Archive for June, 2013


As Bruce Thornton notes in his study of erōs in Greek literature, the romanticized chubby little love-master of our Hallmark traditions fails to capture the fundamentally chaotic and destructive power of erotic desire: erōs was a force that must be tamed and controlled, and it is but a small step from an unleashed erotic desire to an unrestrained lust for absolute power.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 152-153.

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The original post-1948 Israeli policy of relying on an “outer circle” of friendships—Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia—to counter the hostility of neighboring Arab states proved modestly useful for a time. It came apart when Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in March 1979, which seemed to reduce the need for a peripheral strategy. It came completely apart when Iran was taken over by the mullahs that same year. Israel’s strained relationship with Turkey after a kind of golden age of cooperation lasting no more than two decades, and the general regional unrest of the past two years, have forced Israel to look further afield for support, to India and China, for example. But it has no real alliances other than with the United States. Should America indeed pull back from the Middle East, even if it were to continue to arm Israel, the Jewish state would in effect have become a kind of super Sweden—a de facto non-aligned regional superpower, much as was the kingdom of David and Solomon in its day.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 11.

Whether or not the challenger literally stood on one foot, and whether or not Hillel had a regula (measuring rod) in his hand as Shammai did, Shammai’s regula was used to reject the challenger, whereas Hillel’s regula (= מדה = rule) was used to bring him to the Torah.

Raphael Jospe, “Hillel’s Rule,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 1/2 (July-October, 1990), 56.

The idea of gender as a cultural system rather than a biological given has led to the recognition that the modern binary model of gender, rooted in a taxonomy of permanent, anatomically determined opposite sexes, is perhaps inappropriate for the ancient Mediterranean world. This is not to suggest that biological sex played no role in ancient conceptions of gender, but that the presence or absence of certain types of external genitalia constituted only one part of a vast and complex array of gender signifiers. Moreover, it is now widely agreed that gender in antiquity was viewed, at least from the perspective of the surviving male elite literary sources (an important qualification indeed!), through a single-gender, and not surprisingly androcentric, conceptual framework.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 147.

The location and date are both of enormous significance, as was the material form the book actually took. Venice was the capital of Hebrew printing for much of the sixteenth century. So much of early modern Jewish culture took material form there: The cultural renaissance in Safed appeared in print at presses in Venice and elsewhere in northern Italy; these same printing houses were meeting places for Jews, converts, Catholics, and Protestants; Hebrew printing in Venice and its environs had a dramatic impact upon the publication of Yiddish texts; and the Bible and the Talmud became printed books in Venice in the first half of the sixteenth century. It is not an accident that Karo’s work, intended to serve as a standard law code for all Jews, appeared there. The date is also of considerable consequence. After the burning of the Talmud in 1553 and a bitter feud between the two most important printers of Hebrew, the production of Hebrew books in Venice had ceased. With its resumption in 1564, a new regime of censorship was imposed upon it, and the Talmud could not appear in print. Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh was one of the first texts to appear under this new regime.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 369.

After all of the criticism, the minor renewed interest notwithstanding, Rodkinson remained generally neglected. Where recalled, it was more often negatively, and, concerning his translation, in a disparaging manner. Rodkinson is not mentioned in Jewish Publishing in America, nor in The Jews in America: A History. In the latter case, Albert Mordell, reviewing the book for the Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, wrote, “Another woeful lack is that of mention of translations from Hebrew classics in whole or part, even though some of these translations were, like M. L. Rodkinson’s Talmud, not of a high order.” He is also neglected in Meyer Waxman’s A History of Jewish Literature, where mention is made of several translations in various languages. Where the New Talmud is remembered it is negatively, as in Yehuda Slutsky’s comment, “In his later years he devoted himself to translating the Talmud. The value of this translation, printed in two editions, lies only in the fact that it is a pioneering effort.” A biographer of Wise writes that “In 1898 he gave his name to Michael Rodkinson’s quack translation of the Talmud. . . .” More diplomatically, Jacob Rader Marcus, writes, that Rodkinson’s translations “were anything but felicitous and did little to enhance the understanding of the Talmud by non-Hebraists.” Most recently, R. Adam Mintz concludes that “Rodkinson’s work was rejected because of its poor quality, and not because of an objection on principle to this type of abridged translation.”

Rodkinson took great pride in his translation of the Talmud. Indeed, his tombstone has an inscription stating that he was the translator of the Babylonian Talmud, certainly an attribution of questionable accuracy. It is ironic that Rodkinson, who did have other earlier accomplishments, is credited with and remembered for, and negatively at that, a work for which he was responsible and did oversee, but was, in truth, performed, either in its entirety or in part, by others.

There is an epilogue to the New Talmud story. After all of the above it would seem evident that the New Talmud has been forgotten, only remembered by students of Jewish literary history. However, that is not entirely the case, for the New Talmud has been revived, particularly in non-Jewish circles, on the Internet. The Internet Sacred Text Archive has posted the entire text of the “The Babylonian Talmud Translated by M.L. Rodkinson [1918].” Their website is cited by a number of other Internet sites, including at least one for Jewish studies. The New Talmud is available on CD from both the Sacred Text Archive, as one of 500 religious texts ($49.95), and from B & R Samizdat Express, in the latter instance together with several other Jewish texts ($29.95). A number of used and rare book sites offer individual volumes and entire sets of the New Talmud at a wide range of prices.

Internet Sacred Text Archive and Samizdat Express simply reproduce the text and are neutral in outlook. Unfortunately, other Internet sites, more often than not anti-Semitic, reference and quote from the New Talmud. This is also the case with a number of anti-Semitic books. Most surprisingly, to conclude on a relatively positive note, the New Talmud reappears on the reading list for college courses, for example, a lecture on “The Tractate Avot and Rabbinic Judaism,” in Reed College. It seems that Michael Levi Rodkinson’s New Talmud has in fact not been forgotten. Whatever its shortcomings, it has found an audience and is alive today in new and unanticipated formats.

Marvin J. Heller, “Deciphering the Talmud: The First English Edition of the Talmud Revisited. Michael Levi Rodkinson: His Translation of the Talmud, and the Ensuing Controversy”Seforim Blog (19 May 2013).

Isserles’ glosses signaled far more than simply the “Ashkenization” of a Sephardic text; they also heralded the beginning of an extensive commentary tradition that would grow up around Karo’s code, radically transforming its purpose and its material form. In the ensuing centuries, Joshua Falk, Shabbateai (or Sabbatai) ha-Kohen, Abraham Gombiner, Israel Meir ha-Kohen, and many others would eventually add their commentaries to all or part of the Shulhan ‘arukh. In so doing, they transformed the text from a short compendium accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of Hebrew into one that required instruction and supervision. The book was also transformed in its material form. Already in the sixteenth century, the Shulhan ‘arukh had changed from a being a book that could be carried with ease into a folio volume that required care, attention, and two hands. The commentary tradition that surrounded its text would soon come to dwarf Karo’s own work.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 370-371.

To speak of effeminacy as a gender-‘‘deviant’’ trait presumes, of course, a gender ‘‘norm’’ by which an individual’s status could be measured. Defining this norm, however, is a complicated matter, in part due to the tendency to read into the past modern Western perceptions of gender, that is, to presuppose—usually on the basis of an essentialist, transcultural definition of gender deriving from observed differences in external genitalia—a fundamental continuity between antiquity and the present. Recent scholarship has called into question this supposition of continuity, underscoring instead the fundamental alterity of ancient concepts of gender and, moreover, the inextricable link between such gender systems and their particular sociocultural contexts. In other words, scholarly approaches have increasingly viewed gender as a fluid, contextually determined phenomenon, and as such, an issue that is more a matter of ideology than simple biology.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 146-147.

Amos and Jeremiah argued that religious backsliding and socio-economic inequality were the fundamental causes of the political and military insecurity that haunted both Jewish states. Yet geopolitics is a not a matter of bread alone. It was certainly the case that the two small kingdoms, like modern Israel, often found themselves surrounded by potentially hostile enemies, with only intermittent periods during which they were at peace with one or another of their neighbors.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 10.

A former senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed…that most Israelis considered the peace process irrelevant because they believed that the Palestinians had no interest in a deal, especially in the current Middle Eastern context of rising Islamism. “Debating the peace process to most Israelis is the equivalent of debating the color of the shirt you will wear when landing on Mars,” he said.

Ethan Bronner, “What Mideast Crisis? Israelis Have Moved On” The New York Times (26 May 2013), SR5.