Friday, October 07, 2011

Reflections on Kapparot and Talmud translations from an early 19th century Christian critic of Judaism.

From January 1836 to March 1837 a Christian missionary named Alexander McCaul (often written M'Caul, in the period spelling) published a small weekly magazine which he called נתיבות עולם (Jer. 6.16) The Old Paths, which was a withering critique of Rabbinic Judaism. McCaul, who was a competent Hebrew scholar, aimed to demonstrate to the Jews the insufficiency and errors of Judaism ('Rabbinism') so that they could abandon their "Old Paths," and follow the New Paths - Christianity. Although it is a difficult book for a faithful Jew to read without provoking outrage or wounded feelings, it is not a typical antisemitic tract ay all. Although I realize some would dispute this, McCaul took many great pains to demonstrate that he is in no way opposed to Jews. He did not accuse Jews of being exploiters, uncivilized, evil. He added a remark in his introduction that he hopes that "these papers may not be misunderstood, either by Jew or Christian, but that all who read them will carefully distinguish between Judaism and the Jewish people-and a wish, that they may contribute to the welfare of Israel, and the promotion of truth." Reader take note: he said a variation on what we have all heard some Jews themselves say sometimes: Don't judge Judaism by the Jews. Except, that he says the opposite: Don't judge the Jews by Judaism.

This does not, of course, mean that an attack on Judaism is not offensive. However there can be little doubt - at least so I am convinced - that he truly harbored no ill will toward the Jews per se. Not only does he exonerate Jews, but even contemporary rabbis, for the mistakes he sees in Judaism. They are simply following the traditions established for them, but they should not because it is not good for their soul, is his opinion. He also wrote extensively against antisemitism, particularly during the Damascus Blood Libel affair of 1840, and mobilized others to speak out against persectution. Although this type of Love-the-Jews-but-convert-them-all mentality is not hard to find nowadays, this was not generally the case in the 1830s. Furthermore, he espouses what seems to be a deeply held conviction, that Christianity is a Jewish religion, just as Rabbinic Judaism is a Jewish religion. This may be old news today, but not 180 years ago.

McCaul - who after the series had run compiled them into a single volume, which was almost immediately translated into German, Hebrew and Yiddish - writes in his introduction that "It was the author's wish, not to ridicule any man's superstition, but to instruct those, whom Moses and the Prophets would have declared to be in error. He has, therefore, carefully avoided the tone in which Eisenmenger and others have treated this subject." He also writes that he avoided dealing with Aggadah, which Christian writers had loved to ridicule for centuries. Instead, he confines himself to only those things which are mentioned in the Siddur and in the Codes of Jewish law. In fact, he dwells at length about how the prayers reflect the centrality of the Oral Law.

A note about the title: Having previously written about this book (here and here) I noted the irony that although "Netibot olam" can be translated as "Old Paths," the more primary meaning of "olam" is "eternal." Thus, while he meant to say that Judaism is the Old Path, his title was inadvertently also expressing the sentiment that it is the Eternal Path. Putting aside the question whether "old" ought to be automatically equated with "obsolete" - actually, if you look at the phrase in context, Jer. 6.16, here is what the verse says, "Thus saith the LORD: stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said: 'We will not walk therein.' " (JPS 1917) Thus, even where it does, or could mean "old paths," the verse praises the old paths, and implicitly criticizes those who say "we will not walk therein"!

Now, one of the classic Christian principles is that atonement requires blood. Before Jesus this was (or could have been) achieved through animal sacrifice in the Temple. But not long after Jesus these ceased, and Jesus himself is the blood of atonement. Lacking this, there is no blood, and there cannot be atonement. Judaism - Rabbinic Judaism he would say - of course teaches otherwise, that prayer, repentance, charity - achieves atonement. On pg. 142, discussing Yom Kippur (or, an exercise in futility as he sees it) he writes that really the rabbis themselves inadvertently betrayed that they unconsciously realized that prayer, etc. is insufficient, because they added something to make up for it: Kaparot.

He proceeds to quote the Judeo-German and Hebrew text in קהלת שלמה , specifically because the latest edition had been published in 1830. Therefore it shows that it is a custom which is still very much alive and common among the general populace. After translating the passages, he offers that the Jews show that they don't really trust Chazal's assertion that Yom Kippur atones, that personal merit, zechut avot, repentance, etc. Further, it shows that even though they hit upon something worthless, the Kapparot ritual, yet they intuit that something more is needed, and they intuit that for every man, women, child - even the unborn child - every human is guilty and in need of atonement. He says that they declare by this act that atonement by blood is absolutely necessary. And would God leave them without what they know in their hearts they need for forgiveness? I wonder if he was aware of opposition to kapparot in the tradition? (See, e.g., here.)

Here is a link to the relevant passage in Koheles Shelomo in the 1847 Hanover edition: link. The book was first published in Amsterdam 1744. Interestingly, the publisher of the edition discussed here was Solomon Blogg, whom I wrote about here.

In any case, there is much more that could be written about this book, and no doubt I will return to it. In the meantime, here is an absolutely fascinating passage in the introduction to the second edition (1846), where McCaul reflects on exciting, recent developments, such as the rise of Reform Judaism in England. The West London Synagogue, and its prayer book, omitted many of the passages discussed in his book. Secondly, the two Reform rabbinical synods in Germany had discussed many of the topics as he, and come to similar conclusions regarding the Rabbinic Tradition. The Reform Societies in Germany are engaged in formidable attacks on the Oral Law. Naturally he sees these as vindication. Even if he doesn't explicitly suggest that his book influenced these things, it's hard not to believe that he imagined that his book deserved some credit.

McCaul writes that if the German Talmud translation is ever completed - he means Pinner's translation, of which only the first volume ever appeared, and which was endorsed by the Chasam Sofer, who then retracted - then it "must . . . overthrow Talmudism." Simply putting it into any European language would be most fatal attack upon it. "It needs only to be seen as it is, in order to be rejected." He then reiterates his reminder that the reader must not mistake "this discussion of the merits of Rabbinism for an attack upon the Jewish people, or the rabbies of the present day." (On Pinner, see here, here, here, here and here. )

Read McCaul's whole thing:

Speaking of Talmud translations, in Shanu Chachamim Beleshon Hamishnah by the recently departed Rabbi Menashe Klein, in his section (42) on why the correct approach is to bring Jews up to the Torah, and not the Torah down to the Jews, he talks about Artscroll. He writes that "at one of the gatherings of those who are called "Jewish leaders," - he means Agudath Israel - with Cardinal O'Connor [offensive passage omitted, but you can read it on page 98], they discussed antisemitism. They asked him why is there so much hatred for the Jews, and he began quoting Gemaras to them, with many citations from Chazal" - he lists some - and he said, "How could they not hate them?" So they asked him how did he know all these things? So he took them into the next room and showed them a bunch of Artscroll books. That this event - he says that someone told him this - is almost certainly distorted, if not completely imaginary, is not really the point.

Incidentally, in the next section he writes about how the Noda Beyehuda tore keriah when the Torah was translated into German - meaning Mendelssohn. What he doesn't write, or realize, is that the Noda Beyehuda was muskam to another Chumash with a German - yes, German - translation of sorts. The time is not yet right for my post on that Chumash, but here is a small taste.

Note please that this Chumash, published in Prague by Sussmann Glogau, and endorsed by the Noda Beyehuda, name drops Mendelssohn on the title page. It says that most of the translation agrees with Minden's Milim Le-eloah (Berlin 1760), which usually agreed with Mendelssohn's translation. This is the title page. In fact, so misleading was this that the JNUL catalog doesn't list Sussmann Glogau, whose name does not appear, but Mendelssohn, whose name does, for their holding. Apparently Glogau felt that to be competitive he had to mention that this is up to par with Mendelssohn's edition. For his part, the Noda Beyehuda liked that its language was simpler (not Yiddish - German - simpler German) and must have seen this as a kosher alternative to the Mendelssohn Chumash. However, if you actually read the haskamah, you'll see that it doesn't sound like he came even close to tearing keriah over the Mendelssohn Chumash. He writes fairly about what M. said his intentions were, and says that maybe he was sincere. But the problem is that the language is very complex (leshon ashkenaz amuk me'od) and the students aren't used to it and they'd need most of the day just trying to learn the German grammar. By contrast, this is a translation for scholars, not children so it's all good. In fact it is not a complete translation per se, but more of a clarification of selected words and phrases. But more on that in the future post.

Here are the title page, the haskamah, and the first page.

My thanks to Leor Jacobi for acquiring these photos for me. This particular copy was owned by Rothschild - the Rothschild, by the way.

Getting back to Rabbi Menashe Klein, immediately following this is a section on translations for Ba'alei Teshuva. He says the desire for such things is not from ba'alei teshuva, but the yetzer hara; ba'alei avera, not ba'alei teshuva. On the contrary, true ba'alei teshuva would realize his arguments are correct, and therefore why would they wish to contribute to this terrible thing (translations)? Rather, they would realize that all the assimilation came about because of vernacular and translations in the first place. Therefore they will learn Hebrew and then learn Torah. He then concludes with a great story about an Apikores (heretic) in Cracow and a Chazir-Fresser (pig-eater) in Lodz, who discussed with each other how they got their names. The nimshal is that the apikores could well wear tefillin, learn Torah all day, and practice Judaism meticulously. Incidentally, in these two paragraphs I there are many non-Hebrew origin words - German, English, Latin and Greek - as well as the acronym akum, which was invented by Christian censors.

Back to McCaul and his assumption that all you had to do was translate the Talmud and *poof* that's the end of Rabbinic Judaism. While we see that this was not only not true, a writer later in the century had the following to say:

In other words, McCaul's prediction was nonsense, and the case of Mormonism proves it.

The writer was Richard Burton (not the husband of Elizabeth Taylor, of course) and the book is The Jew, The Gypsy and El Islam. The book was published posthumously from Burton's papers, and the editor writes that even an appendix on the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840 is antisemitic (apparently Burton thought human sacrifice among the Jews of the East was real) so he omitted it since he didn't feel it was right to mutilate an author's words, but he could not publish it, as it was odious.

Nevertheless, he did include the section on the Jews, even though the tone is also antisemitic, but since it contains much good ethnographic material, in this case the material is too valuable to "suppress[ . . . ] merely to avoid the possibility of hurting the susceptibilities of the Hebrew community." Although he decided not to avoid offending Jews altogether, he says that actually it may well be that the Jews of the East who are not "enlightened" like the Jews of England, who are also "highly favored," aren't exactly that civilized. This accords with the principle that "Every nation gets the Jew it deserves." Hey, he is saying. If the Jews in the Orient aren't so nice, then that's what the people there generated through centuries of oppression. Not their own fault, but facts are facts - if they are facts, of course.


  1. page in M. Klein is p. 95, not 98. O'Connor was wonderful to the Jews.

  2. Thanks. It was late at night and the heh looked like a ches. There's a musar in that I'm sure.

    Of course. I should have written that I guess, but I thought it was obvious. The idea that O'Connor would have possibly given any credence to antisemitic views - and I mean that altogether, let alone in candid private conversation with Jews - is totally ludicrous. I also heard, although I don't know if this is true, that he was a fairly competent Hebrew scholar. Now, this may mean that he was only independently capable of reading Tanach in Hebrew, but it doesn't seem likely that he would have not mentioned that and instead showed off his vast Artscroll collection.

    Of course there could also be a grain of truth to this story. That's also not hard to imagine. But I will not elaborate speculative theories about how that could be.

  3. I don't know if this is truly a coincidence, but yesterday I was directed to an argument by the Mahara"l that kapporot are based on the Talmud. The sefer in which the argument appears? Netivot Olam.

  4. I assume that "nakhrim" for "nokhrim" is a simple mistake, but could "gavnim" for "ge'onim" reflect the spelling גאוון, which you have post about before?

  5. Rav Klein brings a proof for himself from archaeology and the Dead Sea scrolls! (Since there are no translated kitvei kodesh.) I probably wouldn't have believed it if you had posted it.

  6. "They are simply following the traditions established for them, but they should not because it is not good for their soul, is his opinion."

    This opinion exists in Judaism facing outwards, also: compare "minhag avoteihem bideiyhem" to explain why avodah zarah nowadays isn't *really* avodah zarah.

  7. Mar Gavriel,

    >I assume that "nakhrim" for "nokhrim" is a simple mistake, but could "gavnim" for "ge'onim" reflect the spelling גאוון, which you have post about before?

    It could be. Or more likely, the quotation from Rabbenu Asher was copied verbatim from an old Latin book in which it was written Gavnim, which would be Gaunim in our modern spelling. So it would be a mistake, a shuruk for a cholem.


    >This opinion exists in Judaism facing outwards, also: compare "minhag avoteihem bideiyhem" to explain why avodah zarah nowadays isn't *really* avodah zarah.

    I hoped some of my learned readers would notice this, but I didn't want to say it.

  8. Someone more learned than I should start a blog explicating the esoteric meaning of _On the Main Line_.

  9. I've heard the apikores story, but told in the form of a joke. For example, the third paragraph of this article:

  10. I realized this year that my birnbaum mahzor laCks kapparot (and iirc hatarat nedarim)

  11. I'm not sure if this has come to your attention, but it seems that in "The Jew, The Gypsy, and El Islam", Burton drew rather heavily on another work concerning which you posted on another occasion: The literary remains of the late Charles F. Tyrwhitt Drake. Compare the latter's account of Jerusalem Jewry (minus the mysterious Varshis, who may be mentioned as the Warsaw "Parushim" on p.55) with Burton's account of the Ashkenazim of Jerusalem, on pp.50-55. Particularly notable are his descriptions of Sefaradim as being more attractive or "prepossessing" than Ashkenazim (p.48), the "lank lovelocks" of the Ashkenazim (p.50), and Chabad as "resembling the Khasidim, having their own Gute Yuden, but... more learned and pious," (p.54) It was published some twenty years later than Drake's writings. There are too many parallels to list, but it seems to me that he appropriated a great chunk of Drake's account, alternatively correcting the account, corrupting it, and supplementing it with his own observations.

    Just thought you might like to know, if you hadn't already picked it up!

  12. Oh, and Burton's description of Ashkenazim as "men" as opposed to the "effeminate" Sefaradim on p.55 is... well... I'm not sure what it is, but it's worth a read!

  13. Abba: while Birnbaum's mahzor does not have kapparot, his daily siddur does. The text there assumes the use of a "fowl," but I penciled in the phraseology that I learned from my father for the use of tzedakah money instead. If that minhag had been more widespread in the 19th century, McCaul would have been robbed of an argument.

  14. What is this book, anyway, The Initiation of the Youth, by a "Rabbi Ascher". Is he the Rosh?

  15. I thought it refered to Sefer ha-Chinukh...

  16. Surprised that no one's mentioned that McCaul and Netivot Olam make an appearance in this classic Leiman lecture:

  17. Of course, S. referenced the actual Leiman article on the topic (if not the lecture) in his first post on NO. I, of course, should click through links before commenting.

  18. Hah - and in another post, linked to from the other (which is linked to from here), the lecture link is given (see This blog never disappoints :). I should know better than to question it.



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