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.
UNLOCKING THE RABBIS’ SECRETS
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.