Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What is English Hebraica about?

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to Jewish Englightenment in an English Key by David B. Ruderman. It is wordy, but I could not put it better if I tried. Well, actually, I probably can put it in fewer words, only not better.

It captures perfectly the spirit of the time, the 18th century, and the place that English-speaking Jews were in. This is the true backdrop for this blog. I was planning a post along these lines, but lo and behold I discoverd Ruderman's excellent book. In his intro he basically said that this entire topic is virtually unknown and virtually unexplored, which is why he wrote his book. I noticed that myself, which is why I began this blog! But it turned out that I was beat to the punch. Ruderman's book was published in 2000, while I only recently discovered this wealthy topic.

Anyway, I truly cannot expect readers to read such lengthy excerpts (if I am to judge by my own blog-browsing habits). Given that, I will post a shorter, chewed up version of this post at a later date. It will explain the zeitgeist behind this blog. Hopefully readers will at least read the text I bolded.
What uniquely marks the intellectual life of Anglo-Jewry in the modern era is the process of translation into the English language....English Jews living in the eighteenth century, increasingly native-born, felt the acute need of approaching the literary sources of their culture in the only language they eventually could understand, in English. With the relative decline of Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Yiddish as Jewish spoken and written languages, Anglo-Jews, to a degree unprecedented in the rest of Europe, became monolingual....

....In a society that allowed its Jewish minority a relatively higher degree of social integration than anywhere else in Europe, where many professional, educational, and social barriers had practically disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century, despite the failure of the Jew Bill of 1753 and despite a residue of public hostility to both the Jewish upper and lower classes, linguistic assimilation into the English language proceeded rapidly, in the course of one or two generations, across all classes of English Jewish society. The handful of Jewish educators attempting to offer their constituencies an essential textual knowledge of Judaism eventually succumbed for the most part to the weight of this pervasive diminution of Hebraic literacy. Their only recourse was to undertake a massive project of translating the primary sources of their tradition into the language Anglo-Jews could comprehend. Young Jewish students educated in the home, in the synagogue, and in Jewish schools were soon mastering their prayers, their Bible stories, their normative rules of Jewish conduct, and their smattering of rabbinic wisdom through English translations. By the end of the eighteenth century, most English Jews thought about their identity almost exclusively in non-Hebraic, English terms....

As Anglo-Jews sought to define their religious and cultural identity within a linguistic frame of reference, a kind of English playing field, so to speak, common to both Christians and Jews, the ultimate issues that concerned them, the way they reflected on themselves in relation to the other, and their social and religious aspirations were all thoroughly affected. In a society where the English Bible was central in defining the character of the nation as a whole, English Jews became indistinguishable from their Christian counterparts in learning to appreciate sacred scriptures through the agency of the official King James Version. But some soon discovered that the English Bible was not necessarily an authoritatively Jewish one, and that translation could often distort the original meaning of a text, blurring the traditional boundaries that had separated Jewish from Christian readers and believers. If the translation was inferior or theologically spurious, how could a Jew who knew better sit silently by without objecting to the obvious violation of the text and its originally assigned meaning? At the very least, the official English translation had previously been dependent on a traditionally Jewish Hebrew version, the Masoretic text. In an age where Christian clerics were mastering the Hebrew language in an effort to translate anew the original in order to bring it closer to its "authentic" Christian understanding, and when they even questioned the reliability of the Masoretic version, the matter became more complicated for Jewish rabbis and educators alike. Did Christians actually have the audacity to claim that they could understand the Hebrew text better than Jews, the original guardians of the text? If the Hebrew Bible could be made accessible to Jews and Christians alike in English translation, which translation was to be used? And who had the ultimate authority to determine the true meaning of the text in translation, to interpret the authentic words of God?

In the new intellectual world of Christian scholars and clerics armed not only with Hebraic knowledge but also with a new array of paleographical and linguistic methods of reading the text, it became increasingly difficult for the Jews of England, at least their most highly educated, to claim a commanding position as the proper transmitters and interpreters of the Holy Bible. In a Jewish community that had virtually translated itself into an English religious and cultural entity, the challenge of a new Christian ascendancy of master translators of the biblical text, along with their new prerogatives claiming exclusive Christian ownership of the text, was felt acutely and painfully by Jewish leaders and educators. German Jews were to experience a similar encounter with the new Christian biblical scholarship and its alarming claims to undermine the traditional Jewish hegemony over the Hebrew text. But English Jews encountered this threat more directly and more profoundly than others given their already considerable stake in reading and studying the Bible in English translation.

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