Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Devarim (Midrash)

Translation: An Exclusive or Inclusive Torah?

This past week’s Torah portion, the first one in the final book of the Torah, Devarim, which gives Moses’ valedictory address, opens with a subject close to my own professional concerns: translation. The halakhah which opens this midrash—a format used in a great many of the midrashim in this book—deals with whether or not the Torah may be translated into other languages. Deuteronomy Rabbah 1.1:

“These are the words…” [Deut 1:1]. Halakhah: Is a Jewish person allowed to write a Torah scroll in any language? Thus taught our Sages: There is no difference between scrolls, [on the one hand,] and tefillin and mezuzot, save that scrolls may be written in any language. Rabban Gamaliel said: Even regarding scrolls they only permitted them to be written in Greek.

What is the rationale of Rabban Gamaliel, who says that one is permitted to write a Torah scroll [only] in Greek? Thus taught our Rabbis: It is written, “May God enlarge [or: concur beauty upon] Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem” [Gen 9:27]. That the words of Shem be said in the language of Japheth. Hence they are permitted to be written in the Greek language.

Japheth (or Yefet) is seen as the progenitor of the Hellenic peoples. The genealogical table of the seventy nations descended from the three sons of Noah (Genesis 10), serves as a kind of archetypal anthropology of the entire ancient world: the descendants of Japheth, the Mediterranean island peoples; the Hamites—Egypt and Africa, Mesopotamia, and Canaan, the indigenous inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael; and the Semites—the nations north of Canaan, such as Assyria, as well as the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula.

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek during the third century BCE, the “Septuagint” (so called for the seventy sages charged with its translation), evoked all of the ambivalence of the Rabbis about relations with other cultures. On the one hand, the apocryphal Letter of Aristeas portrays this project in extremely favorable terms, showing it as being greeted with great enthusiasm by the Jewish community of Alexandria. On the other hand, several other, more ”orthodox” Jewish sources, paint it in more somber tones. Megillat Ta’anit lists the 8th day of Tevet among the fast days because “on that day the Torah was written in Greek by Ptolemy the king, and darkness entered the word for three days.” A similar idea is expressed in the seliha poem recited on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet, “Azkerah Matzok.” Perhaps more to the point, Masekhet Sofrim 1.7-8 (=Masekhet Sefer Torah 1.8-9) states: “that day was as hard for Israel as the day they made the golden calf… because it was impossible to translate it adequately.” These sources, as well as the Talmud in Megillah 9a-b, list thirteen different places where the sages drafted by Ptolemy for this task found it necessary to deliberately alter the sense of the original Hebrew in their translation, so as to avoid theological or other difficulties in certain passages that might be embarrassing in the eyes of “outsiders.”

Having worked in this field for over twenty years, I can testify that translation is never a simple matter, certainly as soon as leaves the realm of strictly utilitarian or functional texts and turns to the areas of belles-lettres and the arts, philosophy and thought. Every language embodies the cultural milieu and “mentalité” of those who speak the language, which are largely lost in the process of transmission to other linguistic vessels. “Traditore tradutore,” as the Italians say: “to translate is to betray.” All the more so when one is dealing with the Torah, a sacred text embodying Devar HaShem, the word of God, as well as a legal source for everyday living, whose misconstruction can lead to error or sin.

What was at issue here? Was the translation intended for acculturated Diaspora Jews, in which case the criticism might also be: Why don’t they learn Hebrew? Should teachers of Torah coddle such Jews? Or, expectations of mass learning of Hebrew being unrealistic, is there no alternative to translation so as to reach Diaspora Jews where they are? A familiar problem: Diaspora Hebraists seem today like a small, dying breed; ironically, we live in an age when, notwithstanding the existence of a sovereign Hebrew-speaking Jewish state, fewer Jews in Diaspora know Hebrew than did 100 or even 50 years ago. Even in the strictly Orthodox communities abroad, more and more people seem to be studying Torah in English, as demonstrated by the success of Art Scroll and the like. Likewise, the lingua franca for gatherings of “Klal Yisrael” concern, even in Jerusalem, is more often than not English.

Or was the issue at stake that of the universality of Torah vs. particularism? After all, the translation was ordered by Ptolemy, a non-Jewish royal bibliophile. Is the Torah’s message meant to be shared with the world, made accessible to others, as a potential source of universal ethical and spiritual enlightenment, or is it to be kept as an intimate, exclusive, covenantal text? And why Greek? Did Rabban Gamaliel feel that there was somehow a special affinity between Judaism and Greek culture? Did he see them as somehow more civilized and refined, lacking in the brutish, violent characteristics of Hamitic and Semitic cultures? Did the fact that they cultivated art, poetry, drama, science, philosophy—in short, that they had an advanced literary culture concerned with world-embracing, subtle questions—somehow compensate for the pagan aspects of Hellenic culture, their worship of the body and various other forms of decadence? Was Rabban Gamaliel, as it were, a disciple (albeit 1800 years before the latter was born) of Matthew Arnold, who in his noted essay on “Hebraism and Hellenism” wrote: “The final aim of both Hellenism and Hebraism… is no doubt the same: man’s perfection or salvation… [But] they pursue this aim by very different courses. The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; with Hebraism, is conduct and obedience… The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew… that they hinder right acting… Spontaneity of conscience [as against] strictness of conscience…”

We shall leave these issues unresolved. The second half of the midrash turns to other matters:

The Holy One blessed be He said: See how precious is the language of the Torah, for it heals the tongue. From whence? From what is written, “A healing tongue [or: ‘that which heals the tongue’] is a tree of life” [Prov 15:4]. And the “tree of life” is none other than the Torah, as is said: “It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it” [Prov 3:18]. And the language of the Torah unbinds the tongue.

And you should know that in the future the Holy One blessed be He shall raise up from the Garden of Eden praiseworthy trees. And what is their praise? That they heal the tongue, as is said, “And on the banks of the stream there shall grow on this side and that [all sorts of food-bearing trees]“ [Ezek 47:12]. And from whence do we know that it brings healing to the tongue, as is said, “and its fruit shall be for food and its leaves for healing” [ibid].

R. Yohanan and R. Joshua b. Levi [interpreted this]. One said: For terapyon [i.e., therapeia=healing]. And one said: Whoever is mute and chews from it, his tongue is healed. And he [should] immediately polish it with words of Torah, as is written, “on this side and that.” And the phrase “on this side and that” (mizeh umizeh) refers to none other than Torah, as is said: “on this side and on that they were written” [Exod 32:15].

R. Levi said: Why should we infer it from another place [i.e., that words of Torah heal the tongue]? Let us learn it from its own place. For Moses, until he merited Torah, it was written of him: “I am not a man of words” [Exod 4:10]. But once he merited to receive the Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak words, from that which we read here: ”These are the words that Moses spoke” [Deut 1:1].

This part of the midrash is concerned with words of Torah in a more general sense, taking off from the title verse of the book, that speaks of “the words.” The Torah is depicted as having special healing power for the mute and silent or for those, like Moses, who were “tongue tied”—i.e., spoke awkwardly and with great difficulty. The scene from Ezekiel, forming part of his eschatological vision, is a particularly beautiful image. It describes a scene in which water bubbles up from the floor of the Temple, from beneath the altar, flowing down through the Judaean Desert to become a mighty stream, too deep for a person to cross, and bringing life—vegetation, fruit trees, and healing leaves—to the parched desert. The later part of the passage develops an elaborate word-play on the phrase “from this side and that” so as to establish a relationship between the healing trees of Ezekiel and the two tablets of the covenant taken down from the Mountain by Moses.

The central idea here is of the Torah as a source of healing. Is there a hint here of reliance upon spiritual means, faith and trust in God, as opposed to medicine and the knowledge garnished from human experience, as the source of healing? (Traditionally, Jews never adopted the attitude of Christian Scientists, of active opposition to medicine as contrary to “faith.”) Or is the idea more simply the consciousness that all healing has its ultimate source in God, and by extension in His Torah, as the symbol of His presence in the world?

“The Death of the Righteous is Likened to the Burning of our Temple”: Rabbi Nahman Bulman (2002)

A little over a week ago an outstanding Torah teacher and fine human being left this world. On Shabbat morning, Parshat Matot-Masei, Rabbi Nahman Bulman passed away in his sleep at the age of 77. Our revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, often noted that the mitzvah of hesped, of eulogizing, is not to utter pious platitudes and empty superlatives about the person, but to attempt to capture something of the spirit, the unique personality, of the deceased. It is in that spirit that I approach the task. It is not an easy one: How can one sum up a life, attempt to describe what one knew as a living, vibrant, sometimes humorous, sometimes serious personality? May my readers forgive me if I seem at times irreverent.

But first, a few basic facts. Rav Bulman grew up in New York City, in a family with strong traditions of Gerer Hasidism. He studied at Yeshiva University, where he received semikha from Rav Soloveitchik, and subsequently served as a pulpit rabbi in Newport News, Virginia and Far Rockaway, New York. In 1975, very much in the middle of his life, he uprooted himself from the United States to realize his life-long dream of aliyah, settling in Israel at a point when he still had many active years before him. For several years he taught at Yeshivat Ohr Sameyah in Jerusalem; around 1980 he moved to the northern town of Migdal ha-Emek where, together with a group of his students and disciples, he attempted to realize as fully as possible his own vision of Judaism as lived in community. A decade later he returned to Jerusalem and to Ohr Sameyah, this time to serve as mashgiah, spiritual director to the students, most of whom were neophytes to traditional Judaism. During the last years of his life, he headed a small Beit Midrash in the Kamenitz neighborhood of Neve Yaakov. He is survived by his wife and five children, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I first met Rabbi Bulman over 30 years ago, when a mutual friend arranged for me to spend a Shabbat at his home. My initial impression was of a rather unprepossessing figure, a plump little man with a stubbly beard. But as soon as he began to talk I realized that this was an extraordinary person, who defied usual categories and stereotypes. I found in him a sense of absolute candor and sincerity, a sharp sense of humor, a great idealism for realizing the goals of the Torah in this world, coupled with a keen, critical eye for the pretenses and posturing that go on in life, both within and without the Torah world.

That first Friday night, and the following night (I believe it was the first night of Selihot, probably in 1969), he stayed up with me way past midnight talking—and then inviting me, somewhere around 1:30 AM to raid his wife’s cholent pot (“it’s a special mitzvah,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye).

What were the qualities that most struck me? A refreshing sense of candor and honesty. He was utterly without the cant, the unctuous piety, the simplistic rhetoric so often encountered in the frum world—especially in this era of Orthodox triumphalism. I remember him coming home from shul that first Friday night and telling his wife, with some irony, “Shainde, I was asked a frum question tonight,” and preceding to tell about a pious young man who was, it seemed, looking for an excuse not to drink the wine of his non-Sabbath-observing brother.

He had a sharp critical eye, which at times crossed the line to cynicism, and on occasion, even to a certain disappointment and bitterness, which stemmed from his intense desire to realize his ideals in the world. Decades past the age of “idealistic” youth, he retained the wish to create something truly whole and good—and, people being what they are, he was inevitably disappointed.

But together with that, he had a keen sense of humor—albeit a humor that always had a serious edge. To use a theological term, it might be described as leitzanuta de-avodah zarah: “mocking of idolatry”—that is, deflating the pretense, the falsehood, the cant, which are our contemporary forms of idolatry—of the self, of ideologies, of “modernity,” of money. He had a knack for the phrase that conveyed a penetrating insight, a different perspective, in a few well-chosen words. He often referred to himself with a certain self-irony with the words “I’m a primitive Jew”—meaning, he prided himself in his supposed lack of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, those very qualities for which secular critics lambasted Orthodoxy. Another time, speaking of the naivete of those rabbis who saw Israel’s situation in simplistic terms, as if the final Redemption were imminent, he said: “He’s a fool… That one’s a fool…” And then, turning to someone who was an acknowledged genius and encyclopedic mind, concluded, ”He’s an intelligent fool!”

Other, more obvious qualities, go without saying: his deep piety and meticulous observance of mitzvot; his love of Torah and his extensive knowledge of it—not only of the “bread and potatoes” of Hazal and midrash and the canonic rishonim, but also some of the lesser-travelled paths of Jewish thought. He was deeply interested in Jewish history, particularly that of the modern period, and had a particularly deep knowledge of the inner history of Orthodoxy and its various streams and ideologies over the past two hundred years or so. I loved listening to his deep and original analyses of this period. Altogether, he was a fascinating teacher; there was something unconventional in his cast of mind, that revealed any subject he touched upon in a new and different light.

During the years in America, when he operated within the framework of modern Orthodoxy (he was a Young Israel rabbi), he seemed torn between that world and his Hasidic roots, and the renascent “yeshivish” Orthodoxy. After his aliyah, he began to turn to a more openly Haredi life style, wearing a long coat on Shabbat and identifying with the world of the Agudah and Haredi institutions. But this was no simple “return to frumkeit” of the type which seems so ubiquitous these days, among both the newly pious and those with roots in the world that was destroyed. His Hasidism was not the Hasidism of courts, of adulation of rebbes, of serried ranks of Hasidim with their emphasis on conformity of dress and of minhagim (custom). His was a Hasidism of substance, very much in the tradition of Ger, which seemed to hearken back to its earlier roots in Kotzk and Pshyshcha: of solid learning of Talmud and Shulhan Arukh, and of a religious service based upon rigorous honesty and “working on oneself”—“tzu arbeit far zich.”

Finally, he was marked by a deep generosity and interest in others. Even when overwhelmed by his duties at yeshiva, he still found time to see those who needed to see him. I remember how, during a certain personal crisis of my own, he gave generously of his time and agreed to talk with me that very day, even though he had great demands on his time, and was plagued by ill health (a life-long problem). I was greatly impressed on that occasion by his human wisdom and kindness, and the soundness of his advice. Similarly, his home was always open to me and to others who needed a place to stay for Shabbat. Tehei zikhro barukh.


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