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25 November 2003 @ 01:12 am
What's in a translation?  

An interesting thing happened to me the other day (IMHO). Now, I've been familiar with Hillel's famous summary for quite some time.

It appears in A History of God by Karen Armstrong, for example, as follows:

    There is a story that one day a pagan had approached Hillel and told him that he would be willing to convert to Judaism if the Master could recite the whole of the Torah to him while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: "Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the whole of the Torah: go and learn it."
    —Karen Armstrong, A History of God, Ballantine, New York, 1993, page 72.

I'm pretty sure that when I read it there a while back, I had what was pretty much my usual reaction, which was, essentially, nodding to myself and thinking that I much prefer this "do not do" formulation over the "do" formulation of the "Golden Rule." For one thing, it seems to me that the more active stance of the latter can more easily lead to well-intentioned but unwarranted and unwelcome interference in how folks conduct their affairs.

So. I was reading Jewish Wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and came across this translation/telling of the same event:

    It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai [he and Hillel were the two leading rabbis of their age] and said to him, "Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai chased him away with the builder's rod in his hand. When he came before Hillel, Hillel converted him and said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; now go and study."
    —Babylonian Talmud,
    Shabbat 31a (shortly before the beginning of the Common Era)
    —Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, William Morrow, New York, 1994, page 5.

I suddenly (and finally!) realized that the whole quotation, not just the first part, is important and relevant. "Now go and study." That, too, is what it's about.

Okay, I'm a little slow. You all figured this one out a long time ago. Okay. But I just noticed it, and reckoned I'd pass along how tickled I am to have had this epiphanette.

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Stephen Leighsleigh on November 25th, 2003 03:21 am (UTC)
Epiphanettes are what happen when you study. :-)
Fred A Levy Haskell: Fredcritter Mark IV by Reed Wallerfredcritter on November 27th, 2003 01:43 am (UTC)
How true, Ed, how true …
Skylarker: whispersskylarker on November 25th, 2003 08:55 am (UTC)
Do you suppose it's significant that he didn't specify whether to study the commentary or to study by practicing the policy espoused?
Fred A Levy Haskell: Fredcritter Mark IV by Reed Wallerfredcritter on November 27th, 2003 01:55 am (UTC)
…to study by practicing the policy espoused?

I'm sorry, I don't think I understand what you mean by that. (For one thing, I don't quite understand how one could "study" by "practicing a policy.")

But to attempt to answer in more general terms, yes, the lack of specificity in Rabbi Telushkin's translation appeals to and resonates with me.

I hesitate to comment on its significance, given that I cannot read the original for myself and that Ms. Armstrong's translation, which I can only assume was put forward in good faith, appears to be more specific.
Skylarkerskylarker on November 27th, 2003 06:44 am (UTC)
"study by practicing a policy."
My awkward way of saying 'learning by doing.'
Maybe by not specifying one or the other he meant to leave the door open for both: learning by doing and book learning.
Kristenluckydragongirl on November 26th, 2003 01:00 am (UTC)
I love that story because it sort of sums up what I love about Judaism- the basis is being a decent person, and everything else is guidance on how to do it. Or something like that- I can't think of a good way to say it.
Fred A Levy Haskellfredcritter on November 27th, 2003 02:06 am (UTC)
Or something like that- I can't think of a good way to say it.

I don't think you did any worse than I. Besides, Hillel has said it so well for us — we don't have to find another good way to say it. :)

Yeah, that's a big piece of what I love about Judaism too. That, and the fact that one doesn't have to get all twisted up worring about one's thoughts and/or "real" motivations — the rabbis teach that actions speak louder than thoughts. Doing good for the "wrong" reason(s) is nevertheless still doing good.

(Okay, okay. Being raised Jewish, although rather casually and assimilatedly so, is probably the biggest piece of what I love about Judaism. But nevermind.)