(Dribs & Drabs) Canon & Translation (Ashkenaz)


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) asses 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.

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
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6 Responses to (Dribs & Drabs) Canon & Translation (Ashkenaz)

  1. Susan Shapiro says:

    Hi Zak,
    I am not sure whether you are calling for a large translation project to be undertaken or whether you are judging in advance that those who are not “ultra-orthodox” will not be interested in these texts in any case. (I am also not sure why you are specifically calling Eastern European Jewry by the term “Ashkenaz” when, as you know, this term has its roots in specifically German speaking lands of Western Europe. Are you contrasting this geographical space to Sepharad and its cultural heritage which, you suggest, has been made accessible through translation?). Not to emphasize what may be already quite obvious, Vilna and its inhabitants were destroyed as were most of the other sites of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe, in the Holocaust. The religiously and intellectually trained survivors in these texts and traditions from these lands in the main stayed within Jewish Orthodox communities, choosing to continue these communities and traditions on different soil (mainly in Israel, and the USA) among those who still felt connected to those landscapes, cities, and—most important—ways of life that were nearly destroyed. Some of these thinkers, such as Eliezer Berkowitz who, although from Hungary was also trained in philosophy in Germany before the war, do provide a link through his way of learning and citations too these earlier traditions. Or, in another field, Aviva Zornberg, draws on many of these scholars in her Biblical hermeneutics, juxtaposing them to modern and contemporary writers, including literary, philosophical, and Freudian thinkers. What you see in these two very different cases—and there are a number of others one might cite as well—is a scholar who uses these sources primarily in Hebrew but who also speak to a wider English-speaking audience. While each of these thinkers might be categorized as “Orthodox,” they each speak to a much broader Jewish audience and, in the case of Zornberg, to a non-Jewish audience as well. Whom are we expecting to do the translation project you seem to be calling for and questioning the value of? Why not, for example, compare the Vilna Goan and Moses Mendelssohn on their attitudes toward the Enlightenment/Haskalah? This might be a more nuanced way of getting into the divide you seem to be drawing (earlier) between already translated Western European and yet-to-be translated Eastern European Jewish writers. Surely, you are not suggesting that Eastern European traditions and texts aren’t worthy of study unless first translated or that they have not been because they only speak to “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews? Are you not reading back into these traditions splits that only developed later? Perhaps I am missing your point altogether. Perhaps you wish to phrase you call more positively after all. Are you calling for an increased engagement with previously apparently neglected or under-studied traditions and texts? I am puzzled…..

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Susan. i like the term Ashkenaz as a way to refer to that larger world of non-assimilated, un-emancipated Eastern Europe, and i think it is very different than the cosmopolitanism of the sephardic world (or let’s call it the Greco-Islamic-German Jewish thought world) ///// I do in fact think there’s something maybe even uniquely stuck about this religious tradition, insular in its world-view and ethnocentric in its orientation. We see the ramifications in Israel today. Am I just reading back? I’m beginning to think maybe not. //// Your case point is interesting, comparing Mendelssohn and the Vilna Gaon. About this comparison, I made some critical comments in a blogpost about Stern’s book The Genius. But how do the likes of us go about making such a comparison. There’s broad access to Mendelssohn, and zero access to the Gra. If the specialists want us to consider people like the Gra, they need to serve us up a few dishes, no? //// In my capacity as a scholar interested in intellectual history, I would definitely like to see engagement with that part of the tradition. But as “philosophers,” will it be the case that the more people “like us” read it, the more we’ll bump into serious reservations about this kabbalistic thought world, some of which is very interesting, but some of which, well, I really don’t know? //// Another case in point. I’ve been familiar with the idea structure between A.I Kook, but am teaching it now so went to read through a new translation of Orot (yes, i’m lazy, i don’t have the time to read the original, but the translation has the Hebrew so i can check). I always thought the text was interesting, but getting into the guts of it gave me, at least, a lot of critical pause.

      • Susan Shapiro says:

        So who do you like? Pretty much every thinker one reads or encounters may give one critical pause. It’s a question not of finding “home” but of reading both critically and for the possibility of recovery. No text is, as it were, ready-made for intellectual, cultural, spiritual or political habitation. To bring in another thread from a recent blog post of yours, as soon as a feminist woman or man begins to read a text for gender (as you know), one is usually pushed to the margins and even outside of the text altogether. Learning how to read critically into the contours of the text is required in order to engage with it. One is not likely ever to find fully welcoming shelter there. This may apply as well to issues such as Zionism and theodicy, among others. This is not true only of Jewish philosophy and thought, but of any philosophy. So, I am still not sure why you are drawing lines of demarcation between what you are terming “Ashkenaz” and “Sepharad,” the later only offering usable works of thought? If your test case for negating “Ashkenaz” involves a suspicion of Kabbalah, this seems to need more specificity as Kabbalah certainly runs across both Ashkenaz and Sefarad. I know I am missing something here….What?

      • zjb says:

        I hear you on all counts. What I like in the literature as I’m coming to it of late is the emphasis on the imagination and imagining, and what i’ve called anthroposophy in an earlier post on Luzzatto, which to me reads a little like post-humanism. I kind of like the kabballstic light flows and emmanations, and the ways these get “garbed.” //// But reading the Kabbalistic-Hasidic literature presents special problems because the metaphysical claims are so pronounced. Does God fill the universe and to what effect? Also claims re: holiness., especially the inherent holiness of Israel, the inherent holiness of the Tzadik; and then there’s the theodicy problem, and what i think is profundly acosmic in the ultimate nihilation of the world (something that Buber understood in the early “Life of the Hasidism” in the _Legend of the Baal Shem_ and which he then forgot.

  2. Stephen Shimon Simons says:

    Do not forget Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer on Rav Kook’s Orot and Dov Ber of Mezritch’s Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov.

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