Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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A Nation in Translation>

To put it mildly, we are no longer our own scribes. We are a community whose books and whose treasures--our books are our treasures--are accessible almost entirely in translation. Have we forgotten that every translation is also a conversion? In every translation something is lost even as something is gained; and it is hard for me to imagine that more is gained than is lost.

In the modern period, of course, attempts were made to correct this awful inadequacy. But a look at the remedies for the problem affords little comfort. Indeed, it only sharpens one's sense of the loss. 

In the late 1770s and early 1780s, Moses Mendelssohn produced his momentous and notorious translation of the Pentateuch into German. It became known, after its exegetical portions, as the Biur. It was a remedial enterprise for what he called "the common man," or the ordinary Jew of his day.

In the prospectus to his project Mendelssohn wrote: "We, God's people, who are dispersed in all the lands of Greater Germany and grew up under the impact of the language of the dominant peoples 'came down' and there is 'none raising us up'. [Those are phrases from Lamentations and Jeremiah.] For the ways of our holy tongue have been forgotten in our midst; the elegance of its phrases and its metaphors eludes us; and the loveliness of its poetry is hidden from our eyes."

Mendelssohn set out "to render the Torah in the German tongue as it is spoken today among our own people." He did this, as he wrote in a letter to the philosopher Herder, not least for the purpose of educating his own children.

When Mendelssohn's translation appeared, it was bitterly condemned, by important rabbis in Central Europe, as a surrender to German culture, as an expression of defeatism. But here is the rub--I mean, for American Jews.

Mendelssohn's revolutionary translation was not produced in German, strictly speaking. It was produced in what became known as "Judendeutsch." That is, the Torah was translated by the great thinker of Dessau into a German that was published in Hebrew characters. Which is to say, Mendelssohn's translation may have been conceived as a response to a crisis of Jewish literacy; but it was premised on a degree of Jewish literacy that we, the Jews of the United States, no longer possess.

Were a contemporary translator in America to render the Torah into English as Mendelssohn rendered the Torah into German, on the correct assumption that the ways of our holy tongue have been forgotten in our midst, such a translation would be useless to the vast majority of the Jews for whom it was designed. They simply could not read it.

Illiteracy is nothing less than a variety of blindness, and the vast majority of American Jews are blind. The extent of this blindness -- and it is a willed blindness, a blindness that can be corrected -- can be illustrated anecdotally.

Here is a tale. Some years ago, the exiled president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was traveling around the United States in the hope of enlisting sympathy for his cause, and he went to New York for a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of major Jewish organizations.

Now, in his youth Aristide had studied at a seminary in Jerusalem, and he happens to be fluent in Hebrew. It seemed entirely natural and right, in his view, to address the assembled representatives of the Jewish community in what he took to be their own tongue, or at least one of their tongues. And so he began to speak to our leaders in Hebrew.

After a few minutes, the negidim [the assembled delegates] rather sheepishly asked their distinguished non-Jewish guest if he could make his remarks in English, because they could not understand what he was saying. 

And here is another tale. At a conference of Jewish and Israeli writers that was held in Berkeley in 1986, the writer Anton Shammas--a Palestinian born and raised in Israel who writes a Hebrew that startles Israelis by its beauty--proposed that Hebrew should be stripped of its Jewish features so that it may become the neutral language of a democratic state of Israelis and Palestinians.

It was a foolish proposal, for many reasons; it was based on a total misunderstanding of the relationship of language to culture; though it was offered, as I say, in a genuinely democratic spirit. After Shammas spoke, a prominent American-Jewish writer whom I will not name rose to denounce him. What Shammas was proposing to do to Hebrew was an outrage, she thundered. How dare he think of de-Judaizing Hebrew? Hebrew, she rightly insisted, is the supreme instrument of the Jewish spirit. And she sat down. jewish puzzle for hebrew

Then the Israeli writer

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Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.