Scholars in the field call upon Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy and Thought to pay attention to the thought world of Eastern European Jews, what I have been calling Ashkenaz, and they complain about the ignorance of their colleagues who specialize in German and American philosophical material. There is a strong cadre of scholars to whom one can turn, going back, of course, to Buber and Scholem, and including Benny Brown, Rachel Elior, Immanuel Etkes, Ken Frieden, Arthur Green, Moshe Idel, Shaul Magid, Yehuda Mirsky, Alan Nadler, Ada Rapaport-Albert, Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, Nancy Sinkoff, Eliyahu Stern, and Elliot Wolfson. But this is a closed scholarly community; non-specialists, still unable to access major parts of the primary corpus and assess or use the material on their own, are almost utterly reliant on the secondary literature produced by these scholars.
Compare in contrast, the medieval Spanish tradition in philosophy. For source material, the canon in modern Jewish philosophy and thought is anchored primarily by Saadya, Halevy, Maimonides, Bachya, Gersonides. The function of that canon as an object of scholarly attention (historical and philosophical) has owed itself to critical editions and translations that reflect the commitment of German and American Jews to this body of work. Undoubtedly, German and American Jews saw in this canon an anticipation of their own cultural modernity, their commitment to reason, to science and cosmopolitan culture, and to Judaism. And then, of course, the German Jewish philosophical canon (and also Yiddish literature) has entered into English language world, starting already in the 1950s.
For reasons that I do not fully understand, there has been no such scholarly commitment to translating the foundational work in the East European Jewish tradition. (I cannot speak to modern critical editions in Hebrew produced in Israel.). Exceptions to the rule are Mordecai Kaplan’s translation of Luzzatto’s Path of the Upright (Mesilat Yesharim), Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of Luzzatto’s Way of God (Derekh Ha’Shem), Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz’s translation In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivkhei ha’Besht), Miles Krassen’s translation Generations of Adam (the introduction to the Sheni Lukhot Ha’Brit. There are more or less reliable translations of Hasidic and other nineteenth century material written by insiders to that community.
But there are no complete translations of the Shnei Luchot Ha’Brit by Isaiah Horowitz, of anything by the Maharal, the Vilna Gaon, and many important Hasidic texts (the Toldot Yaakov Yosef by Jacob Josef of Polonne, the compiled teachings Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezritch in Maggid D’varav L’yaakov). There is no translation or complete translation of Kedushat Levi, or the Sefat Emet, or Noam Elimelech, or Tzemach Tzedek. I am unaware of any major works translated by Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, the Chefetz Chayyim, or anything from Brisk. Works of anti-Hasidic by East European maskilic writers like Menachem Mendel Lefin and Joseph Perl have not been worked into larger discussions.
How then do non-specialists (who might come to the material with different sets of analytic tools) assess the original claims from and scholarly claims about the thought world of Ashkenaz? Where’s the canon? Who controls it? Right now, someone with specialist knowledge can cite a text or group of texts but with no accessible body of primary sources to back it up. Citation of texts are made out of context. There are no critical editions and translations so that a large group of others, insiders and outsiders, can look on and assess the interpretive moves made by scholars and the philosophical coherence or incoherence of the primary material–as was done with Sepharad. Until that point, it is hard to see how the traditional thought world of Ashkenaz enters into larger conversations open to non-specialists, either insider or outside the academy. And it is not clear why it should enter larger conversations in more than dribs and drabs; and what it has to offer a contemporary public of readers outside ultra-orthodox circles, those who study them, and those who seek to draw from the energy of that legacy.