About a month ago, I wrote a post about a prayer, and I mentioned in passing that I really disliked when prayerbooks translate the word “baruch” as “praise.” An old friend of mine (hi Greg!) Asked me to elaborate on that, and I so rarely get any requests for anything on this blog (one, and counting…), so I wanted to make sure to get to it. So, here goes…
“Baruch” is the most common word in our prayerbook, and it is generally translated as “blessed.” But, many prayerbooks (and, my impression is that this is more and more common in recent years) translate it instead as “praised.” It's almost always used in conjunction with God, so the phrase that we're looking at is either “Blessed be God” or “praised be God.”*
* As an aside, why we pronounce the word "bless-ed" when we pray? Why not one syllable?
I can't remember if I learned this, or just inferred it over the years, but the reason that some people prefer “praised” as a translation has to do with the theological trouble with the word “blessed.” What, exactly, does it mean to bless God? Or to say that God is blessed? God is supposed to be the source of all blessing; what's the point of saying, then, that God is blessed? It's like saying that the ocean is wet, isn't it? Kind of pointless and redundant, no? It's also a little bit chutzpadik: for little old us to be “blessing” God seems backwards. God is all that God ever needs to be. Us declaring God to be blessed, or trying to make God “more blessed” just doesn't make any sense.
So, many people instead use the translation “praised.” Anyone can praise anyone else, so there's no trouble, theological, philosophical or otherwise, with praising God. It's a much less problematic translation. There's only one problem with it: “Baruch” doesn't mean “praise.” In other words, it's a wonderfully non-problematic translation. It's also an incorrect one.
I'm not sure what it means to bless God. To be honest, I'm not really sure what it means to bless anything, or to be blessed. Heck, if you read this stuff regularly, you probably know that I'm not even really sure what the word “God” means. The whole sentence, “Blessed be God” is a big confusing mess to me.
But, I think it's supposed to be.
It's not the translation “blessed” that's confusing. It's the original prayer. Whatever it is that we're being asked to do when we pray, it's just as theologically fraught, and confusing, in the original Hebrew as it is in translation. Maybe even more so. Finding an easy, smooth translation of the prayer is probably doing a disservice to the original. Theological angst might be built in to the text! As some rabbi once said, you shouldn't try to make smooth was always intended to be bumpy.
Religion isn't easy, intellectually/philosophically speaking. So much of what we do is, at least in part, inconsistent, confusing, self-contradictory and troubling. Anyone who is involved in religion and thinks that their religion is easy and obvious is probably missing the point. Cosmic matters, existential matters are, almost by definition, complex. At its best, religion should force us to face that complexity, and try to wrestle with it. Religion shouldn't give us an excuse to hide from complexity, or pretend it doesn't exist.
Complexity is real. Let's face it.