Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The New Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli

I was very excited to receive my copy of the new English Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. The Jewish world has been enriched by Rabbi Steinsaltz's prodigious contributions to Torah scholarship in Hebrew, English, Russian and French for decades now. The release of the Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli is another well-deserved feather in his cap.

Twenty years ago, young English-speaking students like myself had few options as far as translations of the Talmud were concerned. Most of us relied upon the Soncino Edition which, although scholarly and precise, still demanded a great deal from its readership.

The benefit of Soncino was the fact that it was complete (there was a Soncino volume for every Tractate) and that leafing through its austere English rendition of the text combined with its sparse footnotes was easier than the alternative - looking up every word in an even more foreboding dictionary and then trying to fit the words together into complete sentences and make sense out of them.

Sadly, the Soncino Edition has become so unpopular that it is now available online, for free, in its entirety. It was only in more recent years that I came to appreciate the positive in Soncino and to understand that the fact that it did not spoonfeed us the Gemara was a good thing.

Providing students with only a bare-bones translation and minimal footnotes didn't free them from the obligation to think and to struggle with the text as they should. It helped them but didn't fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (study of Torah) for them. Moreover, in adulthood I realized the scholarly depth of many of the prefaces and introductions included in the Soncino Edition volumes which I, as a youngster, had skipped over as a matter of course.

Then there was the Steinsaltz Talmud. Without a doubt, the Hebrew edition was fantastic, displaying the presence and structure of different sugyot/topics on a given page by inserting a space after each self-contained unit and numbering the subsections that emerged (a one-sided page usually extended to two pages as a result), providing a nicely vowelized text and a simple running commentary in Modern Hebrew, and including important biographical, historical and halakhic notes.

Despite the inevitable controversy that attends any new project, the Steinsaltz Talmud was rightly embraced as an outstanding resource by many Torah scholars. My Rosh Yeshiva from High School (later my chevruta and lifelong mentor) had a special affinity for his Steinsaltz "Shas" (though it was not complete in those days) and used it whenever possible.

I believe that this was, in part, because of my Rosh Yeshiva's love of the straightforward and elegant Modern Hebrew translation that is, first and foremost, the defining contribution of Rabbi Steinsaltz. (At some point, one volume of Jerusalem Talmud - Masekhet Peah - appeared in the Steinsaltz Hebrew Edition, and I still have a copy which is now out-of-print; apparently, that project was discontinued, much to my chagrin.)

When the Steinsaltz Talmud began appearing in English, matters were a bit more complicated. First, each volume contained only a single chapter of the tractate, which meant that, in some cases, you would have needed dozens of volumes to complete one tractate. They were beautifully bound hardcover books with thick and durable paper that was easy on the eyes.

Inside, the layout was not confusing but may have been too ambitious. It included two translations: A running, contextualized, coherent translation on one side of the page and a literal translation of the words on the other side. I assume that the latter was designed to help students in the process of learning Hebrew and Aramaic for themselves.

Several volumes of the English Steinsaltz Talmud appeared and seemed to be attracting buyers. (Here is a review from that time.) After all, the only competition was the old Soncino, and Steinsaltz offered a user-friendliness that far surpassed its predecessor. But then a development of epic proportions took place and shook the Jewish world to its very foundations...I refer, of course, to the advent of the now ubiquitous Artscroll Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud.

We students couldn't help but adore the Artscroll. Available, at first, on only a handful of Tractates, the Artscroll allowed you to sit back and read the Talmud like a book. Every word, sentence, step in the argument, inference or conclusion was spelled out so simply and clearly that any layperson could grasp it.

Artscroll was to Talmud what No Fear Shakespeare is to Hamlet - it was more than a translation, it transformed a formerly abstruse and intimidating work into a pleasant, attractive and popular bestseller. Never would the world of Talmud study be the same. Never again would the sense of awe at the inaccessibility of the Gemara or the impenetrable depth of its sugyot grip a student quite the way it once had.

And as the number of Tractates of Artscroll's Schottenstein Edition increased, so did participation in Daf Yomi shiurim across the globe. Now anyone - literally, anyone - could follow the flow of the Gemara on their own, without getting lost or falling behind. No need for additional commentaries, for debates in the Bet Midrash or to ask your rebbe - it was all there, if not in the body of the text, then in the breathtakingly copious and comprehensive footnotes. Moreover, the volumes were sleek, the style predictable and "standardized", the typeface crisp and the language clear and direct. Each volume contained several chapters if not an entire Tractate. Who could ask for anything more?

As a result of the ascendancy of the Artscroll, Steinsaltz's English edition faded into the background and eventually into oblivion. This was unfortunate. The Steinsaltz had much to offer that the Artscroll did not provide, particularly insofar as the historical, cultural, botanical, scientific and halakhic context of the Talmudic sugyot are concerned. Nevertheless, it fell by the wayside for four reasons:

1) One rabbi, no matter how gifted, simply could not compete with the formidable team of scholars employed by Artscroll and they overtook the market by storm, publishing tractate after tractate at a relatively rapid pace and becoming the "address" for those in need of a translation.

2) Because the Steinsaltz Editions were prohibitively expensive at the time, costing the same as an Artscroll Talmud but covering much less material per volume than the Artscroll did. There is also the ease of use factor - carrying around one book that includes all or half of a tractate is more practical than one book per chapter.

3) While the footnotes in the Artscroll are often criticized for being excessive, they provided more sources, references, etc., than Steinsaltz, making their treatment of the Talmud more comprehensive and more attractive to the student interested in further research (or in showing off, as the case may be).

4) Rabbi Steinsaltz received criticism and was branded as controversial in some segments of the Yeshiva world. By contrast, Artscroll was in full possession of its Charedi/Yeshivish bona fides and was therefore more readily embraced by right-wing of Orthodoxy, which is home to a significant majority of students of the Talmud today.

 I believe that Koren Publishers has done a tremendous service for the English-speaking public by presenting the valuable insights and perspectives of Rabbi Steinsaltz in a new and more accessible format that addresses many of these problems. Let me briefly review the Koren Edition of Masekhet Berakhot, starting with the positives:

1) The volume is extremely attractive. It is a well-bound hardcover book with thick, off-white paper, a reader-friendly typeface with just enough lines and boldface sections, and lovely illustrations/photographs (many in color).

2) All of Masekhet Berakhot is contained in one volume rather than the two volumes in Artscroll's Schottenstein Edition.

3) The layout is crisp and clear and the historical insights, background notes, etc., are nicely organized around the margins of the page.

4) An all-Hebrew version of the Tractate, with vowelized text and Rashi, Tosafot, etc., appears in the back of the volume.

5) The format of the translation is clear and elegant. Rather than intersperse Hebrew and English within the same paragraph, the Koren Edition has the Hebrew phrase appear to the left next to an English paragraph that translates and elucidates it. This makes it easier to move back and forth between the two languages without leaving the page.

6) Excellent introductions that provide background and context relevant to the tractate as well as the individual chapters. Helpful post-chapter summaries in the signature Steinsaltz form are also included.

I am proud to add the Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli to my library. But here are some negatives about the edition that I feel I should point out as well:

1) The layout of the page strikes the reader as a bit busy. Granted, making the type any larger and/or leaving wider spaces between sections would have made the volume unwieldy. But to the casual eye, there is a lot of material in the midsection of the page and it can be difficult to find your bearings as a result.

2) The notes are wonderful, but oftentimes lack references or sources. When quoting halakhic conclusions the citation is usually complete, but when mentioning alternative interpretations and/or background material the exact location of the source is usually omitted. This is a drawback of Rabbi Steinsaltz's classic Hebrew version as well. It could have been corrected in the new edition, but was not.

3) Including the vowelized text of the Talmud in the back of the volume for one who wishes to see the text "inside" without English notes or translation is a great idea, but the typeface used for the Hebrew in the appendix is not as crisp or attractive as some other options might have been.

4) One of the most wonderful aspects of the Steinsaltz Hebrew Edition is the way in which the multiple units/sugyot on a given Talmudic page are presented. As mentioned above, the Hebrew Edition utilizes paragraph spacing to subdivide the text into easily discernible sections, providing a bird's eye view of the structure of the discussion or discussions underway. In my opinion, this is one of the key benefits of the Steinsaltz Edition. This outstanding feature has not been replicated in the Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli, which is a shame.

One cannot deny the appeal and the value of this new addition to the collective library of the English-speaking Jewish community. The amount of thought and consideration invested not only in the content but in the aesthetic features of the volume is truly impressive.

While it is doubtful whether the Koren Edition will be able to supplant the dominant Artscroll/Schottenstein Edition in the Yeshiva world anytime soon, it will certainly be a viable option for many new students of the Talmud who seek a starting point for serious learning. Those already accustomed to the Artscroll/Schottenstein style will nonetheless find it to be a wonderful complementary resource and reference tool. Veteran students of the Talmud who don't require a translation will still be captivated by the wealth of information Rabbi Steinsaltz has culled from multiple disciplines to enhance and enrich appreciation of the text.

The Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli is a handsome volume that offers an accessible English translation, informative notes, and a focused commentary that achieves accuracy and clarity without sacrificing brevity. It is a work in which religious authenticity and faith have been perfectly balanced and blended with philological, archaeological, historical and biographical scholarship - a testament to both the spiritual vision and the brilliance of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on Gay Marriage

I recently heard an amusing anecdote about a young Orthodox man who, leaving his apartment building one morning, was approached to sign a petition in support of legalizing gay marriage. He politely declined. As he walked away, the petitioner shouted after him, "'re Jewish!"

There is no question that American Jews overwhelmingly support liberal causes, including the movement to legalize homosexual marriage. While Jews can justify their commitments to expanding government-sponsored social services, providing assistance to the underprivileged, reforming health care, and protecting the environment as consistent with the teachings of Judaism, it is much more difficult for them to reconcile support for gay marriage with our tradition. 

After all, our holiest text, the Torah, prohibits homosexual behavior and labels it a "toevah", often translated as "an abomination". This statement does not appear to allow much room for persuasive reinterpretation. Ironically, though, a sizable number of Jews, many of them observant, are outspoken in favor of what has come to be termed "marriage equality".

Speaking personally, I am inclined to believe that the United States government should refrain from any involvement in the definition of marriage, dealing only with civil unions and leaving the protection of the sanctity of the family to religious organizations. As one who opposes gay marriage for religious reasons, however, I often find myself on the defensive in a culture that now embraces homosexuality as mainstream.

Since my convictions are based upon the Torah, this means that I am frequently called upon to justify what is seen as the Torah's antiquated and biased attitude toward homosexuals. And being that the subject matter is especially timely right now, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a philosophical explanation of why the Torah forbids homosexual conduct. I hope that this will convince the reader that, contrary to popular belief, one can oppose homosexual marriage without being bigoted, ignorant, discriminatory or homophobic. 

Let us go what I think is the root of the controversy: the term “abomination”. In Hebrew, the word is “toevah”, and this term is applied not only to homosexuality but to an array of forbidden activities, including incest, the consumption of non-kosher food, adultery and idolatry. The Talmud was troubled by the meaning of “toevah” and translated it as a composite of two Hebrew words “toeh bah” – literally, “one who does this errs therein”.

In the eyes of the Talmud, then, contrary to the pronouncements of many a Bible-thumping evangelist, the term “toevah” does not imply a passionate distaste for the act described. The word is lacking any emotive content. No feelings of visceral disgust or homophobic fears are being evoked. “Toevah” simply means that one who performs the act in question is making a serious philosophical mistake. 

Now, we can see why this would be the case for an idolater who replaces the Almighty with a pathetic graven image. But why is the loving relationship between two men classified as “toevah”? What error can be seen or imputed here?
 The answer to this question is a critically important one. The purpose of the Torah is to ennoble human beings by teaching them to transcend their base instincts and strive for spiritual growth. Indulgence in food is limited by the laws of kashrut, which remind us that eating is not an end in itself; it is a means to keeping our bodies healthy so that we can involve ourselves in learning, the pursuit of justice and acts of kindness.

Similarly, sexual activity is not an end in itself; it is a means to the creation of family and the perpetuation of the Jewish people and the human race. One who attributes intrinsic significance to sexual behavior puts it on a pedestal it does not deserve and commits a grave error about the place it should occupy in our minds, hearts and lives.
By limiting the context within which sexual needs are satisfied – namely, the context of heterosexual marriage, which is the bedrock of the family - the Torah reminds us of the fact that the satisfaction of these needs is not an end unto itself. 

(The objection may be raised that some heterosexual couples have fertility problems and cannot have children. Moreover, it is clear that not all acts of intercourse eventuate in reproduction. The answer to these objections is as follows: As Maimonides explains, the Torah addresses the universal, general and typical with its legislation. The laws of the Torah, like the laws of nature, are categorical and abstract and are not specially crafted to fit each and every particular circumstance. In this case, in order to make its overarching point, the Torah limits sexual activity to a certain type of relationship - the relationship instrumental to procreation - notwithstanding the fact that there are some specific and/or exceptional cases in which the reason behind the general law might not seem to apply.)

The Torah teaches that the belief that sexual relations have some worth beyond that of perpetuating the species is a toevah, a fundamental mistake. And the Torah classifies homosexuality as one of many ways in which people make more out of sexuality than it is meant to be - severing it from its procreative function and celebrating it as a source of erotic pleasure or as an expression of romantic love in its own right. 

Put simply, one who raises the means of human sexuality to the level of an end is committing an error of Biblical proportions.

 In summary, I remain opposed to the homosexual lifestyle on philosophical but not personal grounds. I do not feel the slightest distaste, disgust or disdain for homosexuals or for the desires they have. I see them as created in the image of God and entitled to the same rights and respect as their fellow men and women. I also recognize and appreciate the fact that, for the most part, their inclinations and preferences are biologically determined and not a matter of free choice. 

Nevertheless, I still maintain that by transcending these desires, by insisting that the significance of the sexual drive in our lives be understood properly and that its value not be overestimated or exaggerated, they achieve and represent the highest level of holiness to which human beings can aspire.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

I have been invited by the Washington Jewish Week to write a regular blog on their website. Posts on the new blog, which the editors have named (for now) Maroof's Musings, will probably be of a lighter, more popularly accessible nature than the material you might find here. But I still invite you to check it out! My first two posts:

The Meaning of Lag BaOmer

Hillula - The Other Festival of Lights

In the future, I may repost the material from that blog here, but in the meantime please visit it at its current location!