Between the [holy] books on one hand and the tefilin and mezuzot on the other, this is the only difference: the books are written in all languages, whereas the tefilin and the mezuzot only in Hebrew. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Even for the [holy] books, they [the masters] have only authorized [by way of another language] their being written in Greek.”
Tractate Megillah, 8b
In the Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. DuBois argued persuasively that an important issue facing African-Americans in the post-slavery United States was whether or not to assimilate into the culture of the majority. DuBois argued that assimilation would effectively destroy that which defined the souls of Black people, arguing that rather than submit to a reduction into the same (not DuBois’ term) and engage in the culture of the normative society, rather than seek to assimilate, Black people should concentrate on acculturation as a meaningful alternative. Acculturation meant that learning to navigate through the White man’s world, adopting speech patterns, clothing and accepted manners while dealing with White people did not mean that one had to accept total reduction to the same, rather, one could continue to maintain cultural and linguistic roots while working and living within one’s own community.
Nearly 2,000 years before DuBois wrote Souls of Black Folks the sages of the Mishnah, and 700 years later the sages of the Talmud in commenting and clarifying the Mishnah addressed the same issue; just what is one’s obligation to conform to the normative society and what are the options open to maintaining one’s roots as Jews in the diaspora. The quote from the Mishnah above, found in Tractate Megillah of the Talmud Bavli is focused on the same question that DuBois raised. In essence the Mishnah allows for all sacred texts from Scriptures through commentaries to be translatable into the language of the people with two exceptions, the tefilin and the mezuzot. A minority opinion is included that points out that translation into Greek is the only one expressly authorized by the masters, the sages of the Sanhedrin.
Why is this so important? By making the claim that translating sacred texts into the language spoken by people, the rabbis are making it clear that it is more important to be able to understand what is written than to simply adhere to the original textual form. While there is implicit in their ruling, for that is what the Mishnah is, a compilation of Jewish Law, that translations are interpretations of the texts, translation leads to clarity and visceral understanding as well. It is also clear, through the minority opinion, that the masters understood the need to translate at least into one language but had no ability to extend to any other language as the Sanhedrin no longer existed.
Why the exception for tefilin and mezuzot? The most important prayer for Jews is the Shema, the prayer that affirms the oneness of God, one that is repeated three times each and every day and when Torah is read, more often. It is also repeated with greater frequency on some special holidays. Translated into English it reads: Listen up Israel! The Lord is God, God is one. Directly following the recitation of the Shema is a prayer called the V’ahavtah, a prayer that tells devout Jews to bind these words as a sign upon your hand and between your eyes (tefilin) and they shall be inscribed upon the doorposts of your house and gates (mezuzot). Inside the tefilin and mezuzot are hand written prayers that include the V’ahavtah and other verses from Torah. These verses are not to be translated into any other language, rather they are to be held in their original linguistic form for all ages; a clear connection to one’s roots. To do otherwise would be to become just like those of the other nations, the gentiles, and would lead to a complete absorption into the broader, normative culture.
The Rabbis were being careful to preserve the essential quality of what it means to be Jewish. They were saying, through the metaphor of translation, that it is more important to preserve the core of one’s cultural belief system than to turn the whole over to those in a strange land. They were fully aware that if one allows the other to define the self then the self is destined to be reduced to the other without recourse to that which underpins one’s attitude toward life, ethics, and morality. By creating an exception to the translation rule, the Rabbis preserved a specific hook upon which to hang one’s hat, a specific bit of Torah that cannot be changed, no matter how hard others may try to reduce it to the ashes.
If the sages of the Talmud lived today, I am certain they would side with DuBois, arguing that acculturation is preferable, in fact is the positive choice for Jews, rather than attempting to assimilate into gentile society. Acculturation provides one with a dualistic approach to society, being comfortable in two worlds, without having to sacrifice one’s ethical convictions to one or the other.
Am I learning to read between the lines? Indeed, I think so.
- Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)