Friday, July 29, 2005

How Jacob Neusner misrepresents the Talmud

There's been some talk about Jacob Neusner, he of the 900 published books, in one of the comments in my blog. Without getting into the issue of whether grad students write some or many of his many books and papers or whether he is "nice" or whether he is "respected" (he is) or if his scholarship is lacking in some areas or whether he is a good translator or not--actually I do want to talk about his translating skill.

I do not have with me the exact quotes, but in a book of his called "How Adin Steinsaltz Misrepresents the Talmud"*, Dr. Neusner in his translation of a Gemara has an 'amora say "shit".

Now I am willing to believe that Neusner's intention is literary, to show the flavor of colloquial speech. There is nothing intrinsically objectional to a translation that has 'amoraim speaking like people and not a stiffly worded book in a disjointed King's English.

But sorry, I think that putting profane words in the mouths of people who were not merely "lawyers", as early rabbis are sometimes called, but deeply religious and holy people, people concerned about nivul peh. I am not suggesting that actual, historical 'amoraim would not have spoken in colloquial, even slangy Aramaic. I'm sure Dr. Neusner detected just such useage and that is what he was trying to convey, accurately in his view. But there is a difference between relaxed language and profane language. I am hardly a puritan, but Chakhmenu did not say "shit" and putting that in their mouths is to misunderstand them.

*The title itself is a clue about how caustic he can be. Briefly, the book claims that R. Adin Steinsaltz'
introduction to the Talmud misrepresents the Talmud as basically having no structure apart from some sort of dreamy stream of concsiousness. Neusner argues that the Talmud is extremely well structured and logically and beautifully arranged and demonstrates this.

Personally I don't think this required a book--I doubt R. Steinsaltz really means that the Talmud is the literary equivalent of a pile of paperclips strewn every which way. He was talking to the layman and trying to give a taste of what the Talmud looks like, and for what its worth, Neusner's attacks seems to be considered by him a defense of the Talmud's honor, but I digress.

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