Leon Wieseltier on the Steinsaltz Talmud – 1989

In honor of the Global Day of Jewish Learning, I give you selections from the classic review of the Steinsaltz Talmud written by Leon Wieseltier. I remember clearly when the review came out; there are few New York Times Reviews like it.

By LEON WIESELTIER; Published: December 17, 1989

Rabbi Steinsaltz’ observations on the relationship of Talmud to truth are troubling. For a start, they are gooey. His use of ”Torah” as an adjective is the use of a preacher, not a scholar. For the Torah is, supremely, a noun, a particular revelation, a specific text; it is the Torah. Rabbi Steinsaltz’ generalities have an evangelizing tone. An evangelist is, among other things, a person for whom the definition of the truth is less important than the conviction that he brings it. Rabbi Steinsaltz doesn’t hector, but he is carrying news. For all his historical and philological pains, he is without the critical spirit. He appears to aspire to a rather paradoxical role in Jewish life: a guru of the Talmud… In the world of the Talmud, a rabbi is the opposite of a guru.

There have been previous translations of the Talmud into English. None of them have presented themselves, however, with Rabbi Steinsaltz’ presumption. ”The overall structure of the page,” he writes of his edition, ”is similar to that of the traditional pages in the standard printed editions.” And so it is. The text of the Talmud is set in the center, swaddled in exegesis. Where the commentary of Rashi was, there is Rabbi Steinsaltz’ ”literal translation.” (Rashi’s commentary, which more or less inaugurated Talmudism, appears below it.) Where the commentary of the Tosafists was, there is Rabbi Steinsaltz’ ”translation and commentary.” Where the commentary of Rabbenu Hananel was, there appears Rabbi Steinsaltz’ guide to ”concepts.” Where the commentary of Rabbi Joel Sirkes was, there is Rabbi Steinsaltz’ guide to ”sages.” And so on. The student is referred to these features of the translation by the same superscripts that referred the student to the features of the original. The Steinsaltz Talmud is even published with gilded edges, in the folio format in which the Vilna Talmud was published.

But there is something slightly false about the experience of its study. When all the work on Rabbi Steinsaltz’ page has been done, when all his superscripts have led the student to all his information, the student will have experienced nothing more than the literal meaning of the text. Beyond the literal meaning, Rabbi Steinsaltz provides only allusions to subsequent debates and the legal rulings that resulted. But it is precisely in the space between the literal meaning and the legal ruling that the experience of Talmudism is to be found. After the rudimentary explanation of words and concepts, after the judicial extrapolation of practices and regulations, the dance of reason begins.

The duty of the translator, of course, is to provide Talmud, not Talmudism. As a translator, and as an amplifier of his translation, Rabbi Steinsaltz succeeds nicely. But this is not only a translation of the Talmud. It is also a mimicry of the Talmud. It leaves the student on the surface, but it dupes him into the feeling that he has dived below. For this reason, it should be used with a little care. The differences between the translation and the original are just as important as the similarities – more important, in fact, for the measure of the tradition, and for the measure of its loss.

Wieseltier’s own positive appreciation for the Talmud.

The Talmud is one religion’s great homage to mind. That is why it remains worthy of study, even for the godless. And it deserves the attention of godless Jews for another reason, too. The Talmud is where they come from… – the Talmud is the spine of Judaism, the scripture of Jews to whom God no longer speaks. From this oceanic source, Jewish identity will never be completely disentangled.

If you have a subscription, read the full seven page review here.

Wieseltier goes out of his way, as did the recent JTA press release, to note that Steinsaltz did not actually write the commentary, rather it was by paid committee. Wieseltier highlights that the translation was supervised by Rabbi Israel V. Berman. Does anyone know the other hands? Was Rav Shagar, who headed the Steinsaltz Yeshiva from 1987, involved? As a side point, does anyone have a list of the avrachim involved in the Artscroll Talmud and has anyone discussed if one can notice differences between tractates?

Wieseltier was not the only early critic. Arthur Samuelson, a book editor who critiqued Steinsaltz’s English edition for The Nation magazine wrote: “In making the Talmud overly accommodating to strangers, the translators have betrayed its essence. Reading the Steinsaltz Talmud in English is like trying to understand what a crossword puzzle is when the words have been filled in. You get the idea but you miss the point: Process is everything.”

The best translation and tool for teaching adult education remains the superb El Am Talmud, published by JTS, United Synagogue, and Bar Ilan. It was to be an American equivalent to Steinsaltz. It was edited by Rabbi Dr Arnost Zvi Ehrman. This was a truly scholarly work with input by Rabbi Drs Halivni, Sperber, Felix, Shilo and Alexander Carlebach. They only put out Berachot, some of Bava Metsia and Kiddushin.

12 responses to “Leon Wieseltier on the Steinsaltz Talmud – 1989

  1. What’s the problem with Schottenstein?

  2. I don’t recall seeing a better Talmud commentary “By LEON WIESELTIER” published in the past 21 years.

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    It would be worthwhile to compare the El Am Talmud on Berakhot with Art Scroll.

    In BDD ,Vol. 7 I think, there is a review of the English and Hebrew Art Scroll on Berkahot by Prof Shama Friedman. It’s generally quite positive.

    I alway felt that Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Hebrew commentary was rather thin.

    • Shamma Friedman, Essay on the Occasion of the Publication of a Hebrew Edition of the Art Scroll Talmud” (Hebrew), Badad 7 Bar Ilan University, (1998), pp.77-91.

  4. Judging from the date and portion of the critique provided, it was assessing the Steinsaltz English Talmud, not the Hebrew Talmud being celebrated by the Global Day. As a native Israeli, Steinsaltz has an impressive English vocabulary but his command of grammar was probably not good enough for him to do his own editing of an English edition. So he indeed wrote the commentary — it was the English translation of it that was not totally his own (although he surely had the last word on that as well). Also, who was on the supposed “paid committee” and what exactly were their roles–and their pay (as compared to, say, the reported 70 scholars who worked on the $21m Schottenstein?) If making any use of research assistants or editors prevented characterizing a book (or commentary) as being authored by a single person, you’d have to add a lot of names to a lot of books. And hey — I only see the name “Leon Wieseltier” on the review — was he trying to tell us no “paid committee” of NYT editors reviewed it?

  5. Artscroll followed the traditional model of naming the endeavor after the donors. Steinsaltz naming the work after himself when he was really the editor invites that kind of criticism.

  6. What are all your thoughts on the new mesivta (Oz Vehadar) gemmaras?

  7. The Steinsaltz Talmud is a much more mysterious achievement than the Schottenstein Talmud, which in and of itself is sort of a unbelievable phenomenon. How did a baal teshuva who spent most of his younger life immersed in secular studies even think of undertaking such a project while still in his mid twenties? There is much we don’t know about this great man, Adin Steinsaltz. And needless to say Wiesltier with his know it all, prissy and condescending attitude is of absolutely no help.
    The mystery only increases if one reads the fascinating essay on the creation of the Schottenstein translation. http://www.printingthetalmud.org/essays/15.pdf
    I want to add a few polemical points. 1)Both translations were conceived by chassidish people, Steinsaltz a Lubavitcher, and R. Hershel Goldwurm z”l, . When Goldwurm passed away much of the heavy lifting was done by R. Yisroel Simcha Schorr who also has close chassidish connections. Nosson Sherman is associated with Stolin. 2) The common thread of the circle of people who worked on the Schottenstein project is Bais Medrah Gevohah in Monsey circa 1950 -1970, and then the larger circle of Lakewood, the Mir etc. 3) These ‘’guys’’ illustrate a style of charedi Orthodoxy that formed the larger cadre that created the center of charedi life in America…not totally Litvish like Philly, RJJ, Skokie or Lakewood and not totally chassidish like Satmar, Bobov etc., but conversant and comfortable with both groups, while being somewhat Americanized and educated. 4) This group already knew the mesechte with rishonim and the major achronim before they undertook the translation. I can’t imagine Steinsaltz knew Shas and its commentaries before he ever started. 5) Hershel Goldwurm deserves special mention. He was brilliant, very quick mind, sharp, heimish, a Belzer during the interregnum, a chassidesher lamdan of the highest caliber.

  8. Wieseltier’s article is remarkably similar to Charedi attacks on both the Steinsalz and ArtScroll translations. Let’s face reality-if one solely relies on ArtScroll without ever becoming textually literate in “the real McCoy” and being able to access and understand the views of Rishonim, then ArtScroll and Steinsalz are both highly addictive crutches that will never enable the user to become a Ben Torah or Talmid Chacham. I recommend Halacha Brurah which retains Tzuras HaDaf, but which presents great summaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim on every sugya.
    It is important to remember that ArtScroll followed Steinsalz’s entry after R Shach ZL placed R Steinsalz in cherem for his views on Biblical personalities and the JO published an article that was highly critical of R Steinsalz’s views on Talmudic development. The haskamos to the early ArtScroll volumes refer Bderech Remez to the above controversies. It should also be noted that Tradition also published an article and response about how the Steinsalz edition was unconventional in its analysis of a certain sugya in Bava Metzia.

  9. Har Nof Academic

    As someone who has enjoyed the Steinsaltz Talmud for years, I must comment.

    Wieseltier’s article is inaccurate:

    1) Rashi’s comments were left in their spot- on the inside folio margins.
    2) The author also implies that Tosafot was omitted – not true.

    Wieseltier’s criticism of the work not being “academic” is silly. The goal of the project was to make the Talmud accessible to the masses.

    As far as calling him a “guru,” or the never-ending suspicious questioning of his background, I think his oeuvre speaks for itself.

    Prof. Kaplan – what you call “thin,” I find appealing – Artscroll is too wordy. Steinsaltz is concise, clear and readable. The translation utilizes the aramaic roots of modern Hebrew words when possible, giving the learner an opportunity to develop his Talmudic vocabulary.

    Hitherto, there has not been a decent review of the work. In my estimation, here are some valuable contributions of the work:

    1) Vocalization of the text
    2) Paragraphing
    3) Rich material on the margins: history, biography, flora & fauna, illustrations, textual variations, etc.
    4) Clear and concise translation
    5) Brief discussions of relevant halakha and citations of passages in Rambam and Shulchan Aruch
    6) Introductions and Summaries of each Chapter
    7) Indexes! (perhaps one of the most valuable contribution) – a scriptural index, an index of Tannaim & Amoriam found in the Masechet, and a topical index. (You can argue that with the Bar Ilan search, etc. today the index is unnecessary – but still important in my opinion).

    With all of its benefits, unfortunately the Steinsaltz is not as popular as the newer translations – Artscroll and Oz V’Hadar’s Metivta. But it’s easier to schlep with you on and Egged bus!

    (site editor-please use an email next time, even an anon gmail)

  10. So going from a world where a literate ehrliche yid pretty much learned a lot of chayei adam to one in which they are expected to be able to learn shas and rishonim over the course of 80 years is only OK if that happens without the use of crutches like Artscroll?

    Do you realize that the notion that in order to be a good Orthodox Jew you had to be a full time yeshiva student who perhaps happens to have a day job is a rather recent development of our religion?

  11. Har Nof Academic: I agree with you that all the features you list are very positive and make the Steinsaltz Talmud very user friendly and helpful. I still find the commentary thin. I used the Hebrew Steinsaltz with my son when he was in High School and over the years in my Talmud classes in McGill and I found that the commentary rarely, if ever, explains the logical connectives of the sugya , what makes the question a question, why the answer is an answer. Any interesting questons I had were almost always unaddressed. I have switched in my classes to Art Scroll. I try to get my students to use the Hebrew rather than the English Art Scroll, with –alas– little success.

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