Initial Instructions

A translation celebrating the Book of Genesis in lipogram

by Joseph Prouser

$12.95

What would “Genesis” be without the letter ‘E’?

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About this book

What would “Genesis” be without the letter ‘E’?

Initial Instructions is a fresh rendering of the Bible’s beginning with an unusual twist: It doesn’t use the letter e.

Initial Instructions strikes words like “the,” “beginning”, “created,” “heavens,” and “earth” from its lexicon. Instead, Rabbi Joseph Prouser looks for original ways to render ancient meanings and reveal The Book of Genesis in a new way.

Why undertake this exercise? For Rabbi Prouser, a lipogram — a text that avoids a particular letter — offers the virtues of discipine and restraint.

“Clichés must be interpreted,” he explains in his introduction. “That which one would ordinarily express in a manner dictated by habit becomes a fresh, carefully crafted statement reflecting heightened consciousness. The resulting tone, language, and style are distinctive.

“The end product is (it is to be hoped) not a cumbersome composition — but rather fine poetry, like a sonnet the more beautiful and artful for its principled attention to form. Within the lipogram’s prescribed constraints, the writer moves freely, reveling in the innumerable possibilities which appear when boundaries are clearly established.”

It starts:
“God’s initial act in His constantly unfolding work of cosmogony was formation of our world and its sky. All was, at that point, without form, and chaotic. It was profoundly dark, with God’s Spirit floating in a cosmic limbo. God said: “Now for light!” And it was light!! God saw how good His light was, distinguishing light from dark. God’s light was known as “day.” Dark was known as “night.” Following nightfall was morning. A first day!!”

Advance Praise

“Rabbi Joseph Prouser has transformed an ancient word game into a vehicle for producing poetic beauty and new understandings of Biblical texts. His linguistic restraint becomes an eloquent metaphor for the self-control that facilitates both religious ritual and morality itself. Amid countless Biblical translations, Initial Instructions stands out for its originality, depth, and grace.”
— Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ph.D., president emeritus, Gratz College

“A delightful translation! The lipogram makes the book of Genesis come alive. The freshness of this translation inspires the reader to see the stories anew. The words of the Bible escape from the confines of the familiar and commonplace and become vivid and stirring. This is a translation to savor, to read and re-read for years to come.”
—Rabbi Pamela Barmash, Ph.D., Professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew, Washington University in St. Louis

“I was particularly intrigued with the foundational message of the lipogram, that through discipline (and often through correction), we gain freedom. Rabbi Prouser talks about how discipline and demands often result in beauty, creativity and freedom. Thanks, Rabbi, for taking the time to teach and to share.”
— Charles W. Dahlquist II, national commissioner, Boy Scouts of America, and former Young Men general president, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)

“ An admirable and imaginative project. Rabbi Prouser breathes fresh life into familiar texts and allows us to take a step back and admire the artistry of the Scriptures.”
— Archpriest Eric G. Tosi, secretary, Orthodox Church in America

“The fresh translation invites us to newly hear and reconsider our ‘initial instructions.’”
–Dr. Charles Flynn, president, College of Mount Saint Vincent

Excerpt

God’s initial act in His constantly unfolding work of cosmogony was formation of our world and its sky. All was, at that point, without form, and chaotic. It was profoundly dark, with God’s Spirit floating in a cosmic limbo. God said: “Now for light!” And it was light!! God saw how good His light was, distinguishing light from dark. God’s light was known as “day.” Dark was known as “night.” Following nightfall was morning. A first day!!

God said: “Now, a distinct boundary for this sky, so as to distinguish among fluids!” God did form such a division, distinguishing our world’s fluid from fluids on high. And it was so. God’s boundary was known as “sky.” Following nightfall was morning. Day two!!

God said: “All fluids will form a solitary pool, allowing for dry land!” And it was so. This dry part is now known as “Land.” All that fluid, though, is commonly known as “ponds,” “brooks” and such (also: cricks, wadis, lagoons, gulfs, lochs and fjords). And God saw that this was good. God said: “Now plants will sprout (plants such as cactus and carnation, lilac and lily, poppy and poplar, moss and magnolia, acacia and ash…)! Plants which will, in turn, bring about additional off-shoots! And fruit orchards which will bring about young saplings of similar kind throughout this world (So many fruits: apricots, figs, casabas, citrons, and guavas; kumquats and mangos, papaya and passion fruit, pitanga and plum)!” And it was so. Plants did grow — and with just such a capacity for off-shoots! Fruits, too — with additional saplings to follow! And God saw that this was good. Following nightfall was morning. A third day!!

God said: “Now… lights for My sky, to distinguish day from night! Said lights will act as a natural clock of a daily and annual sort… also providing illumination for this world.” And it was so. God did form two such lights: a sun for ruling days and a moon for ruling nights. Stars, too (amazing astral and galactic displays: Canis and Ursa — both with Major and Minor — Corona Australis, Dorado and Draco, Lupus and Lyra, Cygnus and Grus)! God did assign to all lights provision of worldly illumination from on high, ruling day and night, and distinguishing light from dark. And God saw that this was good. Following nightfall was morning. A fourth day!!

God said: “All this fluid will now bring forth swarms of living animals (stingrays and swordfish, tuna and trout; marlin and minnow, clam, carp, cod, shark); and birds that fly way up in My sky (bank swallows, barn owls, blackbirds, and buzzards; macaws and mallards, martins and mynas). God did form monstrous aquatic animals (humpbacks and narwhals and so on), and all sorts of living things that crawl forth from pool and pond in swarms (no doubt arthropods, gastropods, mollusks, slugs, and worms). Also all sorts of birds with wings! And God saw that this was good. God did wish His animals only good, saying: “Fructify! Multiply! Fill all ponds and pools. Birds, fill My world!” Following nightfall was morning. A fifth day!!

God said: “Now… dry land will bring forth all sorts of living animals: cows (Angus, Brahman, Durham…) and such; and crawling things (all kinds of bugs and arachnids, gnats, moths, scarabs, locust, and woodticks); and all kinds of wild animals (lions and bobcats, dingo and fox; jackal and warthog, llama and lynx)!” And it was so. God did form wild animals of all sorts, and cows of all sorts — and all kinds of crawling things on land. And God saw that this was good. And God said: “Now it is up to Us to form humankind with a Godly capacity — akin to Our own! Humans will control fish in all pools and ponds, all cows and similar animals, all this world! Also all crawling things among land animals.” God did form humankind with a Godly capacity. With a most Godly capacity did God form humanity — woman just as Godly as man, boys just as Godly as girls. God did wish humanity only good, saying: “Fructify! Multiply! Fill all this world, dominating it… ruling all fish that swim, all birds that fly, and all living things that crawl on land.”

God said: “Now, a gift to you: all plants throughout this world, all orchards with fruit — all this is yours for food. All this world’s plants, too, I am giving as a gift to all animals on land, all birds that fly skyward, all that crawls on this world — — all living animals.” And it was so. And God saw all His works, and found it — Oh, so good! Following nightfall was morning. A sixth day!!

Local rabbi spins Torah using orthographic constraints

Joanne Palmer writes about Initial Instructions in the New Jersey Jewish Standard

What happened to the world when God decided to put Noah, his family, and the paired menagerie on the ark, and then opened the heavens?

“On that singularly disastrous day, naturally occurring abyssal fountains burst forth … and an unforgiving sky was as if a gaping window, a flowing font, a colossal cosmic chasm. For forty days and forty nights, continuous global rainfall: downpour following driving squall; storm upon cascading storm, a primordial pluvious pounding!”

Wait. That sounds familiar. It sounds sort of like this: “On the same day were all the fountains of the deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” Right? “And the rain was upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights”?

That’s what we’re told in Genesis 7:11-12 – part of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Noach – but what’s with the odd translation?

That odd, flowing, word-drunk translation, made by Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is created using a formal literary structure called a lipogram, which demands that the writer entirely omit a letter of his or her choice, and work around it. There is no particular challenge to a refusal to use the letter Z, for example, and it would be fairly easy to boycott Js, but Rabbi Prouser has undertaken the task of translating all of the Book of Genesis without using the letter e, the most frequently used letter in English.

The translation is called Initial Instructions – a title that works on so many levels, including its entire e-less-ness as well as much of the contents, and Rabbi Prouser is blogging it at initialinstructions.wordpress.com. He also is using it in his own congregation, where, he said, it “is very well-received.”

The challenge itself is very Jewish, he said. “The Torah has the freedom of the Israelite nation and the Jewish people as one of its major themes and story lines, but another of its ongoing motifs is all of the constraints and restraints that the nation has taken on itself in order to realize its freedom and its ultimate meaning and purpose. So the translation is trying to merge form and content, and to express the text accurately while practicing principled restraint.”

Marriage is a good example of willingly accepted constraints, he said. “You accept an exclusive relationship, which means that everyone else is off limits, but within that exclusive mutual relationship you can explore all kinds of creative avenues of expression.” Jewish life is full of such constraints – kashrut, for example, or Shabbat. “Someone said, ‘We can accomplish in six days what is impossible to achieve in seven.’ You know that some options are off the table; given that assumption and those parameters, you are able to fully achieve what you want, and to explore all kinds of possibilities that wouldn’t necessarily occur to you or present themselves otherwise.”

In other words, accepting constraints sharpens your mind and energizes your senses; it allows you to see into the depths of the familiar and see the strange, glowing beauty there.

Rabbi Prouser’s immersion in words and his equally deep immersion in Jewish life both go back to his childhood in Northampton, Mass. His father, Melvin Prouser, was their synagogue’s gabbai for 43 years; his son estimated that his father called up about 25,000 people to the Torah. His mother, Anne Goldberg Prouser, was “an unforgiving grammarian,” he said. She was admitted to Smith College in 1936, although she was Jewish; because she was from Northampton, Smith’s home, she was able to go there tuition-free. In 1938, she was “awarded a fellowship to the University of Berlin, which she had to decline,” Rabbi Prouser said. “After all, it was 1938; not a good time for Annie Goldberg to be in Germany.”

Joe Prouser went off to the joint program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1979. He’d studied French and German since elementary school; in college, he read George Perec’s “La Disparition” in its original French. That’s where the idea of lipograming Genesis began.

Georges Perec was the French-born son of Polish Jews, surnamed Peretz, who died during World War II. “La Disparition,” a sort of parody noir thriller, written without the letter e (except in the author’s name) was about the search for Anton Vowl. (Yes, whimsy apparently is unavoidable in almost any art form.) It has been translated into English, also without Es, under the title “A Void.”

Rabbi Prouser decided to combine the literary constraint of the lipogram with the religious constraints of a Jewish life, and to use them to look at Genesis freshly. The form demands that each word be considered carefully before it can be used, and that the obvious answer is unlikely to be a usable one. “Once you’ve accepted the restrictions, you can revel in the flurry of synonymous terms and phrases,” he said. “The beauty of the restraint of the lipogram is that you can consider what the text is trying to say; you can look at the emotional impact and the baggage behind it.”

When God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the conversation is opened with “He said to him, “Abraham, and he answered, “Here I am. And He said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love…'”

In Rabbi Prouser’s translation: God said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Abraham said: ‘Anything for you!’ And God said: ‘If so, bring your son…your only son…your darling son…Bring Isaac!'”

The meaning is the same. The words “whom you love” in the well-known translation are devastating in their simplicity and directness. But somehow “your darling son” makes the horror of God’s demand on Abraham even more explicit, because it forces us to look at it as if for the first time.

There are some words that demand fancy footwork. Most of them are names. If there are Es in the English name – Benjamin, say, or Rebecca, or Leah – than Rabbi Prouser uses the Hebrew – Binyamin, Rivka, and Laya. Eve is Chava. Egypt is Mitzrayim. Alternate spellings can work – Ishmael becomes the Arabic Ishmail. As for some of the others – soon we’ll see what he does with Rachel, and Moses/Moshe does not appear in Genesis.

Any translation, of course, is an interpretation, inevitable of its time and place, but also tethered to its original world. Where Cain once asked “Am I my brother’s keeper,” his question here has become “Am I a watchman for all humanity?” That depends, of course, on our understanding of how broad the word “brother” is, but here it not only encompasses all but also makes us think.

Rabbi Prouser has been working on and off on this project for about a decade, and although he constantly tweaks his work until he publishes it, he has done most of the work for the first book of the Torah. He will publish Genesis chapter by chapter on his blog; posting at the rate of a chapter a week, it will take about a year before it is all up. He would like to attempt to translate all of the Torah and to use a formal constraining structure to do so, but he has not yet decided which one. “I am thinking about how best to merge form and content in Exodus,” he said.

There is some risk to this project. There are times when the poetic inevitably veers into the pedantic; when the words are less gentle rain and more sharp hail. But those times are rare. Most of the time, it is very good.