Beyond the Binaries for Suzanne McCarthy
Suzanne has written a blogpost this week entitled, “Fathers or Ancestors: Who do you sleep with?” If you read it, then you get what she’s after. She’s going beyond the binary and is letting male Hebrew writers and male English translators go too. She actually starts with what the male Hebrew speaker (quoted, I presume, by Moses) is saying:
Here is Jacob, asking to be buried with his “fathers.” Does this translation “fathers” make any sense in this passage, or should we think rather of the term which is used as a synonym, “my people?”
What McCarthy is getting at is the parallelism of the Hebrew of Jacob, the appositive of the noun phrase אֶל־עַמִּי with the noun phrase אֶל־אֲבֹתָי. She points us readers to what the NRSV translation team has done my letting the appositive, the parallel, be between “my people” and “my ancestors” in their English just as it is a parallel, an appositive, for Jacob speaking Hebrew (and for the writer Moses recording what Jacob says). And then she address us:
But you might ask me whether or not the Herbrew really says “fathers.” It does, and it does not. In Hebrew, as in Greek, the common word for “parents” is the plural of the word for “father.” But it is clear from its constant use for parents of both genders that this is its meaning – parents. In the English of today, the word “fathers” cannot refer to parents of both genders.
I’m going to ignore McCarthy’s metaphorical personification of the language as a thing so personally really saying something. I’m going to remind her blog readers and you that it’s really people, persons using Hebrew and humans using English, who are really saying “fathers” and “ancestors” and “parents” and “אֲבֹתָי.” Likewise, our meaning, Moses’s meaning, Jacob’s meaning, McCarthy’s meaning, my meaning, your meaning, the NRSV team’s meaning, the ESV team’s meaning, are really what we mean. The words don’t mean unless we make meanings. And yet, the crucial point is this: if the binary has to be “fathers” vs. “mothers,” then McCarthy is urging us meaningfully to go beyond the binaries. We can, she says. And Jacob and Moses do, I say. They’re saying “ancestors” by saying “people” — by saying and writing אֶל־עַמִּי with the noun phrase אֶל־אֲבֹתָי.
(Now, there’s a bit of a discussion following her post in which some are insisting on a binary, a division, a separation and distinction between “gender inclusive translation” and “gender accurate translation.” Even to that, I say, Let’s go beyond the binaries here, please, and bravely so.)