Sunday, March 05, 2006

Of Hebrew and American Orthodoxy: Farewell to OOSJ

I was sorry to see that Out of Step Jew has decided to call it a day. His posts have been consistently interesting (and provocative). His voice will be missed here on the Israeli side of the MO Blogosphere.

Appropriately, his last post is both very telling and very important. Reacting to a renewed encounter with American Orthodoxy, he writes:
For all its vibrancy (and there is no denying that it is a vibrant community) the one thing that caught my eye more than any other in the three Jewish communities in which I was a guest (two in the NY area, one in the DC area) was the preponderance of Jewish books translated into English. American-Jewry is becoming the first Jewish community in history to learn its Judaism in a language other than Hebrew or Aramaic (few true works of Torah were written in Yiddish). If there are things that are lost in translation – then what will be lost to American Jewry due to its Hebrew illiteracy?
I agree that North American Orthodoxy is vibrant, and fabulously successful materially. (OTOH, OOSJ’s identification of Orthodoxy with the Jewish Community, generally, is highly questionable. Or perhaps it isn’t. At the rate that the rest of American Jewry is committing national suicide, the two may well become co-terminous in my lifetime.) I, too, am deeply distressed at the fundamental Hebrew illiteracy of Diaspora Jews (this includes, tragically, far too many Orthodox rabbis and teachers).

Contrary, however, to OOSJ’s observation, this is not the first time that this has happened. Alexandrian Jewry, in the period of the Second Temple and later, produced a highly sophisticated, culturally rich, religious Jewish community. It, too, was illiterate in Hebrew. Even its proudest son, the philosopher Philo, was unable to read the Torah in the original. (He read it in, Artscroll, er… Greek). There is, however, no question as to the fate of Alexandrian Jewry and its contribution to Torah. It disappeared and it made no contribution to Torah. (Philo’s works were preserved by the Church, but that’s another discussion.)

There is no reason to think that unless American Orthodoxy makes the effort to master לשון קודש, that its fate will be any different.

9 comments:

Jewish Exile said...

Though I agree with the underlying sentiment, are we forgetting all of the Rambam's and Saadia Gaon's works (and many more) written in Arabic??

Ben Bayit said...

It seems to me that both this post and the previous one ignore the Haredi community. I find it difficult to believe that the Haredi community can be considered Liebowitzian "religious fascists", by virtue of the fact that they see no religious significance in the State of Israel. If anything it is the "Zionist" American Modern Orthodox Left that demands blind affinity to the actions of the government of Israel (a la the recent RCA proclamation on Amona) that would best meet thos definition - despite pretensions to seeing some religious significance to the State.

Even though Artscroll is clearly geared to FFB Haredi Jews in the US as well as BT's, I don't believe we can conclude that the Haredi community in the USA will disappear or will not make a contribution to Torah.

One thing that we can definitely take from Liebowitz though is to start questioning militarism. A religious Yeshiva graduate general who can write a weekly parshat shavua sheet with the intention of publishing it after his retirement, while at the same time order his troops to smash the heads of defenseless Jews at the behest of the government in the "service of the State" is nothing less than a failure of Chinuch. We have to re-think what we want out of our children and perhaps be more selective for whom we encourage military service instead of educating to a "collective" military ethos.

Nachum said...

Ben Bayit, don't fool yourself- much of the "Haredi" community in America depends on English translations too.

Prof. Woolf, taking your point, but: There are many in America who don't rely on translations. I'm sure if OOSJ visited an ordinary family in Babylonia, ca. 500, or Spain, ca. 1200, or Tzfat, ca. 1550, or Vilna, ca. 1900, he'd find people who couldn't learn (and, perhaps, couldn't speak or read Hebrew). But that doesn't mean there weren't gedolim with lasting contributions there.

Anonymous said...

myobiter, these posts strike me as typical israeli bellyaching and supremacy.

diaspora judaisms will ultimately fail.

'the situation' is terrible to behold, and hopeless.

i dont believe either to be true.
lets do!!!

Dov said...

Why is Aramaic different than English? Sure, there are other factors which differentiate between Babylonia in Talmudic times and contemporary America - but clearly Jewish learning in Babylonia took place in a language other than Hebrew.

Out of Step in Kfar Saba said...

Thanks for the kind comments.
Regarding Hebrew knowledge: The point regarding Alexandran Jewry is an interesting one. Regarding Aramaic, I will let Prof. Wolff handle that.
Regarding Arabic - just look at which books they wrote in Hebrew and which in Arabic.
As for 'typical Israeli bellyaching..." well, maybe to a certain extent. But, after the generation of European great gedolim who amongst the MO or Haredi world (or Conservative for that matter) has replaced them? In Israel we have replacements for our Europeans.
Most important, the main point of my question which was not fleshed out (on purpose) was what would be 'lost in translation'? How will Judaism change because of Hebrew illiteracy amongst even the learned classes (as Prof. Wolf has pointed out)?

Anonymous said...

Regarding Arabic - just look at which books they wrote in Hebrew and which in Arabic.

Yes, let's. Rambam: Peirush hamishnayot, moreh nevuchim, sefer hamitzvot, iggerot. R. Saadya: Emunot ve'deot. Are these not lasting works?? Works in English that people feel are worth saving le'dorot will be translated into hebrew if necessary, as is happening with R. Soloveitchik's works.

Ben Bayit said...

I'm no linguist, but it seems to me that the cultures that produced works in other Semitic languages had some higher degree of Hebrew literacy than those that fucntioned in languages that were unrelated to Hebrew. As an example - other than Meam Loez, what other major Ladino work was translated into Hebrew and passed down. What Judeo-French (Rashi, etc.) or Judeo-German (other than literary works, or tefillot) were translated and passed down?

Had "Mr. Shoshani" not sat down and learnt sugyas with Levinas, I seriously doubt he would have written what he did on the Talmud - or even obtained the functional literacy he obtained in order to develop his thoughts on the Talmud. It certainly wouldn't have come from the French milieu he operated in.

My experience at YU nearly two decades ago was that even children of Rabbis who went to Ivrit B'Ivrit schools were functionally illiterate in Hebrew. Some of these classmates are today Rabbis, and probably couldn't even make it through the Shabbat section of Makor Rishon without a dictionary constantly open - if they could even obtain some elementary comprehension at all.

Anonymous said...

"Ben Bayit, don't fool yourself- much of the "Haredi" community in America depends on English translations too."

I live in the Haredi community and there can't be more than isolated individuals who depend on Artscroll translations.