Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Wissenschaft Palindrome

April 25: R. Yitzchok Adlerstein at Cross Currents writes a post called The Gospel of Judas and Jewish Faith, which is basically a lament directed at academic Jewish scholarship because "there are too many Jewish scholars and liberal clergy eager to betray their legacy for thirty shekels worth of academic respectability."

April 25: Noting that R. Adlerstein had once written "Alas, it has been a long time since Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and his headlong charge against Higher Criticism and Jewish Wissenschaft , I responded with my own post, called חכמת ישראל : Eat the fruit, throw away the shell, basically an apologia for academic Jewish scholarship . The allusion in the title was to the justification Rabbi Meir used in learning Torah from arch-apostate Aher (BT Chag. 15b). I also pointed out then that R. David Zevi Hoffman not only did not charge against Jewish Wissenschaft, he was one of its founders! His Wissenschaft writings are identical in form and even in content to those of Zunz or Geiger. Indeed, R. David Zevi Hoffman's scholarship could quote Rashi in one line, Geiger in the next--just like any academic scholarship properly should. Yes, different motivations did exist. And ff course, R. David Zevi Hoffman did lead a serious charge against Higher Criticism of the Torah. This attitude was shared by Solomon Schechter and many, if not most Jewish scholars of the day who took little truck with what they rightly perceived as an attack on Jews.

October 5: R. Yitzchok Adlerstein at Cross Currents writes a post called Hadasim, Aravos, and Bar Kochba Coins which begins by noting that "some people – perhaps wisely – stayed away from disciplines considered hostile to traditional beliefs, some intrepid souls managed, in the words of the Gemara, to discard the shells and take the kernels." An exemplar would be Dr. Lawrence Schiffman.

I do not know if I made a רושם (an impression), but you never know. That kernels and shells thing is powerful, that I know and this second post is practically a reversal of the first.

October 5: My response is not to disagree with him, but to laud his point, which is my own point as well.

In fact, I agree that there are pitfalls of academic scholarship. There is pseudo-scholarship, just as there is pseudo-divrei Torah. There is an iconoclastic tendency which sometimes breaks things for the sake of breaking them.

Three brief examples will suffice. Two will not name names, but they concern oft-repeated tropes never carefully examined in violation of a cardinal principle of critical scholarship; the other will name one name since that person is no longer among the living.

The first concerns every single writer who cites the same tired trope about the Chasam Soyfer, who coined the slogan of the 19th century proto-haredi Orthodox: חדש אסור מן התורה, chodosh assur min ha-Torah. The last three words are easily translated; they mean "prohibited by the Torah." The first word means new as in "that which is new." So the phrase means "That which is new is prohibited by the Torah." However, a more elegent translation is "Innovation is prohibited by the Torah." This slogan was directed at modernity and especially at the spirit of Reform in Judaism. The absolute best translation I have ever seen is "Modernity is forbidden by the Torah." However, here is the rub: the Chasam Soyfer didn't coin the phrase. It is mishnaic and means something completely different (See, for example, Mishna massekhet 'Orla 3:9). In other words the Chasam Soyfer's slogan was creative wordplay. It is clear from the ways in which his slogan is cited that many, many of the scholars are simply unaware that it is a wordplay. Given that, the phrase is considerably less austere then it sounds. It isn't quite saying "Innovation is forbidden," for which one can laughingly respond "But didn't you install lightbulbs in your kloyz?" It may not be a phrase we can agree with, but it is witty (even if also frightening) but there is evidently a lot of unawareness of this fact. Scholars who repeat the trope, "Hatam Sofer=reactionary Orthodox=forbade anything new" are not being critical. A tiny bit of searching would reveal a new dimension to the phrase. Of course one can wonder if some of said scholars even know the phrase from the original Hebrew or only in translation?

Second example is another trope which is repeated constantly. Here I will be lax myself and neither quote the original nor even the exact wording. There is a remarkable aggadic passage repeated very often, which has God saying that he'd rather his children (ie, the Jews) forget HIM but keep his Torah, because observance will lead back to him. Many a devar Torah has been launched from this. This has been used to launch the idea that Judaism has no dogmas (which may be true anyway) to any number of other ideas. And it is repeated often. A very precise scholar who I will not name repeated it in one of his books. But it is wrong. Didn't the guy even look up the Yerushalmi? It says study my Torah, not keep my Torah. Why don't all the scholars who have cited in English this aggadah just quote it correctly? It doesn't necessarily even change the implications that much. The answer is because of imprecision and slacking off. (Hey, I didn't do my homework in this and maybe I'll get nailed myself!--try me)

Third concerns longtime editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, Solomon Zeitlin a"h. Dr. Zeitlin was very concerned with pseudo-scholarship and wrote constantly about it. He found many faults with the 1972 edition of the masterful Encyclopedia Judaica and wrote much about it, even if he was right or wrong about the details. He was right and justified in polemicizing against pseudo-scholarship. And yet--he also spent 25 years chasing a rainbow in his treatment of the megillot midbar yehuda (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Simply put, he was convinced from the beginning, from their discovery, that they were not ancient. They were medieval. Maybe they were Karaitic, maybe not. But certainly they were not 2000 years old and more! It didn't matter what evidence was brought. Paleography. Theology. Nothing. And he was WRONG. They most certainly are that ancient. And he invested a lot of ink in his bad premise.

But--and I can't stress this enough--this applies to all intellectual endeavors, whether a daf yomi shiur or a 9th grade rebbe transmitting his mesorah to his charges. This is about precision, whole truths, accuracy, closer to the mark, more astute research, more truth. It isn't a pitfall to be found only in academia. I have heard as many boich sevaras in academia as I heard in the yeshiva. That sentence was a palindrome.

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