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The Conversion of Texts: Good for the Jews?

September 29, 2005 By:
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A one-on-one study session gives a chance to debate the finer points of the Talmud's text.
To the uninitiated, a page of Talmud may appear as little more than a sea of letters - perhaps recognizable as Hebrew characters, a few forming intelligible words, but on the whole a distant text, devoid of any real meaning.

That's exactly how the Talmud appeared to Downingtown resident Robert Fischer three years ago.

"My language skills are non-existent," states Fischer, who for the past year has been learning the Talmud on a daily basis, albeit with the aid of an English translation. "The Talmud can be very confusing."

Because most of it is written in Aramaic - with a relative smattering of post-biblical Hebrew - educators and rabbis readily admit that American Jews tend to approach the classic fifth-century work, from which most of practical Jewish law is derived, with trepidation if not outright resistance.

Enter the world of the translator, the person who's job it is to make seemingly foreign texts accessible to the masses. Anecdotal evidence suggests that lately, translations of Jewish texts have experienced a veritable boon.

"The whole history of the American Jewish community is one of translation," says David B. Ruderman, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the school's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. But in the last 10 years, "you have translations ranging from the ultra-Orthodox publishing houses, as well as academic translations such as the Yale Judaica Series. We are also now getting quick versions of longer things, and with the Internet, you're getting translations galore. It's absolutely amazing what's out there."

Of note, Artscroll just last year completed its project of translating the Talmud into English, and publishing it with exhaustive explications. That achievement coincided with the completion of the Daf Yomi study program, a daily exploration of one page of the Talmud; in this way, students work though the entire compilation in seven years.

Fischer, who uses the Artscroll volumes, counts himself as one of the participants in the regimen.

"Without a translation, I couldn't do it," says Fischer, who is also trying to improve his skills in davening from a Hebrew siddur. "There's some prayers that I know the kavanah behind, but with others, I need the English. Every month, I'm trying to chip away at that; my goal is to totally daven in Hebrew."

Artscroll is currently enmeshed in a project similar to the 72-volume Talmud behemoth; the Brooklyn-based publishing house is now tackling the Jerusalem Talmud, a text codified a little more than a century before the Talmud. The first volume is expected next month.

According to Ruderman, the act of translation has served as a way to perpetuate Judaism's sacred traditions among assimilated populations, whether for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria two millennia ago, the Arabic-speaking Jews of medieval Spain or the English-speaking Jews of post-Enlightenment England.

But while the industry is predicated on the notion of Jewish continuity, the professor cautions that, as with so many things in life, there can indeed be too much of a good thing.

"Almost all of our sources are in translation," explains Ruderman, pointing to the readily available translations of not only the Talmud and Torah, but also the Midrash; the Torah commentaries of Rashi and Ramban; obscure rabbinical treatises written in medieval Europe; several works by Maimonides; the halachic arbiter of Ashkenazi Jewry, the Mishnah Berurah; and dozens of others. "I'm beginning to wonder if professors, even, use originals anymore."

Rabbi Seth Frisch, a 1986 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary who teaches biblical texts and rabbinics at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., responds to Ruderman's query in the affirmative. Then again, he instructs students on how to translate properly.

The translated word, though, still features prominently in his courses.

"I may be one of the few that love English translations, especially the ones that are, in my opinion, incorrectly translated," says Frisch. "The reason I use them is, it helps me show people how that which is written on a page often times appears to be legitimate, but is, in fact, incorrect."

As an example, Frisch offers the 1930s-era translation of the Torah by the late chief rabbi of England, Joseph Hertz, and published by Soncino Press.

"I show how his translation fit the 1930s of England, but certainly not the first decade of the 21st century in the United States. It's one of the reasons why the Conservative movement came out with Etz Hayim," he says of the Chumash featuring the modern Jewish Publication Society translation of the Torah and a selection of commentaries written by contemporary academics that first appeared in 2001. "Context of place and time is extremely important."

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Jerusalem-born scholar and Chabad Lubavitch rabbi whose own Hebrew translation of some of the Talmud was considered groundbreaking when the project started in 1965, addresses the issue more bluntly.

In Alexandria, "they translated the Torah, but whatever they had [in translated material], they are dead now for 2,000 years," he says. "It seems that this kind of translated culture is an endangered culture in itself."

Steinsaltz points out that in the minor fast of the 10th of Tevet - a rabbinically-ordained fast that the majority of the Jewish community does not keep, and which falls on Jan. 10 next year - the penitential prayers recited on that day recall not only the death of the prophet Ezra, but also the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek in 246 C.E.

That event followed the forceful sequestering of 72 Jewish elders by the ruling Greek authorities. According to Jewish tradition, each one produced an identical translation.

"Such a monumental undertaking, which is praised in the Talmud and elsewhere as a miracle, is a reason for national mourning," explains the rabbi. "On the one hand, a translated culture is in a way dooming itself, but on the other hand, I myself have been involved with translations for a long time."

Steinsaltz's Talmud project now counts 22 volumes in English, and has been publishing versions in French since 1994. This month, the Jossey-Bass publishing house released Learning From the Tanya, the second volume of the English translation of Steinsaltz's Hebrew commentary to the Tanya, an 18th-century Chasidic mystical text written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Michael Carasik, a professor of biblical Hebrew at Penn, says he recognized both competing currents - that translations can both aide Jewish identity and take away from it - while working on his translation of a handful of medieval Torah commentaries. The first volume of that effort was released earlier this month by JPS under the title, The Commentator's Bible: The JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot: Exodus.

"A lot of people who are going to be using this book are beyond the possibility of doing any of this in Hebrew," says Carasik, whose book features the Hebrew text of the Torah at the center of the page, with both the old and new JPS translations at the top. The author's translations of Rashi, Ramban, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra wrap around the central text, in much the same way Hebrew imprints of the Chumash have done for hundreds of years.

The professor admits that he also has no illusions about some grand universality to the text: "I don't think anybody will be reading this edition 500 years from now," he says. "There's no way to write for the ages. I've tried to write it extremely clearly, and that's going to help. I translated Rashi, for instance, with the understanding that he would be writing his commentary for today's American crowd."

For Frisch, therein lies the weakness. He asserts that the only real way to ensure eternal viability is through preserving the original language of the Jewish people: Hebrew. Translations should be no more than tools to aide in the acquisition of language skills.

"Since the history of sacred literature, if something was not in lashon kodesh ["holy tongue"], it didn't survive," he explains. "Hebrew is the one language that takes any text and transcends it into eternity."

It's a framework that Rabbi Yoel D. Zeffren, the assistant dean of the Community Kollel of Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, says he operates under whenever he teaches.

"There's been a virtual explosion of opportunities and demand for opportunities - a tremendous increase in learning," locally and nationally, he says. The trick is to guide the student through a sea of English material.

"The beauty of the Torah opens up when you deal with interpreting using your own unique set of tools and experiences," he adds. "For the most part, that is locked when you don't have the ability to study on your own, when instead you're led along by the interpretations of those who translated before you, when you're reading it in a language other than the original text."

At Artscroll, Rabbi Yehezkel Danzinger, editorial director of the Jerusalem Talmud project, defends his firm's project of translating a relatively obscure text. He even concedes that because many people don't currently study the Jerusalem Talmud, the availability of an English translation may amount to a crutch.

"What will we have lost if we create a crutch?" he questions. "At least people will be limping."

Steinsaltz sums up the issue with an analogy. "We are living in dangerous times," he offers, pointing to rates of assimilation and intermarriage, as well as what he perceives as a general lack of Jewish knowledge. "If I have to save a person from drowning, I don't always care if I have the best quality rope or not."

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