More than Words

3 11 2010

[I encourage those of you who are interested to participate in the comments beneath this post as it appears on Galus Australis, where a discussion is underway as regards the hypothetical nature of Jewish theocracy.]

On November 7th, this coming Sunday, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz will be completing his forty-five year project of translating the entire Babylonian Talmud into Israeli Hebrew. Abigail Leichman, writing for the New Jersey Jewish Standard, notes that completion ceremonies (siyyumim) are going to be held in several locations around the world, including Mumbai, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Washington, Moscow, and Melbourne, Australia. But as Sue Fishkoff of JTA notes, there has been a great deal of attendant controversy.

Most important among the various criticisms of Rabbi Steinsaltz is the fact that, in June of 2005, he accepted an appointment to the post of Nasi on Israel’s fledgling Sanhedrin. As makes very clear, this is a body that expects to usher in the redemption of the Jewish people with a return to the state of play two millennia ago. It is fascinating to read their account of various of the other rabbis who make up the Sanhedrin and who were voted on for Nasi, which is a list that includes the founder of The Temple Institute in Jerusalem (an organisation that has already started building vessels for the third temple), the founder of Nachal Hareidi (a branch of the army that allows for participation from ultra-orthodox youth), and the brother of Rabbi Meir Kahane. For a considerably less positive view of them, Kobi Nahshoni reports at Ynet on their attempts to impose Torah law upon the Israeli population, their public boycotting of the Beijing Olympics, and their continued agitation for war with Hamas.

And in the midst of all of this, Rabbi Steinsaltz is translating the Babylonian Talmud. We would none of us doubt that he is a pious man, but that he is also tremendously learned is beyond reproof: he has published fifty-eight books on a wide range of topics, and has been releasing tractates of the Talmud as he has been producing them. Simply vocalising and punctuating the Aramaic text would have been an incredible achievement in itself (if not a slightly audacious one), but his translation is both lucid and precise. He lost much in the way of support in the early days, when he made the decision to visually replace Rashi’s commentary with his own translational commentary, and to move Rashi in with the Tosafot. Since causing a stir, new editions of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s “Vilna Edition” maintain the traditional typesetting, with the rabbi’s translation and commentary on the facing page. As it stands today, despite whatever opposition it may receive from certain circles, his translation is the best translation on the market: it significantly supersedes Artscroll for both its readability and its precision, and it is no surprise that it is being celebrated in so many locations around the world. Given the tension caused by his election to the head of Israel’s “self-appointed supreme court”, it is unsurprising that not one of those locations is in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, while supportive of the project, notes that one must expect controversy when a single individual wishes to translate a vast and variegated corpus of literature, composed by multiple authors over the course of a few centuries. But an appreciation of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s perspective indicates that he not only sees himself as fitting for the task, but as a kind of 21st century Ezra, returning Torah to the people and laying the groundwork for the rebuilding of the temple. In an interview given to JTA, Rabbi Steinsaltz has the following to say:

“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish… But it is a book that Jews cannot understand. This is a dangerous situation, like a collective amnesia. I tried to make pathways through which people will be able to enter the Talmud without encountering impassable barriers. It’s something that will always be a challenge, but I tried to make it at least possible.”

This simple statement is a profound indicator of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s governing philosophy. For a start, he perceives the Talmud as “the central pillar of Jewish knowledge”. We can all of us agree that the Talmud is a central pillar, although some of us might prefer the indefinite article to the definite. Is the Talmud truly at the centre for all Jews, or have there always been Jews who elevated other corpora? As the man whose most popular publication was The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Steinsaltz is undoubtedly aware of the existence of Jews throughout history who have venerated the mystical tradition over and above the halakhic; were he adamant that the kabbalah can only be understood by Talmudic scholars, it is unlikely that he would have composed a popular introduction to Jewish mysticism.

And yet, he here describes the Babylonian Talmud as crucial for “the overall understanding of what is Jewish”. Well, what is Jewish? For Rabbi Steinsaltz, over and above every possible manifestation and expression of Judaism, there is one application of the faith that possesses authority. Delineated by a strict interpretation of the Talmud, and governed by a rigorous application of Torah law, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Judaism is anything but pluralist.

But then, as Rabbi Meir Kahane once noted, democracy is not a Jewish phenomenon. Any Jew who hearkens for a return to the monarchy, a re-establishment of the temple and a resumption of sacrificial offerings must reckon with the crucial reality of life under theocracy. No amount of wishful retrojection changes the very real and very nasty images that the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide for us. The forced exile and execution of religious dissidents, the expulsion of non-Jews from Judea, the repeated and deliberate confrontation with Israel’s enemies, the cursing and the spitting and the tearing out of hair. These are all phenomena, whether good, bad or ugly, that heralded in the era of second temple Judaism, in all its sectarian glory. For those of us who shudder at the thought of such a contemporary revolution, it is fortunate that Israel’s infant Sanhedrin has enemies on every side of the religious divide. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that their establishment, like the Nasi‘s translation of the Talmud itself, says much as regards the expectations of many. If they were ever to succeed in their aims of uniting the religious parties beneath their authority and of establishing themselves as the upper house of Israel’s Knesset, we will have more than words from Rabbi Steinsaltz. And more than words from his detractors as well.

[Addendum: It has recently been drawn to my attention that the list of locations that was published by the Jewish Standard was not exhaustive. Those who are interested can have a look at the exhaustive list. I apologise for the unintentionally misleading remark that I made, concerning Israel’s absence from the list of countries that are celebrating Rabbi Steinsaltz’s incredible achievement. There are no fewer than nine such locations in Israel, four of which are in Jerusalem.

You will also be pleased to note (I know that I was!) that, in addition to Melbourne, there will also be siyyumim in both Cairns and Sydney! The Sydney siyyum is being organised by a friend of mine, and will be held on Sunday evening at Coogee Synagogue.]




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