Friday, June 16, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- who did what?

Since Talmud doesn’t show signs of the claimed textual emendation, and halakhah did not change as a result of those 14 cases of qetani l’tsdadin, I have to ask what the author means by “emend”. The everyday meaning of emend is to change something, in order to improve it or fix a problem.
In the article under discussion, the author used Rashi’s comments on Talmud as an example of emendation. In the actual Talmud, however, Rashi’s comments are marginal notes in the classic Vilno edition. They repeat part of the text which appears on the page, and then they explain it as Rashi understands it. The famous Adin Steinsaltz himself refers to Rashi’s commentary as proposed emendations, so pre-Rashi editions would not have his notes and also would have the same text as what he commented on.
If this is the meaning of emendation that the author is working by, he failed to support it in his writing.
The author claims that a descendant of Rashi says Rashi’s viewpoint did result in changes to the text of Talmud. The paper I’m talking about does not, however, go to the lengths of finding a manuscript of Talmud from before Rashi’s time that differs from the Vilno edition. Instead, he cites to an authority as reporting what Rashi’s descendant said. We can’t check the cited authority; it’s still under copyright and it’s not online courtesy of the author or publisher.  So we can’t be sure that this descendant actually saw both pre- and post-Rashi manuscripts with different texts.
But online resources tell us that Rabbenu Tam, a descendant of Rashi, had a problem with emendations by R. Meshullam b. Natan of Melun, and possibly R. Ephraim b. Isaac of Regensburg, to Rashi’s own commentaries, not to the actual Talmud. So we aren't getting a true picture of who did what to whom when, and nobody told our writer “hey, you got this wrong.”
It took a lot of work to find these things out. I didn’t even find the Steinsaltz thing until about a week before I posted this. A writer should not be satisfied just to borrow an idea here and there. An author has to suppose that her source might have abbreviated for space, misunderstood, or just plain misquoted to suit a viewpoint.  It takes experience with all these issues to develop the suspicious sort of mind that looks behind the sources to the primary documents.
And it’s the job of peer review to teach young writers how to develop a suspicious mind – but only if the advisor has been put through the same kind of training. Apparently the writer we’re talking about didn’t have that kind of advisor.
But first, both of them would need the tools to access the primary documents. The author of this paper didn’t have the tools to know that  a) he was quoting the phrase backward, let alone b) that the primary document didn’t support his claims about the phrase. Neither did those who performed his peer review.
Or else he was relying on his “peers” not to check up on him. Understand, the great rule of writing is “know your audience.” Know what they are interested in, know how to phrase things so that they can understand or accept what you say, know what they know so that you can either cater to it or extend it.
If the author intended to extend his peers’ knowledge of Talmud, he failed to give them accurate information. If he was catering to them, he relied on their lack of knowledge, tools, or willingness to check up on him, to let his work pass for acceptable. 
Which is a pretty sad thing to have to say about a scholarly writer and his peers. This topic will come up again in the last part of this blog.

In the next post I'll give an illustration of what this whole section means and prep you for the final part of the blog.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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