Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.
The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.
But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.
Steinsaltz and Koren seem to be up to something different. He reaches beyond even the basic vocalization of the Hebrew into brief English biographies of the various rabbis through whom the Talmud speaks and color illustrations accompanying the text, to say nothing of a planned iPad app. It is the manifestation of a mentality that is fully conversant in a Jewish tradition it feels uncomplicated reverence toward combined with a self-confident desire to use contemporary tools to make that tradition as accessible as possible for as wide an audience as possible. It creates a feel that gives you all the tradition of ArtScroll without any of the distance.
Orthodox publishing efforts in the United States often don’t get their proper due. Even a casual perusal of the offerings in any Judaica shop or through your smart phone or tablet computer of choice reveal a wealth of offerings in English or with English translation on nearly any Jewish topic imaginable. But they haven’t penetrated beyond those already within that community’s embrace. The new Steinsaltz English edition is therefore probably the best chance yet most American Jews have of accessing the central text of their tradition.
In his companion book The Essential Talmud, Steinsaltz notes that all Jewish communities that have lost the study of Talmud have eventually disappeared. His creation of this latest piece of his great corpus testifies both to the depth of his scholarship and the seriousness with which he views his own observation.
Koren has now taken the first step in making the monument of their tradition accessible to all American Jews, regardless of their background or beliefs. If they take it up, the implications will be profound.