Volume 23 Number 84
                       Produced: Wed May  1 18:50:30 1996

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Talmud Translations
         [R. Shaya Karlinsky]


From: R. Shaya Karlinsky <msbillk@...>
Date: Wed, 24 Apr 1996 17:15:35 +0300 (WET)
Subject: Talmud Translations

     In the last few years, the Talmud has been translated into English
in a much more comprehensive way than the sixty year old Soncino Press
translation.  These works have demonstrated their great potential in
increasing the amount of time English-speaking Jews spend studying
Talmud.  The more accessible the Talmud is, the more will Jews study it.
After the terrible losses of so many Torah scholars over the last 60
years, coupled with the large number of "late starters" in their Torah
study, this increased involvement in Talmud study certainly is a high
priority for the Jewish people.

     However, after nearly twenty years of interviewing, testing, and
teaching many hundreds of baalei teshuva, as well as Yeshiva Day School
graduates, about learning Gemarah, I have some gnawing doubts about the
wide proliferation of these volumes among broad segments of the Torah

     Even some of the Gedolim who have supported these projects have
been less than enthusiastic about them, particularly in response to the
Talmud translations.  A careful reading (does anyone ever do that?!) of
the haskamot appearing in the Artscroll translation (the Steinsaltz
Talmud doesn't have haskamot included) reveals an occasional tone of
reservation. For example, HaRav Elyashiv requested that the following be
inserted in the volumes of the Artscroll Talmud. "Since we live in a
PARUTZ (undisciplined) generation of many different translations by
light-headed people who ..."  (What would his opinion have been had
"unacceptable" translations not already been distributed?)  While the
value of these works, if properly used, is inestimable, a critical
examination of the educational and cultural dangers that are inherent in
these translations is imperative if we want to be more educated and
cautious "consumers."1

     In the November 1991 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, there was an
article entitled "The Other Crisis in American Education."2 This article
should give pause to all Jewish educators and parents, since it points
to a serious deterioration in the scholastic ability of potentially high
achieving students caused by less reading and less understanding of what
they read.  The data for the article are gleaned from SAT scores and
interviews with college professors, and I am afraid that discussions
with Yeshiva High School Rebeeim and principals will lead to similar
conclusions about our own youngsters.  Among the observations, one finds
the following: "...Students are no longer trained in logical analysis,
and consequently have difficulty using evidence to reach a
conclusion... Students come to (college) having sat around for twelve
years expressing attitudes towards things rather than analyzing... They
have never learned to construct a rational argument to defend their
opinions."  One test showed broad inability to "provide evidence, reason
logically, and make a well developed point."  If these findings are less
applicable to Yeshiva high school students, one of the main reasons is
their training in Talmud study.  We must take care not to dilute the
power of that Talmud study if we expect to be insulated from these
educational trends.

     The late Swiss cognitive psychologist, Jean Piaget, made a statment
which reflects a powerful philosophy of education, while giving an
insight to the emphasis Chazal put on "amal HaTorah".  He wrote, "Each
time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered
for himself, that child is kept from inventing it, and consequently from
understanding it completely."3 Spoon-feeding information never creates
the same understanding or retention as does self-discovery.  This
principle is true for children and it is true for adults, in everything
that we learn.  And it is something that all good educators know and
proclaim - even when they don't implement it in their classrooms.  While
we receive our Torah knowledge through Divine revelation and accurate
transmission, this in no way excuses any individual from maximizing
personal effort in acquiring that Torah.  If we are to be worthy of the
claim that our own Torah study is the vehicle by which Hashem wants us
to participate in the Divine decision making process, we must actively
utilize every cognitive (as well as emotional) faculty available to us.
While many people would remain seperated from any relationship with the
Talmud, if not be for these translations, the clarity and high quality
with which they are done may ensure that the relationship that is
developed remains a superficial one.

     Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me'eliyahu, presents an important insight
in to the actual process of the giving of the Torah.4 The first luchos
were given unilaterally from G-d, with no activity on the part of Moshe
Rabbeinu or the Jewish people.  The challenge for Klal Yisrael was to
internalize this externally presented Torah, and acquire it for
themselves.  The Jewish people's failure to do so kept the Torah as an
external acquisition, and led to the worship of the Egel HaZahav,
necessitating a different type of Matan Torah.  "Psal L'cha" was the
prescription for the Luchos Shenios, with Moshe Rabbeinu, and ultimately
the Jewish people, taking a more active role in their receiving the
Torah.  These second Luchos were the ones which were maintained.

     Chazal teach us,5 on the verse "Adam ki yamut b'ohel,"6 that Torah
is acquired only by he who "kills" himself over it in the tents of
study.  There is a Midrash Tanchuma that develops this idea while
revealing to us Chazal's view on the nature of the Oral Law (Torah
SheBeal Peh) and the mechanisms of its acquisition: "...Torah SheBeal
Peh is not found by those who pursue material pleasures and worldly
glory, but rather by he who 'kills' himself over it.7 For it was only
through Torah SheBeal Peh that G-d made his covenant with the Jewish
people... [It] is very hard to learn and is accompanied by much
difficulty...And the Jewish people didn't accept the Torah until G-d
held the mountain over their heads (threatening to bury them if they
didn't accept it).  It wasn't over the Written Torah that he had to
threaten them, for on it they said 'Na'seh V'nishma' and it doesn't
require a lot of struggle to acquire and isn't that lengthy.  Rather it
was over the Oral Torah (that he needed to coerce them) since it demands
precision ...and is strong and difficult, and which is only learned by
one who truly loves G-d with all his heart and all his life-force and
all his possessions."8

     In his very long letter of approbation to the Artscroll Talmud, Rav
Aharon Schechter alludes to some of the problems inherent in translating
Gemara into English.

          "... [The] Talmud is distinguished from all other
     works that preceeded it...
          "The Mechilta9 teaches from Rabbi Akiva ... that
     there are four stages in the study of Torah. Studying
     it a) for the first time; b) until it is learned; c)
     reviewing; d) in order that it be known (understood).
     One can distinguish that the first three levels (in
     relation to the fourth level) are progressively
     different ways of studying the same material.  In each
     of these stages, the learner has grown, while the
     content of the Divrei Torah remains the same.  In the
     fourth level, however, that of the material 'being
     known', which Rashi explains as 'working to understand
     the reasons and explanation of the law,' new aspects of
     the Torah itself are being discovered and known.
          "The first three stages exist in the Written
     Torah, as well as in the Oral Torah, the Mishnah (from
     the language 'shoneh - repeat').  The facet of Torah
     called 'Gemarah,' exists exclusively in the fourth
     stage, where it becomes known (yod'im - understood).
     And as the Rambam writes: '...That one should
     understand and perceive the conclusions from the
     basics, ...HOW to extract practical laws from what he
     learned from oral tradition...This discipline is known
     as "Gemara".'10   The Rambam also distinguishes the
     Talmud from the Mishna in his introduction to the Yad
          "So the Talmud is different than any earlier
     work...  The demand for struggle and effort in
     illuminating the nuances of the various opinions...and
     clarification of those opinions is the main point of
     Gemara.  And this can't be translated.  Just as the
     self-generating force of a spring of water can't be
     captured in a bottle, for the limitation of the bottle
     itself places a limit on that which should be an
     ongoing flow (an underground spring), so too the
     process of the Gemara can't be translated, for it
     creates an inherent limitation."

     The need - which fosters the ability - to struggle with a text or a
step in the Talmudic process, proposing to yourself or your chavruta an
interpretation, then being forced to confront the possibility that it
means something else, maybe even the opposite; examining the issue or
argument from more than one perspective, and trying to decide what it
means; this is the heart of the Talmudic process.  The English
translations (or "interpretive elucidations") deprive us of the need to
undertake that struggle, thereby undermining the process.  It
spoon-feeds the reader (not necessarily a learner11) only one way the
text is to be understood.  Of course we promise that we are first going
to try and work it out for ourselves and only then look in the English.
But having the English so readily available (and so well done!!) almost
ensures that we stop the struggle to understand far sooner than we
should.  Are we striving in our learning to implement the Midrash
Tanchuma mentioned above?  Or are we simply utilizing another
convenience of the modern "fax" generation that wants everything

     There is no question that Talmud study is inherently difficult.  It
is one of the indications of the Talumud's eternity and Divinity that
the exact same text studied by a twelve year old youngster is analyzed
in detail by the greatest Torah scholars of the generation as well as of
each previous generation.  No intellectual discipline can make such a
claim.  This inherent difficulty is compounded by ones having a limited
amount of time available for Talmud study, by being a "late starter," or
by any number of other factors.

     The three major handicaps in Talmud study can be identified as 1)
the language barrier, 2) the inability to understand the mechanisms and
structures of the Talmud and how it works, and 3) difficulty in
following complex logical arguments.

     Too many people mistakenly think the language barrier is the main
handicap which keeps people from being able to learn Talmud on their
own.  If this were true, the English translations would solve the
problem.  But the earlier Soncino translation (as cumbersome as it is)
would have solved that problem long ago, with no need for the newer
versions.  Enough tools are also available to overcome the difficluties
in Talmudic structures and mechanisms, as well as the language barrier,
if a person is committed and motivated.12

     However, the "problems" allegedly being solved by the English
translations are very different ones, which are really inherent in the
study of Talmud.  It is the "problem" of having to work hard to
understand something which is complex, ambiguous, and occasionally
obscure.  If the learner's inability to do this is the "problem" the
English translations are "solving," these works may not be the solution.
They may be a further symptom of a much deeper problem and they may
actually exacerbate it.  To nurture in our community a deterioration of
the analytical and critical faculties, similar to what is happening in
Western culture all around us, would be a tragedy.  More proper,
intensive, struggling, even painful Talmud study has the ability to
insulate us from that deterioration.  This is what we need, and it is
still unclear whether the explosion in the quantity of Talmud studied
contains the quality to provide that insulation, or, chas v'chalila, the

     There is another facet to the deterioration of crtical and
analytical skills which has far-reaching side effects.  When the Torah
community is becoming more polarized every year, with everyone convinced
that his way is the only right way, with no justification for "the other
guy's" approach, with people either not caring enough about the truth of
an issue or not able to realize the complexity and multitude of
legitimate perspectives that exist on many issues, then the authentic
Talmudic process becomes even more crucial for the health of the Torah

     The Talmudic process facilitates both clear thinking and open
inquiry.  One who has clarity of his own position does not feel
threatened by other opinions.  One who has the ability to understand an
opposing view is in a much better position to coexist with it, even
while disagreeing with it.  It is superficial and simplistic responses
to complex issues which ensure sharp conflicts.

     It is important to note that when the Rabbis discuss conflict in
the study of Torah, they expect and encourage disagreement, almost to
the point of violence.13 Chazal make a drasha on the verse14 "As arrows
in the hand of a warrior, so are ones children," referring to the
relationship that exists between a Rebbe and his student.  In the
beginning they are enemies, fighting the battle of Torah in their
pursuit of truth.  But they conclude as friends, loving each other.
This is said specifically about Talmidei Chachamim, about true Torah
scholars.  I believe that it is their deep understanding of the process
by which Torah is studied, their keen analytical ability, their mastery
over the Talmudic process which enables them to wage the war of Torah in
the pursuit of truth, yet conclude that war with a deep love for their
opponent, without having won him over.  In fact, the process helps each
side sharpen their own views, through the need to confront alternative
arguments, refute them, and refine their own positions.  The opponents
have helped each other clarify their positions, in the pursuit of truth,
and this in fact engenders a deep love between them.

     While we have never had more people learning Talmud in North
America,15 the quality of that learning may be at the lowest level the
Jewish people has ever known.  The need for the English translations and
elucidations testifies to that.

     The intellectual struggle, the commitment necessary to unlock the
depths of understanding embedded in the Talmud and the open-mindedness
necessary to work through a Talmudic discussion are basic and intrinsic
Jewish values which are disappearing in the modern North American
culture.  Instant gratification and over-simplification represent the
culture of the generation, yet they undermine Gemara study.  Are the new
translations filling a demand created by this culture?

     I am sure no one is going to attach a warning notice to the new
translations, "Caution: Use of these volumes may inhibit true Torah
growth."  It is up to each individual to recognize that the true Jewish
values of amal haTorah, hard work and delayed gratification that we
nurture; the quality of education we provide our children in day schools
and Yeshivos; and the care with which these new Talmud tools are used;
these are the factors that will determine the place true Torah
scholarship will take in the coming Jewish generations, and will show
the ultimate value of these projects.  "How to study Torah" is itself an
area of our Judaism that deserves more attention and study than it
presently receives.

1 With the acceptance of these works in the Torah community at
large having passed a "critical mass" the inertia for their
continued widespread use is unstoppable.  "If everyone is using
them, they must be good."  This makes our examination all the
more important.
2 Singal, Daniel J., "The Other Crisis in American Education".
The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1991.
3 Jean Piaget.  Piaget's Theory. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.)
Charmichael's Manual of Child Psychology Vol. I.  New York:Wiley,
4 Michtav M'Eliyahu, Vol. I, pgs 222-223
5 Brachoth 43b
6 Bamidbar 19:14
7 We can better appreciate Chazal's use of these words in today's
generation where we find so many people "killing" themselves to
attain many of their personal goals.
8 Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Noach, paragraph 3.
9 Parshat Mishpatim
10 Chapter One, Laws of Talmud Torah, Halacha 11.
11 Even some advertisements proclaim: "More of the Talumd to
12 "Understanding the Talmud" by Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum, and
the "Practical Talmud Dictionary" by Rabbi Yitzchak Frank are two
outstanding examples.
13 Kiddushin 30b
14 Psalms 127:4
15 Let us not underestimate the Torah learning in Europe 75 or
100 years ago.


End of Volume 23 Issue 84