Leon Wieseltier and the New American Haggadah


Okay, it’s true the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander came out about the same time as Englander’s recent collection of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which has met with mixed critical reviews. But one cannot help not note that Leon Wieseltier’s brutal review of Englander’s translation appeared in The Jewish Review of Books at practically the very same time as Robert Alter’s also unforgiving, but at least reasonably argued review of Englander’s stories. Alter’s review appears in The New Republic, whose literary editor is…Leon Wieseltier.

One understands the impetus to go-over the translation in the New American Haggadah with a fine tooth comb. Alas, Wieseltier left the comb in the bathroom. Instead, he takes out the hatchet from the woodshed and dutifully gets down to work. He carps about this translation choice, and then that one and then this one, and then goes on to insult, ad hominem, several of the commentators.  Wieseltier is one of the sharpest blades on the contemporary Jewish scene, but something cuts a little dull about this one.

In graduate school, I was taught to combine hermeneutical suspicion and charity as the best way to get at a text. I learned first and foremost to respect the text and its composition, to give authors their due and to call them up short. I was disappointed to find that nowhere does Wieseltier offer any insight as to how this new Haggadah is put together and why it might work for many American Jews at Passover. What does it do well and what does it do less well? As a self-appointed gatekeeper with no real responsibility outside his own critical reputation, Wieseltier is not going to let this one through, certainly not at the Jewish Review of Books.

It’s one thing to complain about this translation and that translation. There are any number of translations about which I too might have quibbled and where I too might have cringed. Some of the translation choices tagged by Wieseltier struck me as harmless; others struck me actually thought provoking. So I found it hard to suss out Wieseltier’s furious rebuke of the project as a whole.

I’ll admit I finally threw up my hands and almost stopped reading at that point in the review when Wieseltier faults the New American Haggadah for not translating Hebrew words like mitzvah into English. About Englander’s translation choices, one can argue one way and another. But there’s something unreasoning here. We begin to approach the core of Wieseltier own worldview, his problem with the text, and the worldview that drives this review.

That Wieseltier has such problem with the word mitzvah in the New American Haggadah  means that it’s not just the English of the text that bothers Wieseltier. It’s also the Hebrew. Why? What’s wrong with keeping the Hebrew word? Wieseltier explains, “This preservation of a few Hebrew words in English discourses on Jewish subjects is an American Jewish characteristic, the compromise of a community that is delinquent about its linguistic patrimony…[resulting] in an argot that is neither English nor Hebrew, and is perennially ripe for parody.”

In other words, Wieseltier objects to the mishmash of English and Hebrew in this early twenty first century American Jewish argot. In much the same way, German Jews once despised Yiddish as nothing other than “jargon.”

I don’t think there was anything the translator could have done to spare him from his critic. Wieseltier is the jealous husband of two wives, not one, of Hebrew and of English. Poor Nathan Englander. Caught at the door, he never had a chance.

With these lines, we now see the real object of Wieseltier’s jeremiad is American amcha, not this New American Haggadah. American Jews don’t meet the mark, unworthy of the “linguistsic patrimony” whose honor the critic defends. “No Jewry has ever been as pathetically dependent upon translation as American Jewry” or so Wieseltier claims.

Is it true, then, that no Jewry has been so dependent upon translation? As for the difference between “dependence” versus “pathetic dependence,” I just don’t know. My guess is that most ordinary Jews in geonic Babylonia or medieval Ashkenaz may have recited the Haggadah in Hebrew, understanding the “sense” of the text without understanding a word.

I don’t believe Wieseltier is able to make sense of the why and the how with which Foer set out to remediate what he himself identifies as the sorry state of his own Jewish fluency. Ironically, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Foer makes much of the same claim as does Wieseltier about the state of contemporary Jewish culture among Foer’s generations of Jews. This is the difference between the destructive criticism versus constructive self- criticism. I am sure Wieseltier would not have liked the sentimental conclusion to Foer’s NYT opinion piece. Maybe I don’t either. But that’s not really Foer’s problem, is it?

With the new Haggadah, Foer and Englander sought to learn something. In contrast, I’m not sure what Wieseltier has actually offered. I wish he would have told us something interesting about two classical texts mentioned in the review –Abravanel’s commentary to the Haggadah, Zevach Pesach (Passover Sacrifice), and the Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem (The Mighty Deeds of God). Wieseltier is very erudite and very smart, and I’m sure he has lots of insightful things to say about these two texts. I would have liked to see a little something here other than invoking these storied names as a fetish-weapon. A scintillating critic, Wieseltier is a terrible teacher. I’m not sure I learned a single thing from the review except that Leon Wieseltier doesn’t like the New American Haggadah, American Judaism, and American Jewry. That’s it.

Who chose to illuminate Wieseltier’s critique of the New American Haggadah with “The Seder Table” from the Szyc Haggadah, a classic modern Haggadah from the 1930s by painter Arthur Szyc? Was it Wieseltier himself or the editors at The Jewish Review of Books? The scowling, patriarchal illustration captures in an unerring way what’s wrong with Wieseltier’s review. It’s also what I think is wrong with the general cultural conservatism over at the Jewish Review of Books, about which I have written in Zeek Magazine. With the garish color and backwards look to still-in-the ghetto-Jews, the invitation in The Jewish Review of Books by Wieseltier is not to a contemporary American Seder. In what kind of world is this the way American Jews are supposed to look at Seder?

Wieseltier is a brilliant critic and a fabulous mind, but I’m put off by the combination of learnedness and churlishness in this review of The New American Haggadah. When you add acid, the milk curdles.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Leon Wieseltier and the New American Haggadah

  1. A says:

    This is a repeat of our discussion, but anyway, here goes. Wieseltier’s larger point is that a good translation preserves the ambiguities of the original text. Englander irons out many of the ambiguities and thus makes the text a lot less interesting. For example: Englander’s hoshekh (darkness) becomes “a clotted darkness—too thick to pass.” His “ha-Makom” becomes “the One that is the World but Whom the World Cannot Contain.” I could go on, but this alone, in my mind, is a crime. It curbs discussion and makes the Haggadah seem banal. Wieseltier’s broader point is not at all trivial quibbling.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, A. I’ll admit I also don’t like what Englander did to ha-Makom. But I don’t think the translation curbs discussion. And I cannot agree that “this alone” is a “crime.” I also agree that “LW’s broader point is not at all trivial quibbling.” I just think that agenda is ungenerous and destructive.

      • A says:

        I agree with you on LW’s tone which I do think is very inappropriate. However, just one more point about the translation hampering the reader’s ability to fully engage with the text. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I see Englander’s “God-of-us” (rather than “our God”) as an intentional attempt to do away with the Jewish particularism of the text. I think that the reader would do better to wrestle with that problem rather than translate it out of existence. Anyway, Hag Sameach!

      • zjb says:

        Yeah, I also don’t like God-of-us. If anything, though, it makes the particularism even more particular and more posseive. God is not just “our God,” whom “we” might share with “others.” No, now God is the God of us, of us and not of you. Mostly, though, I don’t like God-of-us because I think it’s too cute. Since I was expecting much more of the same, I was surprised to find so much less of it. Chag sameach me’od.

  2. Still Here says:

    I see nothing wrong with Wieseltier’s approach. A couple of guys showed up and did some ridiculous shit to the haggadah, religiously and aesthetically offensive, and he whacked them into the wall. Their work didn’t warrant a more careful and respectful attack, it wasn’t that good. So what Wieseltier did seems entirely appropriate to me. I think you guys have made yourselves too polite.

  3. DF says:

    “The scowling, patriarchal illustration captures in an unerring way what’s wrong with Wieseltier’s review.”

    Actually, that comment captures what’s wrong with your review. Basically you dont like the JROB, and because Wiseltier’s piece appeared therein, he’s guilty by association.

    Scowling? What picture are you looking at? Are you mistaking the drooping moustache with – God Forbid – a frown? All I see is an ordinary picture of a man leading a seder. And on that note, what’s with the “Patriarchal” bit? I understand you left wingers hate men, but is it a crime to actually be one? Would you have prefered if the picture ignored reality and instead put a picture of a female leading a seder, oranges on the seder plate and all?

    I was led to this review by a link from the “on the contrary” website, and I thought I’d see some genuine criticism. Lord knows Wieseltier can be an insufferable know-it-all, having honed such skills in the king of all know-it-all magazines, the New Republic. But this review is devoid of substance. In essence it is one liberal attacking another for not being sufficiently liberal [by writing in an organ the former, rather strangely, perceives as somehow conservative.] Please, dayeinu.

    • zjb says:

      Hey listen, I’ll post just about any comment, no matter how critical a shot it takes at me. But in the future I’m going to request anyone who wants to comment to do the decent thing and post under his or her own name, not anonymously. Ok?

  4. DF says:

    ZJB –
    If I said my name was Darlene Frankel, or Doron Feder, or Robin Gross – would it make it any better?
    And why should it matter if something is anonymous or not? Some of the greatest works in Jewish literature were written anonymously. Likewise, a great many works in univeral literature have been written anonymously. Even benjamin Franklin got his start writing anonymously.
    The truth is the truth , no matter from whence it came. Responding to criticsim by calling someone “an anonymous commenter”, rather than rising to the merits of it, only highlights the absene of any real response. It is the most tired method meme on the Internet, and, obviously, convinces no one. That I am unknown to you and you to me, does not change the substance of my critique any more than the fact that you and Wiseltier are unknown to each other changes the substance of yours.

    • zjb says:

      yes, true, but lots of nasty snark and worse goes online under the cloak of anonymity. it’s my conviction that, sometimes, a little inhibition can go along way.

  5. DF says:

    It is true that a lot of snark and worse comes in because of anonymity (though my original comment was none of that, just strongly worded.) I agree with that. But if anonymity causes snarkiness, it also causes courage. People are finally free to say what they truly believe. This holds true of all sides of the political spectrum, in the Jewish world as well as in general society. So I’d go with what Mr. Justice Frankfurter said ( I think it was him) that the answer to bad speech
    is more speech, not less speech.

    [To conclude in the spirit of shalom and Proverbs 15:1, let me say I apologize to you if you felt personally hurt by my comment. My words – like always, and like anyone’s comments, I should hope – were intended to cause you to reconsider, but were not intended to wound.]

    • zjb says:

      Dear DF: Absolutly no need to apologize about anything. I’m still not sure about anonymous speech, but there’s nothing wrong with a little “wounding speech,” in my opinion. Best, –Zb

Leave a Reply