Volume 23 Number 87
                       Produced: Mon May  6 23:24:13 1996

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Talmud Translations
         [Jonathan Katz]
Talmud Translations (Daf Yomi & Yeshiva Study)
         [Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer]


From: <frisch1@...> (Jonathan Katz)
Date: Thu, 2 May 96 14:28:48 EDT
Subject: Talmud Translations

I strongly disagree with the conclusion reached by R. Shaya Karlinsky in
his recent post regarding translations of the Talmud into English. While
I do agree with many of his points, I do not think they merit such
condemnation of English translations.

English translations of the Talmud, as well as other sifrei kodesh [holy
books], have brought Torah to people who would have been unable or
unwilling to learn otherwise. This is meritorious in itself, and reason
enough for work on such translations to continue.

R. Shaya Karlinsky, however, is worried about those who _have_ the
ability to learn, or could acquire such ability, but choose to "take the
easy way out" by learning from an English translation.

I do not think that English translations provide an "easy way
out". True, they remove the language barrier, and thus make learning
easier, but is the true meaning of Torah to be found only when reading
it in a foreign language (excluding the Tanach, where it is desirable to
read it in the original Hebrew)?  No, of course not. The value of Torah
lies in the ideas.  But, as R. Shaya Karlinsky points out, there is
value to be found in the struggle to learn iteself. Fair enough. But
this struggle should arise from understanding and internalizing the
text, not from reading it in a language you don't understand. If that is
the case, should native Hebrew speakers be forced to read an English
version?! Should Talmud scholars be forced to read a Japanese

I do not underestimate R. Shaya Karlinsky's point. I don't think he
really minds English translations per se; instead, he resents the fact
that today's English translations "spoon food' the answers to the
learner. I insist that this is not the case. Regardless of how
straightforward the presentation of the Talmud's arguments are, the fact
remains that they are still difficult to understand and will require
effort and logical analysis.  A textbook in Quantum Mechanics
(L'havdil), no matter how well written, still requires effort to master.

Besides, what is the difference, practically speaking, between reading
from the Artscroll Talmud and having a Rabbi from Artscroll come to your
house and teach you? In both cases, you will likely be learning in
English. In both cases, there will be someone (or -thing) there to give
you the answer when you can't come to it yourself. In both cases, you
will likely only be presented with a selection of possible
interpretations of the Talmud. In fact, this is what makes learning from
a Rabbi (or book) so valuable compared to learning on one's own, in a
vaccuum of ideas.

R. Shaya Karlinsky's next complaint is that the English translations
only present one possible interpretation of the text. First of all, this
is simply not true. Both Artsroll and Steinzaltz present multiple
readings (usually literal, Rashi, and Tos'fot) of the text on various
occasions, when warranted, and they indicate when the text is
ambiguous. Furthermore, as I pointed out above, a Rabbi teaching the
Talmud will do the same thing - present explanations of the text which
are limited by either his knowledge or the ability of the learners. When
I learned Talmud in school, we used only Rashi and Tos'fot. (We
certainly weren't encouraged to come up with our own interpretations.) A
serious student must realize that if they want to learn Talmud in-depth,
they must do their own research to seek out other opinions and then read
the text and come up with their own opinions.

The whole debate is very analogous to a debate over certain classics,
e.g.  the Iliad (again, L'havdil). Does a student lose anything by
reading it in English instead of the original Greek? Yes. Is it
appropriate to teach a high-school student to read it in greek? No. Is
it expected that a classics Ph.D. student will have to read it in Greek?

In the end, R. Shaya Karlinsky makes a valid point. But, his blanket
condemnation of English translations is too strong. It is true that, to
acquire a deep understanding of the Talmud, one must study it on one's
own, in the original language, and come to one's own understanding of
the text.  I don't disagree that such an understanding can never arise
from an English text. However, for the beginning and intermediate
student, for "first time learning and second time reviewing" of the
material, the English texts are an invaluable resource, and it is a
blessing for our time that we have them so readily available and that so
many people are using them.

Jonathan Katz
410 Memorial Drive, 233F
Cambridge, MA 02139

From: <sbechhof@...> (Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer)
Date: Thu, 2 May 1996 19:52:18 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Re: Talmud Translations (Daf Yomi & Yeshiva Study)

                             Talmud Translations                            

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky recently discussed the potential pitfalls of
recent translations of the Talmud, including the Artscroll and
Steinzaltz works.

In explaining his reservations, he cited the November 1991 issue of The
Atlantic Monthly, which stated:

         "...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."

He then quoted Piaget:

         "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."

And then applied these perspectives to this topic:

         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 separated 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.

[Several paragraphs deleted]

         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 learner) 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 instantly?

         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 opposite.

[Several paragraphs deleted]

As much as I respect Rabbi Karlinsky's opinions, I must disagree with
him on this issue.

I believe, that in giving a daily Daf Yomi shiur at 6:30 a.m., I am on
the front lines of Torah teaching to adults. As the several members of
our shiur who are MJ subscribers can attest, the intellectual level of
the class participants is quite high.  All are well educated, many with
advanced degrees, some with many years of intensive Yeshiva education,
even Musmachim. They are highly committed, and very involved.

Yet, nevertheless, a blatt of Gemara in an hour or less is a lot to
comprehend and absorb, a major challenge, even for those with the most
sharp and least rusty skills. It also requires a sustained period of
intense concentration and attention - to the text and to the teacher.

In the case of difficult topics and passages - and what would a blatt
Gemara be without some? - there is not time in such a class to struggle
with the text, advance one's own interpretation, and engage in the
unique give-and-take that is the hallmark of the Talmudic method.

If one misses a blatt, and does not have the luxury of a private tutor
or willing chevrusa with several hours to spare, the blatt may well be

All these problems inherent in the Daf Yomi format are greatly
alleviated by the Artscroll (as people in the shiur don't use the
Steinzaltz, primarily due to its sparse coverage, I don't know much
about it. I assume its benefit would be similar):

A participant whose skills are limited, who, for instance, cannot access
Rashi, certainly not Tosafos, and who does not have any available time
to see a Rishon or Acharon, can, in "real time," refer to the Commentary
in the Artscroll to flesh out a point or passage that the teacher has
not sufficiently or properly clarified.

If one's attention slacks off for a minute or two (whose doesn't?), one
can readily and speedily fill in the gap by referring to the

Most importantly, in my opinion, the playing field between teacher and
participant is leveled. The members of the shiur are enabled to play
"Stump the Maggid Shiur," a favorite Talmudic game that leads to a far
greater understanding of the text and concept in question.

And, of course, if you miss a blatt, it is not that hard to make it up.

All these advantages are very easy to achieve - and to perceive - in the
study of Mesechtos that already have Artscroll translations.  While it
is, obviously, the job of the teacher to try and overcome the deficits
of the lack of those advantages in Mesechtos that do not have Artscroll
translations, you are playing catch-up, and it is hard - sometimes very

Now, you might quibble with Rabbi Meir Shapiro's promotion of the Daf
Yomi way back when, but, if you accept that all in all it was a pretty
good idea, that led to enhanced Torah study and knowledge, etc., etc.,
then it seems to me that those purposes are greatly enhanced by the
Artscroll.  (For many reasons, the Soncino does not come close to the
Artscroll in all these respects).

I have a hunch that Rabbi Karlinsky would agree to my assessment of the
utility, and even advisability, of employing the Artscroll in Daf Yomi
settings. I think he is more concerned with the use of Artscroll by:

1.   Yeshiva students.
2.   Advanced Ba'alei Battim studying b'chevrusa.

In these settings, Rabbi Karlinsky might argue, the goals are not
limited to increasing the amount of Torah studied, knowledge gained, and
the enjoyment thereof (an essential tool in Torah Lishma), but rather
the breadth and depth of analysis and scholarship as well.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a major problem out there. Here too
I see myself on the front lines, as I have been connected with major and
minor Yeshivos of all types for almost my entire life.  From my
perspective, however, it is not the Artscrolls that are doing
scholarship of this sort in. This, despite the fact that not every
volume in the Artscroll series should be held up as a model of
scholarship and erudition. Rather, it is the general malaise in original
research - complete with abstract thought, analysis, and rigorous
critique - in Yeshivos of all types today that is at fault. Original
research takes many forms: A profound understanding of the precision of
wording in a Rashi or Rambam; a resolution to a contradiction between
the Rambam's or other Rishonim's rulings or explanations in two similar
areas; an abstract understanding of issues in a dispute among Rishonim
or Acharonim; a novel approach to a cryptic Talmudic text; the
systematic arrangement and categorization of opinions and approaches,
etc., etc., in a word: *CHIDDUSH*. The overwhelming amount of original
research of these types takes place in areas where there is no
Artscroll, let alone a Soncino! Certainly, the mental processes and
educational direction that the Rabbeim and peer environment must
inculcate in order to stimulate, encourage and facilitate such original
research are not relevant to the issue of whether an Artscroll is used
to understand a difficult passage.

There is one area in which I agree with Rabbi Karlinsky that Artscrolls
and the like have a deleterious effect. That is in the development of
textual skills. While I agree, I disagree - albeit to a very small
extent - as well.  Many yeshivos are so interested in giving their
students a "geshmak" in learning that they neglect skills regardless. I
am reminded of the time over a decade ago when I was learning in the Mir
in Yerushalayim in the proximity of two boys from one of this country's
greatest Yeshivos who one day were debating the "lomdus" of a piece in
the "Birkas Shmuel" (a very arcane work of Talmudic explication) and the
next day were stumped by the meaning of the word "cheres" (pottery)!

In this respect, there is also a sizable gray area.  Many of us are
disheartened when we see that even Rabbeim make extensive use of the
"Mei Menuchos" (a work that "spoon feeds" Tosafos).  Quite a few people
look mildly askance at the "Nachalas Moshe" (a more traditional work
that often covers the same ground). Yet these works have glowing
haskamos. Where do you draw the line?

In conclusion, while I agree completely with Rabbi Karlinsky that the
problems of superficiality and paucity of true thought are real, I
question his analysis of the roots of these problems, and find merits in
the modern translations that manifest themselves in other areas.

Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer


End of Volume 23 Issue 87