Harry Orlinsky

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Dr. Harry Orlinsky, American Jewish Archives

Early Life and Education[edit]

Dr. Harry Orlinsky was born in 1908 to Yiddish-speaking parents in Owen Sound, Ontario on March 17.[1] He did not wake up and decide to become a Biblical scholar but he did wake up and decide to play pool. Growing up, pool was one of his favorite pastimes. According to Dr. Orlinsky, the best place to shoot pool “in the Northern Hemisphere existed in a place called Hart House” and the best table was number 9. In order to secure it, you had to be there as soon as the building opened at 9 am. This meant that any morning classes he would take at the University of Toronto had to run from 8-9 rather than 9-10. The only class to fit this schedule was a Bible class taught by Theophile Meek.[2] Under Meek’s mentorship, Orlinsky would go on to earn his PhD at Philadelphia’s Dropsie College for his work on the translation of the Septuagint, the Jewish Greek translation of the bible. While here, he would meet his future wife Donya. Dr. Orlinsky then completed a year of post-doctoral work at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Upon his return to the US, he started working at the Baltimore Hebrew Teachers College (1936-1944). During this time he would also study at Johns Hopkins University with William F. Albright. Unfortunately, due to World War II, Albright was unable to secure the necessary funds for Orlinsky to become a permanent member of the faculty at Hopkins. Instead, Orlinsky, with the help of Albright, was able to secure a post with the Jewish Institute of Religion (now merged with the Hebrew Union College) and it is here that Orlinsky spent the rest of his career.

Work as a Translator[edit]

Perhaps the greatest result of Dr. Orlinsky’s work on Torah translation was the creation of a gender free translation of the bible. Since, the translator must interpret and explain the text; it behooves him (or her) to understand why certain words were used. If a language has a preference for masculine pro-nouns, is that because the reference is really for men or does it have to do with the way a language function. A similar example from modern times would be the use of “guys” to refer to a group of people in general regardless of gender. If the rest of the text did not use a masculine pronoun but rather used a more gender neutral term such as “one” then Dr. Orlinsky felt it was safe to say that the translator can use that term as well for the masculine pronouns within a given text.[3]

Dr. Orlinsky’s work earned him the position as a key translator on not one but two new bible translations. Starting 1952, he would help the Protestant National Council with their Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible and then again with the New Revised Standard Version (1989). Walter Harrelson, the vice chairman of the 1989 translation committee, said that Dr. Orlinsky was instrumental in the translation. He helped to keep the committee on track in using the older Masoretic text rather than the easier to translate Septuagint, which is a Greek translation. Harrelson recalls Dr. Orlinsky’s constant reminder, “We’re translating Hebrew Scriptures. We’re not translating from the Greek Hebrew Scriptures.”[4]

Following the success of the RSV in 1952, Dr. Orlinsky turned his attention to a new translation of the bible for Jews. He would urge the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) to take up the task since it was they who were responsible for the 1917 version still in use at the time. Dr. Orlinsky would become the editor-in-chief for the Torah, which was published in 1962 He would also be instrumental in helping to get The Prophets (1978) and The Writings (1982) published as well. Dr. Orlinsky helped move the translation of the bible away from the literalism of the King’s James version to the exegesis that was the hallmark of JPS’ 1917 translation and Dr. Orlinsky’s translation work.[5]

Mr. Green Affair[edit]

“The Mysterious Mr. Green” affair is a story straight out of a classic spy novel. Mr. Green was a gentleman hired in secret by the Israeli government to authenticate four Dead Sea Scrolls being sold in New York City. The Metropolitan of the Syrian Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem ran a small ad in the Wall Street Journal which was then brought to the attention of the Israeli Consulate in New York. The scrolls themselves had been at the center of a negotiation between the Metropolitan and Professor Eleazar Lippe Sukenink, the founder of the Hebrew University Department of Archaeology, which had been founded following the Israeli War for Independence. Unfortunately since the newly founded State of Israel was unable to fund the purchase of the scrolls in 1948. The Metropolitan then moved the scrolls to the US and deposited them in the Trust Company of New Jersey in Jersey City. It was at this point that the existence of the scrolls came to the attention of Yigael Yadin from the office of the Consul-General of Israel in New York. Yadin felt that these scrolls belonged to Israel and should be housed there. He was positive though that the Metropolitan would not willingly sell the scrolls to Israel. This meant he had to find someone who was knowledgeable about the scrolls but would not be immediately connected to Israel.

So on July 1, 1954 at noon, Dr. Orlinsky received a phone call as he was preparing to walk out the door for a two week vacation with his wife to Toronto. Dr. Orlinsky relates looking at his wife and wondering if he should answer it explaining that they “were impatient to get away, but after the third or fourth ring [he] went back inside to answer it.” As it turned out, it was Mr. Yadin on the other end of the line claiming that Dr. Orlinsky must come over to the Israeli Consulate. Israel had need of such services that only Dr. Orlinsky could provide. Once he arrived at the Consulate, Orlinsky was ushered into the presence of Mr. Harman, the Israeli Consul-General, and Mr. Yadin, both of whom had been waiting impatiently for his arrival. They then revealed that the reason for the strange summons were the Dead Sea Scrolls currently sitting in vaults of the Trust Company of New Jersey. He was told to assume the name of Mr. Green and examine the scrolls for the Israeli Government.

Dr. Orlinsky was instructed to take a taxi to the Lexington Avenue entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and take care to make sure he was not being followed. Once there, he would meet with Mr. Sydney M. Estridge; each man had been given a code to identify the other. Once this had been accomplished, they would proceed together to a vault located in the basement and meet with a representative of the Metropolitan. Finally, he was to examine the scrolls, keep his speech to an absolute minimum and respond to no other identification than Mr. Green.

Following the authentication process, Dr. Orlinsky called an unlisted number; spoke the code “lechayim,” confirming the scrolls authenticity and that was it. Later, at the Consulate, Dr. Orlinsky signed a statement confirming the same and after he and his wife were sworn to secrecy, they were able to complete their trip to Toronto.[6]

Written Work[edit]

  • Ancient Israel. 1954. Cornell University.
  • Studies on the Second Part of the book of Isaiah: The So-Called “Servant of the Lord” and “Suffering Servant” in Second Isaiah. 1967, (enlarged edition 1977). Leiden: Brill.
  • Understanding the Bible Through History and Archaeology. 1969. Ktav Publishing House.
  • Essays in Biblical and Jewish Culture and Bible Translation. 1973. Ktav.


  1. ^ Sperling, S. David. "Orlinsky's Torah." CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer (1993): 1-6.
  2. ^ “Harry Orlinsky family to be honored tonight” Baltimore Sun 5/17/1976 pg. B1
  3. ^ Hancock, Elise. “Male-Oriented Language in New Bible Translations.” Johns Hopkins Magazine, March (1978): 47-48
  4. ^ Briggs, David. “Bible Scholar Defended Integrity of Text.” The Associated Press
  5. ^ Briggs, David. “Bible Scholar Defended Integrity of Text.” The Associated Press
  6. ^ Orlinsky, Harry. "Focus on The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Myserious Mr. Green." Reform Judaism, Spring (1992): 46-48.

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