Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Michael ha-Levi Rodkinson, or: When you should just publish

A recent volume of Tarbits (74:2) includes a response by Roni Shweka to an article by my friend, Mira Balberg. They both grapple with a section in Halakhot Gedolot, and argue over how to determine whether or not it was originally part of the work. Shweka's bottom line is that it is impossible to say anything conclusive about Halakhot Gedolot without first completing all the work on the textual witnesses, including all the Genizah fragments. That sounds like a standard Hebrew University position. And I think that most people would respond that a lot of it is sour grapes, and it's not so terrible to make a suggestion based on partical evidence. Sometimes it's better to just publish.

That seems to have been the policy of Michael Rodkinson (1845-1904). And his succes has ramifications till today.

Rodkinson grew up as a Habad hassid. His brother moved to Jerusalem and became a respected publisher there. He himself also became a publisher. In 1870 he published editions of the Pardes and the responsa of Rabbi Yosef ibn Migash. He also published a newspaper - the first Hebrew bi-weekly - called Ha-Kol.

But he is more famous, and infamous, for his volumes of hassidic stories, published starting in the 1860s. These, especially Shivhe Ha-Rav about the Baal ha-Tanya, became immensely popular and influential. People who knew nothing about Hassidut thrilled at the stories and were moved by the simple morality they conveyed. More serious students of Hassidut, though, were enraged because many of these stories were entirely fictional. Joseph Dan has in recent years named the kind of nostalgic Hassidic story-telling that Rodkinson popularized Frumkinian Hassidism, and Gedalyah Nigal republished his stories in 1988.

Rodkinson's notoriety grew because of his role in the Rohling affair, in which he opposed Joseph Samuel Bloch, thus, in effect, supporting the cause of the anti-Semites.

Rodkinson was reviled for his stories, his politics and his journalism, by Ephraim Deinard, in a book titled Mashge Ivrim. He was also accused of forging the Khorason Hassidic papers by R Meir Dan Plotsky (see Yeshurun 2). Altogether, he was not a very popular character. Someone who worked with him at his newspaper, Ha-Kol, described him as completely lacking in convictions or beliefs. Which, as Gideon Kouts pointed out, made him the ideal newspaper editor.
But not the ideal translator of the Talmud. Of course, the task of translating the Talmud has often brought out the worst people, and the worst in people. But this particular translation, by virtue of having been published at the beginning of the 20th century and therefore free of copyright, has the distinction of being the only full text version available online. Which has tremendous ramifications, as any Google search for Rodkinson will show you.

So, maybe it would have been better if someone better qualified had just done the job and got it out there.


Anonymous andy said...

Being reviled by Deinard puts him in some pretty good company.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Dan Rabinowitz said...

A couple of points. His translation of the Talmud was an abrigded version. he cut as he saw fit. Included in some of his cuts were passages that were repeated in other sections, which is absurd. J.D. Eisenstein wrote a harsh review of Rodkinson's edition of the Talmud (it was reprinted in Otzar Zikrohonoti). Dinard also accused of being an apostate (at least for a short period of time). And in atleast three of Dinard's other works he rakes Rodkinson over the coals.

1:38 AM  
Blogger Dan Rabinowitz said...

Additionally, Soncino was translating the (entire) Talmud at about the same time, so it was not as if without Rodkinson we would be lost.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Lia said...

Can you say more about translating the Talmud bringing out the worst people and the worst in people?
(Good to see you back in cyberspace.)

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Yehuda said...

He was not just a Chabad Chosid. He was the grandson of R' Aharon Strosheler, who was the greatest disciple of the Baal Hatanya and a Chabad Rebbe who competed for leadership of Chabad, against R. Dov Ber, the Baal Hatanya's son, known as the Mittler Rebbe.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Which has tremendous ramifications, as any Google search for Rodkinson will show you.

Search for Rodkinson nothing. It's currently the second link in a Google search for talmud.

4:47 PM  

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