(Art & Artifice of Religion) Lishna de-Rabbanan (Aharon Lichtenstein)

black pepper


Yitz Landes posted here at Twitter this translation of a bit from Aharon Lichtenstein touching upon [1] art, artifice, and artificiality of the type of literary style in (Jewish) religion intentionally removed from lived social contexts and cultural surroundings, and [2] Lichtenstein’s decision to abandon that style for a modern Hebrew idiom. I’m posting the translation here with his kind permission. The question about modern religion and modern religious writing is whether or not it can maintain some of that removed and alien aura vis-a-vis larger common worlds, or whether it even wants to maintain that stance. Obvious is what gets lost in the translation.

From the Introduction to Shiurei haRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Dina de-Garmi (2000), 7-9

Translated by Yitz Landes, April 2020/Rosh Hodesh Iyar, 5780

[…] In the yeshiva world, today—and to a certain extent, in the entirety of the Torah world—it is accepted that one is to write and publish hiddushei Torah in a dialect known as “Lishna de-Rabbanan” (Rabbinic Hebrew). This dialect does not approximate any spoken language in a contemporary Beit Midrash, neither in the Land of Israel nor in the Diaspora. But it is grounded in an ancient literary tradition that, over the course of its various incarnations, was mostly separated from its lived social and cultural surroundings, and it constituted and celebrated a holy island (or at times, peninsula) of language in the torrents of the secular sea of speech. The character of this tradition has two sides to it. On the one hand, it is significantly artificial, even intentionally so, and one can sense in it as a result, to a certain extent, something of a dry tone. On the other hand, its purpose and significance dignify it with an elevated style—if we like, one that is even celebratory. This aspect is seen, first and foremost, in the peppering of Hebrew and Aramaic that defines its very character, and it is also present due to a number of central characteristics: a specific lexicon; an elevated, even colorful, style; run-on sentences and long paragraphs; the inclusion of a personal side in the manner in which the author directly addresses the reader; the emphasis placed on the struggling with a specific topic and its development alongside the ascertaining of conclusions. All of these combined to create a vibrant and unique style, one that provides significant room for the personal involvement of the author rooted, most importantly, in the ancient lineage of a distinct genre.

The present book, like its two predecessors, is mostly written in a different style. It was written by participants in the shiurim in a language that is rather close to that in which the material was first presented—the lingua franca of Israeli culture: Modern Hebrew. The advantage of this language is that it is connected to the lived environment of the listeners/readers—they are exposed to it in their near and distant surroundings, they use it to manage their various affairs, talking in it and dreaming in it, using it study in Havruta and to learn, connecting or arguing with their friends or opponents. As such, it is peppered with less Aramaic, but it certainly does incorporate a significant number of phrases borrowed from Modern foreign languages, phrases that found their place—to the disdain of some, but to the liking of others—in the language of Israeli culture, and that dilute the element of the Holy Tongue but frequently allow for greater precision.

At the same time, this language is influenced in no small part by the prevalent character of modern exposition. Anyone who looks at the shift from the Renaissance style to the Modern one[1] immediately notices the extent to which the new language, in contrast to that which came before it, usually accomplishes a natural feel in the place of an elevated one, spiking a stake but losing height. It is more buoyant but less vivacious, livelier but paler, glorifying carefulness but losing color and fervor. And in the plane of pure lecturing, it tends to push aside the figure of the lecturer-expositer to the margins and to focus instead on the material that is being presented—at times, even displaying a distance between the writer and the writing.

And thus, if we are to return to our topic here, to no small degree, even in the case of our “Lishna de-Rabbanan,” it, too—relative to the coldness displayed in the modern Torah literature (a phrase that itself sounds odd to the veteran ear!)—watches over a coal that at times becomes a flame; it is so disconnected, on the one hand, but so rooted, on the other.

I myself was raised on the lap of “Lishna de-Rabbanan,” and I was even educated to protect it. I remember how my Teacher and Rabbi, Rabbi Yitchak Hutner zt”l, who was extremely attuned to issues of style, told me about an elementary school teacher in Lublin who was fired by the “Hozeh” [The Seer of Lublin] because he stopped teaching his youngsters “When I was returning from Paddan” [Gen. 48:7] in the traditional tune. With that, “amongst my Nation do I live” [cf. 2Kings 4:13]. I am aware of certain developments that perhaps can be slowed down, but that maybe also cannot really be prevented, and it may be even better if they are not stopped at all. In the world of Torah—the academic world, where much of the existential distance and the lack of commitment aired by many of its writers and writings are certainly not acceptable to me, I will not address here—a certain amount of change began with Rav S.Y. Zevin, zt”l, around the time of the beginning of the establishment of the country, both in his books and by the direction he set in the Talmudic Encyclopedia. Both of them were geared towards the general public (The Festivals in the Halakha is a collection of essays that were first published in newspapers, and the first volume of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, whose writing and editing he personally oversaw, included short articles for “ba’alei batim”), and that certainly impacted their character. But whatever the origins, it is certain that the phenomenon expanded from then on, even taking on additional velocity in recent years with the outpouring of monographs that seek to present to the public a specific field of “Halakha.” And to bring an example that is closer to home, whoever reads the hiddushei Torah that my Teacher and father-in-law The Rav zt”l published at the beginning of his career will notice the difference in style between them and the volumes of Shiurim li-Zekher Aba Mari z”l, despite the fact that the basic dialect, and he was careful about this, was “Lishna de-Rabbanan.” But this should not be surprising. Language is a developing phenomenon, one that is given to societal dynamics, and even one who strives to continue a specific traditional style should not support stagnation. Are we to aspire to the level of conservativeness of some 16th century European humanists who only permitted the use of verbs that appear in the writings of Cicero, and even those, only in the conjugations used by the greatest of the Roman rhetoricians?

And yes, as far as I am concerned, I usually deliver hiddushei Torah—in writing, if not in shiurim—that are geared towards Bnei Torah (the character of the intended audience and the communication with it is, of course, critical) in the traditional language. But with that, I am aware that certain locutions and phrases, drawn from the modern experience, are mixed into my way of speaking, presumably ones that are not pleasant to all. But, as mentioned, the basis and the backbone is nevertheless the ancient dialect. I respect a number of its elements—the spiciness, the juiciness, the embeddedness, the elevated nature—and above all, I strive for continuity and identification with our Rabbis from whose lips we live and from whose waters we drink and whose Torah we learn.

Nonetheless, when several students most generously volunteered to publish a number of my shiurim, I did not see it fit to force them to write in an imperfect idiom, one in which they would not feel comfortable and in which they do not swim comfortably. Yes, the attempt at writing in the best of a traditional dialect entails a cost, but it also draws a return—in sharpness, clarity, precision. But more importantly, beyond the issue of the very appropriateness of asking so much from those who volunteered, there is a tremendous advantage to writing in a language that one knows intimately well.

While we have the tradition (m. Eduyot 1:3) that “One must speak in the language of their Rabbi,” at the same time, it is incumbent upon us to strive that the living soul—what Onqelos refers to as the “Ruah mi-Malilah” [the speaking spirit] in the writer—will reach its fullest expression. For we must be conscious of the principle established by the Rabbis: “What is meant by ‘when He finished speaking’ (Ex. 16:31)? Rabbi Shimon ben Laqish said: Whoever shares words of Torah that are not pleasant for their listeners like a bride is for her husband, it is preferable that he not say them” (Shmot Rabbah 41:6). And in order for them to be pleasant for their listeners they must be pleasant also for those pronouncing them […]

[1] Much has been written on  the roots and reasons for this shift. The connection with the rise of the importance of science, the neo-classical movement in literature and art, and the general culture of enlightenment, is quite clear; and this is not the place for muddled words in this regard. It should be mentioned that at times the shift was rather gradual and that it was occasionally quite sudden. In 17th century England, for example, less than fifty years separate The Anatomy of Melancholy of Burton, Religio Medici of Browne, or the essay Areopagitica of Milton, all of them written in a distinct “Lishna de-Rabbanan,” and the essays of Dryden or the descriptions of Burnet.

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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1 Response to (Art & Artifice of Religion) Lishna de-Rabbanan (Aharon Lichtenstein)

  1. droytenberg says:

    Very interesting Zachary Braiterman! Thanks for sharing.

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