Translating Reb Chaim

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Two Dinim in Reb Chaim

I remember the first lecture I attended during my brief stay in yeshiva in Israel. The rosh yeshiva gave a masterful discourse on a subject in the tractate of Kesubos, offering — to my astonishment — three ways of understanding a conceptual topic. Three ways! I had been conditioned to think that there are two ways of looking at everything, two aspects (dinim) of every concept, two approaches to every controversial subject. And here was this out-of-the-box thinker who saw a third aspect.

Looking back, my intellectual innocence was laughable. Of course, the two dinim approach is a style of presentation, a simplification to enable understanding. There are always more ways to look at a subject. In that spirit of simplification, however, I’d like to suggest that there are two dinim to R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk’s classic commentary to the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Chiddushei Reb Chaim Ha-Levi Al Ha-Rambam.

Translating Reb Chaim

In identifying these two aspects, I propose to evaluate the effectiveness of a recent expanded translation of Chiddushei Reb Chaim, entitled Understanding Reb Chaim by R. Yonoson Hughes. I believe that the translation succeeds in revealing only one aspect of the book, but that this is appropriate given what I believe the book should accomplish.

When Artscroll began its annotated English translation of the Talmud, it faced opposition from some leading rabbis who disapproved of the effort. The Talmud, they contended, is a complex work whose comprehension requires great effort and personal guidance. An English translation offers the false promise of mastering a difficult work without the proper training. For a variety of reasons, this view did not prevail. Regardless, whether or not this idea applies to the Talmud, it still has merit in other areas.

Scholarship requires training. You cannot open a physics book and expect to understand the terminology, concepts and methodologies without adequate background. An advanced work of talmudic scholarship is no different. You might even mistakenly think that you understand because you miss the true meaning of terms and methodology.

Should anyone translate Chiddushei Reb Chaim Ha-Levi Al Ha-Rambam? Is there value in opening a complex work of talmudic analysis to an unitiated reading public? Generally, I think the answer is no. Without the proper background, you will not appreciate the brilliance of the work. In fact, I contend that the book suffers in translation.

Reb Chaim’s Clarity

I remember once in yeshiva, an older student told me that Chiddushei Reb Chaim is redundant in its language. I was originally offended. Later, though, I reluctantly saw the repetitive language but appreciated it for its pedagogical value. The book is a masterpiece in clarity. In his introduction to his translation, R. Hughes quotes various scholars who say that Chiddushei Reb Chaim is a difficult work. I have no idea what they are talking about. I see a clear book that takes readers step by step, emphasizing important ideas, and sometimes restating crucial points in different words for emphasis and clarity.

If you are already familiar with the talmudic subjects and comfortable with the Brisker style of conceptual thinking, you can read through the essays with remarkable ease. When I was in yeshiva, whenever Chiddushei Reb Chaim was on the reading list (mareh mekomos), it was preceded by the relevant passages so that we would approach Reb Chaim with the proper background. That, along with an understanding of the Brisker agenda of conceptual clarification, enables readers to comprehend Reb Chaim with relative ease (you still have to read him closely).

Logic and Concepts

It is helpful to identify the two aforementioned dinim in Reb Chaim’s book on the Rambam — the logical and the conceptual (cheshbonos and lomdus). The two are very different levels, both of which one must understand in order to fully comprehend Reb Chaim’s insights. Transmitting them, however, are very different enterprises that require variant terminologies and pedagogical strategies.

The logical aspect is time-honored talmudic study, a juxtaposition of varying views in which contradictions are exposed. For example, if we assume this opinion from one talmudic passage and that opinion for a different passage, then we must reach this conclusion. Yet the Rambam follows the underlying positions but not the conclusion. These are complicated logical progressions that require proper background and careful focus. The mareh mekomos get us ready but then we need to follow each logical step. This is a classical method of Talmud study that can be found in the Talmud itself as it reconciled earlier statements and later commentaries as the resolved talmudic contradictions.

The conceptual aspect is what constitutes the revolutionary Brisker approach. Reb Chaim’s innovation, as has been discussed at length (see this post: link), was his categorization and classification of talmudic concepts. Is a particular rule an aspect of the person or the object? Is it inherent to the specific law or external to it? His clear delineations revolutionized talmudic study. Once you recognize this, you can much more easily see what Reb Chaim is trying to do. Beyond his logic, he is conceptualizing the laws — and he is most emphatic about this central aspect of his magnum opus. You just have to know what you are looking for and then it jumps off the page.

The logical part of the work (cheshbonos) is the most difficult. Even advanced students might sometimes have trouble with this, whether due to an insufficient familiarity with the underlying passages or a difficulty following each logical step. Some students are better at visualizing the multiple opinions under consideration than others, who might benefit from writing it down to better comprehend the flow. The conceptual part, on the other hand, is not difficult. Reb Chaim’s clarity of expression, though, helps readers understand both aspects.

Understanding Reb Chaim

It seems to me that R. Hughes, in his expanded translation, succeeds in helping readers through the logical steps of Reb Chaim. He offers the textual background and shows the progression of each argument, culminating in a chapter summary of, literally, each step.

He does not, however, adequaely capture the concepts. His descriptions of Reb Chaim’s distinctions do not fully present the clarity of each classification. He does not highlight the differences with the clarity and emphasis of the original Hebrew. This is, I believe, at least partially due to the nature of translating a work in Rabbinic Hebrew into English, which inevitably loses much of its power due to the untranslatable nuances.

But there is more at work than just loss through translation. In order to properly convey the Brisker approach to an unitiated public, you need to write a different book. Reb Chaim’s genius is where he goes after his logical moves but a precise presentation for beginners is bound to get bogged down in the logical progression. The uninitiated will have difficulty getting to the point where Reb Chaim’s brilliance shines brightest. If I were presenting Reb Chaim’s insights to the general public, I would skip almost entirely the logical steps and focus on the concepts. That way, people would not get lost in the forest.

I believe that R. Hughes did not translate Reb Chaim for the general public. This is not the type of book that is appropriate for the unitiated. The background and complex logic are too overwhelming. Rather, R. Hughes wrote a tool for yeshiva students (and graduates) who have the proper background but might need some assistance. He translated entire essays but focused on the cheshbonos, where students need the most help.

This is a book to help yeshiva students master the harder parts of Reb Chaim so they can fully appreciate the brilliance of the work. In that respect, Understanding Reb Chaim is highly successful. It is a tool for mastering Reb Chaim’s conceptual insights.

I have to note, though, that the volume covers only ten selected essays from Chiddushei Reb Chaim. Those ten essays are fully translated, annotated and explained. I do not know if another volume is in preparation.

UPDATE: R. Natan Slifkin posted his own translation/elucidation of Reb Chaim here: link.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

21 comments

  1. On the two versus three dinim issue, Rav Zevin writes in Ishim v’Shitos that one unique quality of the Rogatchover’s learning was the idea of “three dinim” (e.g. issur arel, mitzvah milah, l’hiyos mahul).

  2. R. Gil, you inspired me to release my own translation of Reb Chaim, which I did twelve years ago. It can be freely downloaded at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/07/elucidating-reb-chaim.html, where I also discuss the nature of the sefer.

  3. I thumbed through the book, and read a good deal of one chapter. I am not a Yeshiva student, and have never read or been exposed to Reb Chaim. But what I read here was accessible and excellent. I haven’t read the the whole book, and perhaps other sections are harder. But if what I read was representative, the book might have a wider audience than the review suggests.

  4. What I meant by “the book” and “here” was the new ‘Understanding Reb Chaim’.

  5. I have read ‘Understanding Reb Chaim’ and think that the book does provide sufficient clarification of the concepts contained in the original.

    CG

  6. Reb Chaim’s analysis is chock full of genius but as I have seen stated in the name of Rav David Bar-Hayim-his methodology should be seen as a potentially useful tool not as an automatic way to arrive at truth.

  7. correlation vs. causation – statistical analysis requires an underlying hypothesis as to what is generating the data (OK I know it’s modernish etc.) – think klal prat klal vs ribbui miyut.

    R’ Chaim assumes an underlying TOE is generating all the data – either conciously or subconciously – in the Rambam’s unified mind which is reflecting HKB”H’s will to the extent we can understand.

    However it is possible that other constructs can yield the same data points, or that some of the data points are data errors or generated by more than one TOE.

    All the above gibbersish is to say that R’ Chaim is certainly at least an approximation of the truth but I don’t think one could prove he is “The Truth”

    KT

  8. The book is a masterpiece in clarity.

    R’ Gil, I don’t agree with this. Chiddushei Rabebinu Chaim Halevi is a very difficult sefer. When he repeats himself, it is not for pedagogical reasons. He is adding something, or limiting himself, and is very difficult to comprehend. For example, you must have learned the piece on Rodef. What does he mean?

    On the other hand, Chiddushei Maran Riz Halevi al Harambam is very easy to read. I heard that R’ Berel (ben R’ Velvel) said, “You have to be special to understand Rav Chaim. You have to be special not to understand my father.”

  9. Yes, he is adding something. He is clarifying what he had already said so that there are no misunderstandings.

  10. Rabbi Gil:
    “Later, though, I reluctantly saw the repetitive language but appreciated it for its pedagogical value….R. Hughes quotes various scholars who say that Chiddushei Reb Chaim is a difficult work. I have no idea what they are talking about. I see a clear book that takes readers step by step, emphasizing important ideas, and sometimes restating crucial points in different words for emphasis and clarity….If you are already familiar with the talmudic subjects and comfortable with the Brisker style of conceptual thinking, you can read through the essays with remarkable ease.”

    I really hope you are joking.

    Did you ever read the hakdamah to the Gra”ch Al Harambam (written by the Gri”z)? He states EVERY word is written with meaning and precision. The Brisker Rav Zt”l states that one can be mideik from each and EVERY word.

    You words are like someone arguing with the mechaber of a sefer as to what he really meant.

    Do you really feel that you have a deeper understanding of the sefer than the Brisker Rav Zt”l?

  11. So which translation is better R Slifkins for free or this book?

  12. First of all it is worth noting that both Rabbi Slifkin’s booklet and Rabbi Hughes’ book both deal with 10 essays from Reb Chaim. In fact, two essays overlap.

    However the two works serve very different purposes. Rabbi Slifkin’s work is basically his typed-up notes which he has very generously provided for free to the general public. The main part of the booklet is the translation, although he does provide brief elucidations. (and also a brief introduction and summary)

    I think it would be fair to say though, that the main part of Rabbi Hughes’ book is not the translation, (the Hebrew text is also provided) but the elucidation, which is quite detailed and clearly explains what is going on. It also clearly explains many lomdus techniques that Reb Chaim uses, with the stated aim of encouraging the reader to incorporate them into his own learning.

  13. Gil, Really? stole my thunder. In the last paragraph of the first page of the hakdama to Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim Halevi, the Griz writes how careful Rav Chaim was in each word; there are big chiddushim in one or two words. The kicker is the last sentence of that paragraph:

    “This book is not like other books which you master by reading and glancing, rather it is a book of studying, which can only be mastered with toil and deep investigation and hard work like the derech of Torah, and praiseworthy is one who can attain the truth and depth of the matters even after deep toil and study; know this.”

    Perhaps you are talking about (in Joel’s words) a macro-read, and I’m talking about a micro-read, but even macro-reading it is not simple.

  14. Talmid,
    I’m honored
    KT

  15. The Talmid and Really:

    If either of you can provide an example where the very obviously repetitive language is not very obviously repetitive language but some essential hiddush made clear with the repetition, I’ll be more than happy to take this suggestion seriously. Until then, I’m going to have to say you’re both (yes, along with the Gri”z) just making stuff up, and treating R. Chaim like TMS.

  16. Joel- “The Truth”? Maileh if were talking psikat halacha, but there are many truths in shitot limud. Brisk, Volozhin, HaRav, Rav Ovadia; all are true but no one is “the truth”

  17. R’DT,
    It goes back to how one understands eilu v’eilu-I agree with you but some don’t-my point is that even according to them, it’s not a slam dunk that R’CS got it right.
    KT

  18. Jon_Brooklyn:

    “If either of you can provide an example where the very obviously repetitive language is not very obviously repetitive language but some essential hiddush made clear with the repetition, I’ll be more than happy to take this suggestion seriously. Until then, I’m going to have to say you’re both (yes, along with the Gri”z) just making stuff up, and treating R. Chaim like TMS”

    Gil: Do you accept such language about the Gri”z?

  19. Rabbis Hughes and Slifkin,

    Please translate and elucidate more of Reb Chaim. I would like to see more elucidations in more editions, which would be a major help to the realm of Limud ha Torah.

  20. just bought R. Hughes’ book and went through the chapter on rotzeach ushmiras nefesh. discussion was very clear. for those who lack linguistic mastery of halakhic texts but have a background in learning, this book is invaluable. thank you Rabbi Hughes.

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