquely fraught with questions of the identity and intention of the translator, as well as the extent to which one who abandons a religious tradition may understand it well enough to communicate with its members who remain.

In recent Jewish history, "missionary Yiddish" was a term used derisively to refer to Christian efforts to use the language of Eastern European Jewry in its evangelizing efforts. (2) From the seventeenth century on, rough renditions of the Second Testament and other devotional works had appeared in editions that native Yiddish speakers regarded as highly suspect. Little more than Luther's German translation phonetically transliterated with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, these editions gave every indication of having been crafted by Christian missionaries who knew little of the language of the Jews--and less of their culture. (3) If conversion due to evangelization was rare among Jews of this period, it may have been because missionaries failed to recognize the extent to which Jews were not ignorant of the gospel message, just dismissive of it. (4)

Beginning early in the twentieth century, however, more sophisticated Christian materials began to find their way into Yiddish. Translated by native-Yiddish-speaking Jewish converts for audiences of immigrants in England and the United States, the new missionary materials directed at Jews were not only of much higher quality, but they were also obviously products of careful consideration of how best to express the content of the gospel message in a Jewish environment. The best of these new materials represented a Christian theology responsive to Judaism crafted with a tool that, until then, had seemed resistant to Christian use: Yiddish, a language that more than any other had arisen in opposition to all things Christian.

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