Published originally in Shma, December 2010
By YEHUDA KURTZER
I learned from the great scholar of mysticism Joseph Dan an important insight about translation and its impact on Judaism and Christianity. The Hebrew Bible imagines itself as “the original,” the verbatim word of God delivered to Moses. As a result, much of Jewish mysticism involves a direct and unmediated encounter with the actual words of the text (whether or not the mystic focuses on the meaning of the words in question.) In contrast, the Christian scriptures – with the exception of a handful of words – represent the words of Christ mediated through the perspective of the Gospel writers and, thus, more importantly, through a translation into vernacular Greek. Christian mysticism, therefore, tends to involve activities and a focus extrinsic to the actual words of the Bible.
The act of translation involves mediation, a standing-in-between. Its impact lies not just in what happens to the text, but just as powerfully in how those who receive the translation, those on the other side of the mediator, interact and relate to the text in its new form.
In the contemporary Jewish world, our treasury of scholars and intellectuals roughly divides into two professional classes: rabbis, inheritors of one strand of the Jewish intellectual tradition and of political responsibility, who possess a considerable set of professional responsibilities vis-à-vis the community; and scholars/academics. Scholars, whether employed in the academy or outside in related fields (journalism, think-tanks, etc.), have a more ambiguous relationship to “the community,” especially in contrast to their rabbinic colleagues. I suspect this existence of a lettered, literary, and yet functionally disconnected intellectual elite is a new problem for Jews, relatively speaking. The safe harbor of the academy, which one academic colleague described to me as her “sacred secular space,” has enabled Jewish intellectualism to thrive outside of whatever communal responsibility and impact might come with that knowledge. Then again, perhaps that distance has been critical to its success in the past quarter-century.
And yet these learned classes of Jews, divided between these two professional orbits, inevitably serve as mediators and translators of much of the same material. Be they housed separately, governed by different goals and rules, they are ultimately joint inheritors with joint ancestors, and perhaps we must acknowledge that they are intrinsically related. What rules should govern an unruly family reunion?
Let me offer two basic programmatic thoughts. First, let us acknowledge an often overlooked reality: Neither rabbis nor academics have the upper hand as better translators, nor is either group of scholars an exclusive possessor of unmediated truth. In fact, both professional scholars and rabbinic scholars constantly dance between the work of translation and the attempt to remain in the province of the original. Professional scholars attempt to encounter their material in an unmediated way; their work, however, involves constant translating of their understanding to students and readers. Rabbis mediate religious experience and the esoteric for their congregants, but in the interest of creating authentic (read: unmediated) religious experience. In fact, these two professions thus involve opposite processes. Is translation a tool for understanding, enlightening, uncovering? Or is translation meant to push back against the mystique of the untranslated, to create access for all to the mystical and poetic? Either way, both rabbis and scholars live in the threshold of translation, and have much to gain from a mutual consciousness about what they share.
This point is obscured and complicated by the fact that we train rabbis in academic institutions, creating an imbalance wherein future professionals apprentice with masters whose craft they will explicitly not pursue. It is not difficult for scholars to see rabbis as inevitable translators of material they alone only received in translation, rather than inheritors of firsthand access to a shared body of material. I would venture that this is where imbalance and awkwardness is created in the rabbinic-academic exchange. Scholars become skeptical of “applied” practitioners; rabbis invariably see in the “applied” work this otherwise arcane material actually come to life and achieve its relevance. Of course, the two are deeply intertwined. If we found ways within the academy for “applied Jewish Studies” to not be considered inferior to the allegedly “purer” form of the work, and if we prioritized in the rabbinate the importance of Jewish ideas and letters independent, sometimes, of what “works” in building Jewish identity, we might find ways in which these disciplines are not only interdependent but codependent.
And second, let’s acknowledge a major irony when we talk of translation. There is a huge gap between the translation we know through its over-metaphorization (kissing through glass, anyone?) and the actual work of translation, which is mundane, arcane, painstaking work. The metaphor is seductive, while the work is actually laborious. A meaningful encounter between translators should not get lost in the myths that we generate and perpetuate about the loftiness of the exercise; it must stay grounded in the recognition that on all sides of the page, this is difficult and serious work. While some scholars are themselves rabbis by profession, and vice versa, the two professions make different – and substantial – demands on the mediation of knowledge. Perhaps it is in the gravity of the task, the weightiness of responsibility that comes with bearing the weight of the tradition, that the clearest common ground can be found.
The issue also included articles by three members of the Hartman Institute’s North American Scholars Circle: "Text, God, and Life in Translation," by Joel Hecker, "Meet the Makhatonim: On Translating Ashkenazic Kinship," by Naomi Seidman, and "Around the Maggid’s Table: Translating, Black Letters and White Spaces," by Or N. Rose.