Englishing the Talmud

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

According to a rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 12b), God’s angels do not understand the Aramaic language in which the Talmud itself is mainly composed. As many a modern reader can testify, they’re hardly alone.

But how can angels, who “know the thoughts in every man's heart,” be ignorant of Aramaic? The early commentators had a tough time explaining it. According to the medieval authority Asher ben Yehiel, the answer is that the angels are in fact perfectly familiar with Aramaic, but think that using it is beneath them. Closer to our own time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) said something similar, with a twist: focused as they are on the big picture of humanity and the universe, angels can’t be bothered with the details, worked out again and again in the knotty particulars of Jewish thought and experience.

Audacious flights of mytho-poetic theology, with an obsessive attention to minute details and a sinuous poetry all its own: this is the mind-bending mix that has made the Talmud, love it or hate it, the central text of Judaism. Yet for all its centrality, it is far from accessible. Not only is the material often cryptic and allusive, but much of the Talmud’s massive text resembles, in itself, an intricate internal scaffolding, commenting on and arranging layers of traditions and argumentation in a latticework—or labyrinth—of its own devising.

Hard enough to understand in the original Aramaic (as the angels certify), in translation the Talmud can be no less daunting. In an illuminating essay on the subject, Adam Mintz has detailed the history of Talmud translations and their attendant controversies. When it comes to English translation in particular, he introduces us to Michael Rodkinson, a turn-of-the-20th-century British rogue, who was soon succeeded by the incomparably more serious and distinguished team of rabbis and scholars that produced the monumental Soncino Talmud (1935-1952). But the Soncino edition presented mental challenges of its own to anyone trying to maneuver through it, while later editions of specific tractates by the American academic Jacob Neusner and his students are of uncertain quality and also largely inaccessible to non-specialists.

In recent decades, things have changed for the better. In 1967, the unique Israeli scholar and educator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz inaugurated his own translation of the Talmud—in this case, from Aramaic into modern Hebrew.  The Steinsaltz edition sold more than a million copies and in the process helped initiate a renaissance of Jewish culture in contemporary Israel. Replicating this success in English was a natural next step; in the late 1980s, Random House, the mainstream American publisher, launched what it hoped would be a colossal Steinsaltz project of its own. Yet that effort, which resulted in 21 overpriced and ungainly volumes, covered just four tractates and eventually ran aground.

Not long afterward, a different translation appeared on the horizon. This was the Schottenstein Talmud: an enterprise of the ultra-Orthodox publishing house ArtScroll, whose highly popular editions of traditional prayer books and other works featured smooth English translations, sophisticated production values, and a reactionary ideological edge that has been the bane of non-Haredi religious intellectuals. But the Schottenstein Talmud (named for the benefactor supporting it) was another matter. As volume followed volume into print, the translation remained almost uniformly lucid, moving with the flow of the text and helpfully anticipating the questions that close readers would ask; the notes conveyed with remarkable economy not only a fuller understanding but even the flavor of classic talmudic interpretation; and underneath it all one could sense the basic humility before the text that is a sign of true scholarship.

And now the latest development is that the Steinsaltz Talmud, too, is experiencing a second coming into English. Translated and edited afresh, it is being brought out this time around not by a major trade publisher but by the Koren Press of Jerusalem, well known for its meticulously produced, finely presented editions of classic texts.  The first volume, Tractate Berakhot, has just appeared, and the publisher promises to bring the entire project to conclusion in the coming few years.

How do the Schottenstein and Steinsaltz editions stack up against each other?

To begin at the beginning, Schottenstein offers a more literal and minimalist translation; Steinsaltz is fuller and more elegant. Schottenstein has more extensive discussion of later rabbinic literature; in Steinsaltz, the surrounding materials focus on the plain sense of the text and the decisive halakhic applications derived therefrom by Maimonides and the authoritative 16th-century code, Shulhan Arukh, compiled by Joseph Karo.

In Schottenstein, the brunt of rabbinic explication is carried by the footnotes, which typically proceed through an impressive array of commentators down through the centuries. By contrast, Steinsaltz often adduces, within the running commentary, a single source that concisely answers a question raised by the plain sense of the text.  Other explanatory materials in Steinsaltz also stay close to the plain sense, explaining technical terms and difficult passages, offering brief biographies of sages, illustrating realia in full color, and showing a subtle but unmistakable debt to academic Talmud scholarship (whose very existence goes unacknowledged by ArtScroll).

In the Steinsaltz edition, Koren’s strengths as a publisher in design, layout, and visual accessibility are all on display, as detailed in an enthusiastic early review by Andrew Greene.  In addition, where ArtScroll works to give its products the heft and ornamental gravitas of traditional bound volumes, Koren’s design both exudes the look of classical Hebrew and retains traces of the modernist minimalism of Zionist aesthetics. Another Zionist element is evident in Koren’s transliterations of Hebrew words in the so-called Sephardi pronunciation ("Massekhet Berakhot"), as opposed to ArtScroll’s faithful adherence to Ashkenazi Hebrew ("Massekhes Berachos"). 

Nor is the vast legacy of accumulated commentary absent from Steinsaltz, though the relation to it is oblique. The difference is manifest in the way the two English projects make use of the Vilna Talmud, the classic late-19th-century edition of the full text with its accompanying glosses and discourses. Schottenstein presents the photocopied Vilna text on full facing pages opposite its own translation and commentary, while Steinsaltz places the same text in its entirety at one end of the volume, reproducing the individual passages as needed to match the ongoing flow of the translation and commentary. In so doing, Steinsaltz distances the reader, however slightly, from the aura cast by the great Vilna edition.

If I had to sum up in a word the differences between these two editions, that word would be empowerment. Schottenstein does a great job of explaining the text, and also ushers the reader into the precincts of rabbinic authority through its presentation of the commentarial tradition, so rich and multilayered that if you want really to grasp its details, you'll have to ask a rabbi (from this edition you'd never know there was such a thing as a Talmud professor).   In short, it aims for an audience somewhat closer-in, albeit one in need of translation.

Steinsaltz, in both design and style, reaches for a wider audience. Which is not to say that Steinsaltz is less faithful to the text, or requires less of the reader. That reader, however, is likely to come away with more of a sense of the Talmud as a living text, a text to think with and through as it presses its demands on our hearts and lives.

Finally, both editions, each in its way, succeed in leading us to the classic bottom line: “the rest is commentary, go and learn” (Shabbat 31a).


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