Sunday, October 16, 2005

Now Onkelos is being written out of the masorah?

The Slifkin story just won't disappear. And I'm not sure it should.

The latest development has sparked more discussion about the subject. It concerns a shiur delievered by R. Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshivas Toras Moshe, a shiur delievered in his yeshiva concerning the topic of Nosson Slifkin and the book ban. Although I haven't heard the shiur--something I need to stress--I have read R. Slifkin's letter in response. I have to stress that even though R. Slifkin quotes verbatim from the shiur, in fairness to R. Meiselman, it must be recognized that these quotes are not entirely in context. It is very hard to imagine the context in which the quotes do not speak for themselves, but fairness dictates that I acknowledge the possibility that hearing the shiur would clarify what sound like ad-hominem attacks on R. Slifkin and reveal them to be something else. I should also mention that from these quotes it appears that R. Meiselman was in a virtual panic about R. Slifkin's positions. But I digress...

Anyway, a talmid of R. Meiselman took it upon himself to respond via a blog. He does not disguise that his purpose is to defend R. Meiselman and it takes the form of defending his position that R. Slifkin's books indeed contain heresy and disresepct toward tradition.

Some of the controversy seems to revolve around R. Slifkin's citation of a peshat by Targum Onkelos, the venerable "targum" of Shenayim Miqra ve-Ehad Targum, the ancient Aramaic translation of Torah that is virtually never absent in printed editions of the Chumash. The issue concerns the fact that Tosafot gives a different peshat than Onkelos (technical details can be read elsewhere) and R. Meiselman feels that R. Slifkin is not entitled to accept a different peshat from that of Tosafos, even if that peshat comes from Onkelos. Why? Because to do so is to contradict the mesorah of Torah she-be-al peh. In the words of the talmid of R. Meiselman:

Targum Onkelos is not an indication of what is or is not a tradition from Sinai. Rav Meiselman explained that Targum Onkelos was written before the dispensation of Rabi Yehudah HaNasi to make public written records of the Oral traditions that explain the written Torah. Onkelos had to confine himself for the most part to literal translation come what may.
This is the only part of the issue that I want to concern myself with for now. Is this not a surprising and novel declaration? Again, this is the talmid's paraphrase of the rebbe's position, but taking it as it is, the position is this: Targum Onkelos is a) not an authorized Torah she-be-al peh translation and 2) Targum Onkelos is a literal translation, one that, presumably a Karaite or a Protestant Christian could have made.

Now, I know that the qualification of "for the most part" conveniently explains why Onkelos is not in fact a literal translation. Who is to say what "for the most part" means? Well, I'll say this: "for the most part" it is a "literal translation" doesn't apply to Targum Onkelos, which often deviates from the literal meaning! I'm not sure what is more startling, the idea that R. Meiselman doesn't recognize that Onkelos is a very Midrashic translation or that he does but says that Onkelos is not a valid source of Torah she-be-al peh anyway.

edit: A clarification by a talmid of R. Meiselman regarding his views on Onkelos.

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