Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fast in Translation

Tomorrow is the 10th of Tevet, which is a fast day. But did you know that yesterday, the 8th of Tevet, was also a fast day? The oldest document of Chazal the Megillat Taanit (fast scroll), notes:

On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.'

The story is recounted in a couple of places, once in Megillah and once as a Braita in the minor tractate Soferim.

'King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did' (Tractate Megillah 9[also Soferim 1:8 –jjb]).

(previous two translations from here)

The story is told of five elders who wrote the Torah in Greek for Ptolemy the king and the day was as bad for Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made because the Torah could not be accurately translated. (tr. mine; Sofrim 1:7)

We might suspect that these are two successive stories, that Ptolemy hired five sages to translate the Torah, but he suspected that they might be intentionally fooling him by mistranslating passages, so he then hired 72 more, and told them individually, out of hearing of the others, “Translate the Torah for me,” and by a miracle, all 72 came up with exactly the same set of 13 intentional mistranslations. What were the mistranslations? Clarifications, mostly: instead of “In the beginning created God __ the heavens and __ the earth”, they wrote “God created in the beginning…” lest the Greeks believe that there is another deity named “Bereshit” that created “Elokim.” Instead of “Let us make man in Our image”, they rendered it in the singular, lest Ptolemy think the Torah supported polytheism. [I used __ in place of the word "et", which is a particle indicating that the next word is a direct object -jjb]

We should consider the nature of translations.

First, every translation is an interpretation. Rabbi Sokol, when composing his brief dvar torah for the synagogue newsletter, was faced with the word “nivhalu”, describing the state of mind of the brothers when Yosef announced himself. How to translate it? Well, let’s look at how some popular translations render it.

  • Aryeh Kaplan Living Torah: His brothers were so startled, they could not respond.
  • Artscroll Stone Chumash: But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him.
  • Old JPS: And his brethren could not answer him; for they were affrighted at his presence
  • R’ Sokol: the brothers were so agitated, that they couldn't even respond.

Each of these has a different emotional content. Agitation is not quite the same as startlement, or fright. Not that any one is necessarily better or worse, but it may well depend on the writer. For more, see later.

2) Every translation is written for some audience and/or purpose. It may be written for a king, to keep Judaism tolerable in his eyes. It may be written for other Jews, to explain the Torah to a populace that has lost familiarity with Hebrew, or for introducing them to the local language. Letters may be translated to show the inner emotional states of a famous figure. And that agenda affects the way the ideas are rendered in the target language.

3) Every translation is written by people, who are affected by their personal experiences, and by their surrounding cultures, to have certain prejudices and biases. R’ Sokol recounts a conversation he had with Dr. David Berger, the noted historian and polemicist. R’ Berger had written a piece for an academic journal, and the editor asked him to revise the translations, such that some of the masculine words would become feminine. “But that’s the way the text is! That’s the way they wrote!” Dr Berger complained to R’ Sokol. Nevertheless, the politically correct editor insisted on changing the translation. The biases of a writer and an editor may be at loggerheads – is the text to be rendered accurately, or in tune with the zeitgeist?

4) Every translation limits the understanding of the text. We speak of the Torah as having 70 facets, but the translation locks it down to having one facet for the population who will be reading it. And that may be the reason for the three days of darkness. If the Torah is light, as the verse says, we were closing down the light, in limiting the reading to one perspective out of 70.

So the translation of the Torah was indeed a calamity for Israel, as not only foreigners, but Jews too would be reading it, and having their understanding of Torah shaped by it, rather than being allowed to roam through the breadth of rabbinic interpretation. It was a calamity indeed, if only because it raised one interpretation to an authoritative level.

(I forget how R’ Sokol concluded it – if LoZ or someone wants to fill in, please do).

This was R’ Sokol’s sermon for Vayigash, 26 Dec 09

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Maoz Tzur Origins

Musical Note

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

Each year we sing Maoz Tzur on Chanukah, but have little idea of its origins. The words were written by the 13th Century German "paytan" (poet), Mordechai ben Yitzchak Halevi. It was not originally written for Chanukah. The poem is an historical overview, originally in five paragraphs (the sixth is a later addition), referring to Pesach, Exile, Purim, and only the last mentions Chanukah.

The melody, which became popular among German Jewry in the 16th Century, is written in the German chorale style of the 15th/16th Century. It is first recorded as an old German folk song, "So Weiss ich", and was used as Martin Luther's first Protestant hymn, "Nun Freut Euch" in 1523. This is the origin of the suspicion that this is a "Christian" song. The middle section is thought to come from one of two old German songs, the 1504 "Benzenauer", or an earlier "Narrenweise" melody. "So Weiss ich" was already known to the Jews in Germany in 1450 and, therefore, may even have been composed by a Jew! In any case, we are still singing it and Lutherans are not. So enjoy the melody with your children, as tens of generations have done before you!

[Note: I used to sing Adon Olam to Greensleeves on occasion, but there was one Lubavitcher in the old shul who used to complain that I shouldn't use "that Christmas song." Except, well, Greensleeves was a secular song written by King Henry VIII (who was something of a Talmud scholar). The Christmas words to the same old tune were written in the 1890s. So using it for Adon Olam is just as [il-]legitimate. -jjb]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hellenism in Jewish Palestine

I know it's the title of a book by Saul Lieberman. I only have the other one, "Greek in Jewish Palestine". I'd love to see what he says about this.)

Commenter Joseph Anonymous Kaplan wrote:

Chanuka long did it take for greek philosophy to become part of "orthodox" Rabbinic Judaism?

Oh, that was very fast. The entire Talmud bears witness to the absorption of Greek philosophy and culture. The Seder is "how rich people ate"? It's modeled after a Greek Symposium, a dinner and educated debate, with all the forms - heseiba, bringing in the food on tabellach (as my gemara teacher called it in 12th grade when we did Arvei Psachim), discussion around the table on a set theme, heavy drinking (arba kosos), etc. Here's a picture that (except for the nakedness) perfectly illustrates the sort of meal described in the Gemara:

Second, the Socratic method, of picking at a concept to uncover the hidden bases and assumptions - this is the basis of Rabbinic debate in the Talmud, as well as of most legal education in America.

Third, while this took somewhat longer to come into Judaism, we have neo-Platonic emanationism which is parallel to, if not the source of (scholars are divided on this) the whole Kabbalistic creation and structure: the ten emanations that fill the pleroma or fullness, the space between God and the physical world, the totality of Divine powers. And in the war between Aristotelian rationalism and Platonic emanationism, it's quite clear - the emanationists, the neo-Platonists, have won.

The division in Kabbala between the unchanging Infinite, and the shifting and changing Sefiros which are the tools by which the universe was created, formed, emanated, made - this parallels Gnosticism, which was a Greek religion which was more or less created to be antisemitic, from what I can tell - where the transcendent Good God does not communicate with the world, but the world was created by the evil Demiurge, a lesser divine being, who actually communicates with the world.

No, there wasn't any widespread adoption of Greek philosophy per se, but of their methods, yes.

Although Rabbi Akiva does seem to speak of man created after an archetype, which is a central Platonic idea - that of abstract forms, the ideal Man vs. the real.

And (shades of the R' Svei zt"l and yblcht"a R' Lamm argument years ago) there does seem to be some parallel between Plato's parable of the cave, and R' Shimon's and R' Eliezer's behavior on coming out of the cave after 12 years - that having been inside the cave, they no longer know how to deal with reality. In fact, it seems so similar that it may be a re-telling, with some remapping of the concepts to fit Judaism and the reputation of Rashb"i.

Quite likely, Euclid's mathematics was relevant to "sod ha'ibbur" calendrical calculations; certainly the unnamed Peirush on Rambam's Hil. Kiddush haChodesh depends on geometry to explain the relative geocentric motions of Earth, Moon and Sun.

Other influences of Greek culture include the Greek bible; Rabban Gamliel's opinion that one can lein Megillah in Greek because the Greek language is equally holy as Hebrew; the adoption of Greek names into Hebrew (any number of people in the Talmud, such as Sumchus); etc.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald says, in his Chanukah lecture, "we are all Hellenists" in that we all benefit from, and incorporate ourselves in, modern society, in various ways and to various degrees. None of us reject modern secular American or European society totally.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You can take the boy out of the Bible Belt...

Commenting on the previous post, Mississippi Fred McDowell wrote:

The same tale is told all over the world, where modern European civilization collided with traditional cultures. Indeed, the fact that you are now typing and probably thinking in English means that some form of compromise with modernity was eventually achieved, but not without much growing pains and casualties along the way. The idea that in Germany it could have been resisted entirely by not giving in to any of modernity's temptations is nice, but it would have resulted in a handful of hardline rabbis without a flock, as such a position would not have taken into account the realities and tempermants of German Jews, who were indeed ready for and on the cusp of speaking in German and the like. They were, in fact, chaleshing for it, and it would have happened with or without Mendelssohn, only perhaps without him it would have taken on the form of total apostasy. Or not; I could be wrong. But the point is that modernity itself was a powerful force seducing away from traditional religion.

Could a Lubavitcher have the perspective to sit back and realize, "it wasn't Mendelssohn it was modernity?" For them, the Rebbe said it, no matter how based in polemical distortions of a century earlier, therefore it's gospel truth. Literally. Because their Rebbes are Tzaddikim as described by the Tanya, and thus embody God's will in this world.

The anonymous commenter in the previous post cannot admit the Rebbe was wrong in attributing "Jew in the home, man in the street" to a man who lived his life as "Jew in the home, Jew in the street, Jew in the courts of kings and scholars." There is a letter where Mendelssohn notes that he had to refuse the wine of a nobleman because of stam yeinam. He wrote "Jerusalem" to defend the Jews in the public sphere. He wrote peirushim on the Chumash and the Rambam to make Judaism remain palatable to those affected by modernity.

(Well, there's some debate as to what extent that was the motivation for the German translation, and to what extent he wanted the Jews to be able to speak clear German, as they were already moving into outer society. There are two letters with contradictory ideas: that he wanted to make the Torah palatable to Germanized Jews, and that he wanted to make German palatable to Torah Jews. In either case, he did want to make sure that Torah remained compatible with Germanized Judaism.)

There is a commenter on some of the J-blogs, whom I know IRL. He lives entirely in the modern world, doesn't consider himself a chasid Chabad, but cannot escape the attitudes and ideas about history and relationships among Jewish groups inculcated by his Lubavitch upbringing.

This is hardly an issue limited to Lubavitchers, of course. I took a course on Islam in college, taught by a Muslim academic. He had no end of frustration with the orthodox Muslim students in his class (he was one himself). He required the students to step back and be able to look at Islam and its history as an outsider, without the prejudices of the believer. The students should be able to step out of themselves, but these students, for the most part, could not.

It may be easier for me, having been an outsider all my life. I was raised non0bservant, although my parents have since grown in observance as well. But they sent me to Ramaz, and we went to Lincoln Square Synagogue, because R' Riskin was more accepting of children than R' Miller at the SAJ, where we had been until 1973 or so. So wherever I go in the Jewish world, it's with the experience of not having come to it natively.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mendelssohn in Lubavitch eyes

An evil star has risen in Germany: Moses [Mendelsohn] of Desau, may his name be obliterated. A man of Torah filled with bitter, rotten grapes. He mixed a batter combining apostasy and Torah, spoiled and rotten. He made a honey-cake (Tzelil Devash, the name of his book) and he fed it to his friends and students. As on the wings of the wind, his students fanned out across the land, making a tumult for the approach “Be a Jew at home, and a citizen in the street.” In a short time, Germany was poisoned, ruined by Mendelsohn and his colleagues. Like a pillar of fire eats through straw, the Rabbis of Germany were devoured right and left. Mendelsohn created a crater in Germany; he ran off with Jewish skulls. He stole the children of Jacob, and he broke the leaders of Jewry; he placed them all in the burning fireplace of the sciences.
This passage appears on a Lubavitch website, I think written by the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, who is known for partisan distortions of history to advance a Chabad agenda.

A tendentious distortion of history. Mendelssohn a"h did not, h"v, say, or maintain in his personal life, that one should be a Jew in the home and a man in the street. That was YL Gordon, a hundred years later. The ones who encouraged the sciences were the Gra and his disciple Boruch Shick of Shklov - the Gra being another person whom Lubavitch writers distort. He was not "under the influence of maskilim" when he critiqued Chassidus, nor did he believe in "tzimtzum kipeshuto", he held his positions out of true knowledge and belief, and believed in the same tzimtzum in the ohr as Chassidim.

Furthermore, all of this was the ORTHODOX haskalah of the first few generations. Reform was something else, a formalization of the wholesale abandonment of Judaism. Many gedolim of the 19th century honored Mendelssohn's commentary, the Biur, and used it themselves. R' Aryeh Kaplan used it for his commentary in the 20th century. The Netziv used it for the Ha'amek Davar. And while the Chasam Sofer banned it, his own children and grandchildren held the Biur in high esteem. This is the historical truth, not distortions meant to keep chasidim uneducated in the ways of the world away from non-chasidic ideas.

Mendelssohn was not the Hitlerish caricature that the writer of this passage uses. Mendelssohn was closest to, I think, the Rav YB Soloveitchik, except that the world was not ready for him. His own children, some stayed Jewish some did not. Why? Because there was no support structure yet for Jews who lived with one foot in the yeshiva, one foot in the secular academy, and one foot in the courts of the mighty. And his children did not have his strength of character, so trying to live his way failed. Because Reform took advantage of the open German society, to become non-religious, is no reason to blame Mendelssohn. Better to blame Napoleon, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc. who preached the open society.

I couldn't really say that over there for fear my userid would be suspended.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Chanukah

from the Ramaz Upper School Chorus, under the direction of [classmate's brother] Daniel Henkin, a fascinating setting of Maoz Tzur - is it Rossi or is it Memorex?

iiiiIiiii :-)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Providence, if not the City

(R' Moshe Sokol's sermon for Vayeshev 5770 at the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, with my additions/comments)

The Sfas Emes, in his meditation for 5661, notes that Chanukah commemorates our victory over the Greeks. But it was not just a physical victory, it was a moral victory. What moral goal was served? The Seleucids were trying to make the Jews give up on the God idea. The Sfas Emes claims that the Greeks, through their expertise in astrology (Yavan, Ionia, Greece, is numerologically equivalent to Galgal, celestial sphere), saw the world as a completely natural world, where once we understood physical law and the celestial motions, there would be no more need to have a God to explain why things happened in the world. We would know that everything is just an effect of other things acting on it.

In other words, the Seleucid Greeks were trying force us to give up on the idea of Divine Providence, that God controls the world and history. Rabbi Sokol then summarized three major schools of thought about the nature of Divine providence. Apparently, a world that follows physical law, and a world where history is driven by Divine Will, are not as incompatible as the Hellenistic Syrians thought.

First is the Sfas Emes' idea - that the world is indeed mechanistic, following physical laws. However, God reserves the right to intervene when necessary, for His plan to work out. No need for fancy explanations - God has His will, and exerts it when necessary.

Second is Maimonides' idea as expressed in the Guide. There is "general providence" on most of the world, which nations will rise and fall, which species will arise or go extinct. "Individual providence" only extends to Jews, as we are the instrument for implementing His Will, the Torah, in this world.

Third is what I and some other scientifically-minded people in the shul believe, but for which I haven't seen an "authoritative" Jewish source, except that today, R' Sokol, whom I trust, spoke about it. Well, given the opposition to, or ignorance of, modern science among many Torah specialists today, who could talk about it?

That is the idea that God intervenes through manipulating probabilities. There is a lot of uncertainty in the physical universe, from micro effects like quantum uncertainty (the electron is somewhere in the cloud around the nucleus, but we can't locate its position or velocity at any givent moment; or the electron is in several potential states simultaneously, until some event forces the state vector to collapse on one of the possibilities), to macro effects like chaotic and/or complex systems, which can also only be described statistically (such as weather systems, the behavior of crowds, fluid flows, etc.) So, if there's a statistically improbable event, but one which is in the realm of possibility, God may nudge that event to happen such that people recognize it as His will at work.

(this is from me, not R' Sokol:) For example, in Charles Pellegrino's book "Return to Sodom and Gomorrah", he describes Joshua's crossing the Jordan River. He explains it in terms of periodic (once a century, more or less) rockslides in the Jordan Valley, which will block up the river's flow for a period of hours, before the rock-dam breaks and flow returns. Clearly this happened for Joshua and Bnai Israel, and thus they could cross on dry land. He takes this as evidence that there is no God, because there exists a naturalistic explanation. However, look at it from a probablistic standpoint. This event happens perhaps once a century for a period of hours. That state of crossability exists 1:14700 of the time, say. What are the odds that Joshua and the Israelites should reach the Jordan river at just the right time to take advantage of this rare event? Clearly, God brought them to the right place at the right time to cross safely. It was a possible, not probable event, and it worked out just right. I believe that this is Biblical evidence of God manipulating the probabilities to make sure that the improbable event happened correctly.

To sum up, then, the Sfas Emes provides an answer that works for the Chasid who prides himself on his Emunah Peshutah, his simple faith - that God reserves the right to act when necessary. The Rambam provides a philosophically satisfying answer that still enables Jewish pride: that God extends individual providence to the Jews alone. Many moderns would accept this happily. And the statistical answer, which works for scientifically-minded moderns, but which seems to be unsourced in the tradition, which worries me a bit. Although, it sorta answers a different question than the Rambam's: it's not "who gets DP" but "how does DP not come into conflict with the concept of physical law?" Some people claim to have "seen it somewhere", but I'd like to know where.