How to Translate “Halakhic Man”: A Response and a Proposal

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Lawrence J. Kaplan

I very much appreciate Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s thought-provoking critique of my translation of Rav Soloveitchik’s Ish ha-Halakhah for two reasons. First, because it stimulated me to revisit my translation and to rethink my translation choices (and even called my attention to one slip on my part, of which later); and second because it raises the pressing question of what should be our next steps regarding translating the Rav—and more generally regarding making the Rav’s writings available—for a generation that “knew not Joseph.” My answer to this question may differ from Rabbi Klapper’s, but more important than any particular answer is the challenge the question poses.

Rabbi Klapper has three primary criticisms of my translation, or, perhaps better, he suggests three fundamental ways whereby his translation of “one brief but central section” differs from mine, all in the attempt “at regenerating [an] immediacy” which, so he claims, is in danger of being lost. He writes:

My fundamental intent, to be fully honest, is to re-appropriate this section as poetry rather than philosophy. To that end my basic unit is the line rather than the paragraph. I also privilege the literary and literal over the expository … [While] Professor Kaplan translated for coherence within known frameworks … my translation lets the intellectual chips fall where they may.

With reference to Rabbi Klapper’s “intent … to re-appropriate this section as poetry rather than philosophy,” it seems to me that the proper contrast is not between poetry and philosophy but between poetry and prose. To be sure, in my Preface I noted the poetic quality of much—but by no means all—of the Rav’s prose in Halakhic Man, and referred to “rapturous poetic outbursts, delicate descriptions of nature or revealing personal family history … [where] we encounter a densely metaphorical, highly charged, and elaborately wrought prose, almost romantic in its luxuriance and passion” (Halakhic Man, p. ix). But prose that exhibits poetic qualities, even poetic prose, is still not poetry.

With reference to his translation, Rabbi Klapper writes “my basic unit in my English translation is the line rather than the paragraph.” But since the Rav wrote prose, however poetic, not poetry, his basic units in the original Hebrew of Ish ha-Halakhah were the sentence and the paragraph; and, following his lead, the sentence and paragraph similarly served as the basic units of my English translation, which, I should note, I carried out in close cooperation with the Rav and under his supervision. I realize that this is a matter of de gustibus non est disputandum, but my sense was—and I gather from some of the comments on the Facebook threads not only my sense—that Rabbi Klapper’s use of free verse form for his translation of the section did not add much, if anything, to its “immediacy.”

It is striking that when Professor Daniel Matt, in the early 1980s, originally translated selections from the Zohar into English for his excellent anthology, Zohar: Book of Enlightenment, he, like Rabbi Klapper, decided to highlight the Zohar’s poetic qualities by translating it into free verse. However, some twenty years later, when he undertook the daunting project of translating the complete Zohar into English for what would become the authoritative Priztker edition, he, very wisely in my view, dropped that idea, and instead opted for the sentence and paragraph as his basic units, relying on the language of the Zohar itself to bring out its poetic qualities. Again, poetic prose is not poetry. The Rav and the author(s) of the Zohar should not be confused with Walt Whitman!

The second way in which Rabbi Klapper’s translation differs from mine (so he maintains) is that he “privileges the literary and literal over the expository.” Again, most of the examples he offers seem to me to be matters of taste. How much of a difference does it really make whether one translates על ידי הדין וההלכה as “via the law and the Law” or “by means of the Law and the Halakhah”? Or האימה פורחת as “the terror evaporates” or “the fright accompanying death dissipates?” Or whether one transliterates טומאה as “tum’ah” or translates it as “defilement.”

There are, however two places where our difference regarding “stylistic” matters is more significant; in one of them Rabbi Klapper gets it wrong, in the other I do. Thus, Rabbi Klapper, wishing to translate the phrase נשוא המשועבד לנושא very literally, translates it as “a carried subordinated to a carrier.” This, I dare say, is—rightly—bound to puzzle and stymy the reader. But while in some contexts נשוא may mean “carried” and נושא may mean “carrier,” here the Rav is using those terms in their grammatical sense, and their only possible meaning is “object” and “subject.” (Actually, נשוא, strictly speaking, means predicate, but it is clear that the Rav is using it here to mean object.)

Incidentally, the careful reader who compares my translation against the Hebrew original may have noticed that my two sentences “Death is frightening, death is menacing, death is dreadful only so long it appears as a subject confronting man. However, when man succeeds in transforming death-subject into death-object the horror is gone” is a somewhat free expansion of what in the Hebrew is only one sentence:

וכשצל-מוות המטיל אימים עליו לובש צורה אובייקטיבית של נשוא המשועבד לנושא, של חפצא הכפוף לגברא, האימה פורחת לה כחלום יעוף

Obviously, I didn’t take the liberty of freely expanding this one sentence into two on my own. Rather, as I explain in my essay, “On Translating Ish ha-Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Supplementary Notes to Halakhic Man,” in Mentor of Generations, edited by (a then very young) Zev Eleff, when I reviewed my draft translation with the Rav, he “felt free to expand upon, qualify, or simply revise and rewrite it.” While, as I noted, “I did not include any of the Rav’s revisions or expansions in the published translation,” reserving them for my supplementary notes, in a very few places, as I also noted, where I felt that a particular expansion of the Rav was limited and more stylistic than substantive (admittedly a very fine line to draw), I allowed myself to include it. This expansion of one sentence in the original into two in the translation is one example—a rather successful one I must say, and testimony, if testimony were needed, to the Rav’s fine literary sensibility.

On the other hand, this free expansion and rewriting of the text (which I do not believe changes the meaning of the original in any way) may have led me to my only slip, the one place where Rabbi Klapper is right and I am wrong, namely, I did not translate the sentence’s concluding phrase כחלום יעוף. This omission was not the result of any translation strategy of mine, of my privileging the expository over the literary and literal, but, alas, seems to have been a simple oversight on my part, and I would like to thank Rabbi Klapper for calling my attention to it (as well as to the Disturbed official music video of “The Sound of Silence”). If ever a second revised edition of Halakhic Man appears—I’ll come to that later—I would revise the conclusion of the sentence to read “the horror disappears like a fleeting dream.”

But, ultimately, however important these stylistic issues may be, the critical question is which translation captures more accurately and precisely the paragraph’s key theological—perhaps phenomenological would be a better word here—claims. And here we come to Rabbi Klapper’s third criticism. “[While] Professor Kaplan translated for coherence within known frameworks, … my translation lets the intellectual chips fall where they may.” Indeed. But do his chips fall in the right places?

In this connection, Rabbi Klapper takes issue with me on two points. First, he contrasts our translations of ומהפך את התופעה, שהוא מפחד, לאובייקט של הכרת האדם. While I translate it as “And he transforms the phenomenon, which so terrifies him, into an object of man’s observation and cognition,” he translates it as “by transforming the phenomenon—that he is afraid—into an object of human re-cognition.” Rabbi Klapper asks, “Is it death, or rather the fear of death, that is thus transformed?”

But to ask the question is to answer it. For the whole point of the paragraph is that Rav Hayyim, by studying the laws connected with death, first transformed death into an object of human cognition, and second, by so transforming it, thereby overcame the fear of death. Thus, it is clear that the phenomenon referred to in this sentence that is transformed into an object of cognition is death itself. For after all, the halakhot that Rav Hayyim studied dealt with death itself, not the fear of death. I believe, as interested readers may determine for themselves, that the paragraph’s conclusion on the top of page 74 of my translation confirms my reading, if further confirmation is needed. Incidentally, הכרה is the standard Hebrew philosophical term for cognition, and has nothing to do with recognition or even re-cognition.

Second, Rabbi Klapper writes “Similarly, in the last line translated below I have ‘the objective act’ in place of the ‘act of objectification.’ Which of these truly conquers the fear of death?” But the reader who will turn to this last sentence will see that the phrase in question is פעולת האובייקטיפיקציה. How Rabbi Klapper is able to translate the phrase as “objective act” when the Hebrew word האובייקטיפיקציה is a simple transliteration of “objectification” escapes me. Again, the point of the sentence is two-fold. First, the act of cognition of death is an act of objectification inasmuch as it transforms death into an object of human cognition; and, second, by so doing this act of objectification overcomes the subjective fear of death.

This last point as to whether פעולת האובייקטיפיקציה should be translated as “the objective act” or “the act of objectification” is not a local matter, but has wider ramifications. For throughout Halakhic Man and, even more so, throughout Halakhic Mind, the Rav refers to halakhic acts of objectification that translate subjective, qualitative experiences into objective quantitative forms. Note, for example, page 59 of my translation. “The Halakhah, which was given to us from Sinai, is the objectification (האובייקטיפיקציה) of religion in clear and determinate forms … It translates subjectivity into objectivity, the amorphous flow of religious experience into a fixed pattern of lawfulness.” While objectification here and in Halakhic Mind carries with it a different meaning than it does in connection with the objectification of death, the fact that the Rav used the same term is suggestive. All this is lost in Rabbi Klapper’s translation.

Finally, regarding both points where Rabbi Klapper and I differ, my translation choices and the understanding behind those choices are clearly confirmed by footnote 86 attached to the last sentence of the section. “See Stefan Zweig, ‘Tolstoy,’ Drei dichter ihres Lebens [Adepts in Self-Portraitures, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, p. 238]. Zweig writes that Tolstoy conquered the fear of death that seized hold of him through an act of objectification—i.e., transforming death into an object of artistic creation.” The Hebrew is על ידי פעולת האובייקטיפיציה של המוות בתור נשוא יצירתו האמנותית. (Incidentally, note that נשוא here means “object.”) QED!

There is, then, I believe I have shown, no need for a new translation of Ish ha-Halakhah. But there is a need, a pressing need, for a more organized team effort to translate the most important of the Rav’s Hebrew and Yiddish essays into English. So far, this task seems to have been undertaken in a somewhat sporadic and unsystematic manner. It is, thus, nothing short of a scandal that only excerpts from such classic Hebrew essays of the Rav as “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod,” which presents key elements of his philosophy of Halakhah and much else, and “‘Al Ahavat ha-Torah u-Geulat Nefesh ha-Dor,” which Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein considered to be his most representative and revealing essay, have been translated into English. The important Yiddish essay from 1951 about Hanukah (published in Droshos un Kesovim, edited by David Fishman, pp. 75-93) was excellently translated into English by Zelda Kahn Newman as “The Everlasting Hanukah,” in Days of Deliverance (edited by Eli Clark, Joel Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, pp. 124-42), but many of the most interesting, indeed fascinating, sections of the essay, particularly the Rav’s lengthy quotes in Hebrew from Ahad Haam’s highly polemical and exceptionally anti-Orthodox essay, “Emet mei-Eretz Yisrael” are missing. The even more important Yiddish essay in that volume, “Yahid ve-Zibbur,” which, as Fishman indicates in his English Introduction, “is a virtuoso presentation, which reflects the Rav’s broad ranging knowledge and interests … and is breath-taking in its ability to organically weave together widely divergent sources from the Jewish tradition and Western culture” (pp. 14-15), should be high on the list of essays that need to be translated. (I intend to translate this essay, in conjunction with a colleague of mine who teaches Yiddish literature, if I receive permission to do so.) The list could go on.

Finally, while there is no need for a new translation of Ish ha-Halakhah, there is a need for a second, revised edition of my translation of Halakhic Man. This would give me the opportunity to incorporate into my translation the list of minor revisions that I have accumulated over the years, including rectifying the slip that Rabbi Klapper brought to my attention. Perhaps more important, a second edition would provide the opportunity for Halakhic Man to appear in a form and accompanied by the apparatus that this classic deserves. When Milton’s Paradise Lost first appeared in ten books in 1667, it appeared with just the title page and poem itself. By 1674, when its classic status had been assured, it appeared divided into twelve books (reminiscent of the Aeneid), and accompanied by a laudatory preface in Latin by Samuel Barrow M.D., a poem in rhymed couplets “On Paradise Lost,” by Andrew Marvell, a note by Milton “The Verse,” explaining why he did not write the poem in rhymed verse, and finally “Arguments” by Milton, placed at the beginning of each of the twelve books. Of course, editions nowadays have editors’ Introductions and extensive annotations. Does Halakhic Man deserve less?

Thus, in addition to a very slightly revised English translation, I would suggest that the new edition contain the following. First, an extensive Introduction—I would suggest using for that purpose David Shatz’s excellent essay, “A Framework for Ish ha-Halakhah,” published in Turim (vol. II). Second the translation should be provided with annotations identifying the Rav’s references, allusions, and the like. I prepared such a set of annotations for the original edition, but, for a variety of reasons, it was not included. Third, the complete set of Rav’s supplementary notes to Ish ha-Halakhah, which I prepared but never published, should follow and be keyed to the translation. Fourth, as many have suggested over the years, there should be a glossary of philosophical terms. Finally, there should be a full set of three indices: a subject index, an index of persons, and an index of sources. Fortunately, all three such indices, expertly prepared by Jeffrey Saks, have been already published in the Torah U-Madda Journal, Vol.11 (2002-2003). As should be clear, most of these desiderata, thus, already exist in one form or another, and with minor adjustments can be put into place in the new edition.

2019 will be the seventy-fifth anniversary of Ish ha-Halakhah’s publication in the journal Talpiyyot. What better way to commemorate this important anniversary than for the Jewish Publication Society, which owns the copyright for Halakhic Man, to issue my proposed second, revised edition. For what better way could there be to make this classic essay newly available and accessible both for the generation that “knew not Joseph”—and for the generation that did.

Lawrence J. Kaplan is Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University, Montreal Quebec. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, his M.A. and PhD. from Harvard University, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elkhanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He was a Tikvah Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization of New York University Law School, a Polonsky Fellow at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and a Research Fellow at the Maimonides Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Hamburg.