Monday, 28 January 2013
Bell Curves and Bechira - Ch. 18A - Camus' l'Etranger - Shaped By Torah and Jews
(k) Camus and de Beauvoir: Equally Influenced By Torah Existentialism
Sartre was not the only famed French Existentialist to be strongly affected by Torah and Judaism. For both Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, both these factors played major roles. Since de Beauvoir is considered one of the most influential feminist theorists, this also means that feminist theory has been strongly influenced in this manner as well, although there are many other such theorists, and in fact, feminism is a much wider discipline that includes many Jewish women directly.
Feminism is not the subject of this discussion, and we will not spend much time on this question, but it seemed to me I would be remiss if I did not mention de Beauvoir’s writing on this matter, as it was significant, but also as Torah influenced her major work on this subject and even more, her major contribution to the language used both by Existentialists and Feminists.
Camus is probably most famous for his book l’Etranger. The English translation of this novel is often translated as the Outsider, which is the translators’ and editors’ attempt to make his point more clear by interpreting the title in translation, rather than rendering it in a more literal version and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. I disagree with this strategy and the derived meaning, for reasons I will show shortly.
(l) Problems With Translating Lashon Kodesh into Other Languages
In terms of the choice to inject meaning into the translation which may not be the original intent of the author, the problem is that this changes the meaning of the work, and effectively forces the work to take on a new significance whose value depends on the beliefs of the translator, against the chosen intentions of the author.
One can easily see how this can be a problem by looking at some of the Artscroll translations of Nach. In their Stone Tanach's edition of Koheles, Artscroll renders the passage “He has also put the world in their hearts, so that man will not find out the work that G-d has done from the head even to the finish,” as “He has also put an enigma into their minds, so that man cannot comprehend what G-d has done from beginning to end. (Koheles 3:11)."
Artscroll makes no pretense not to use this tactic. They actually make this clear in both the title pages and introductions of their works, calling their translations “anthologized” translation, meaning that the editors and translators sift through enormous volumes of commentary and explication and select the meaning which best fits their understanding of the text. Yet the average Artscroll reader is unlikely to read introductions and may not understand this. There is an advanatage and disadvantage to such a system, of course.
On the positive side, this type of translation is very helpful for a reader without the Mesoretic background to understand that every translation uses some degree of judgment on the part of the reader, and that the Torah Jew normally has access to a broad-variety of scholarly opinions on any given passage that the student requiring translated works may not have.
The understanding a Frum From Birth individual has of the Parsha of the week, Talmud or of any similar text is shaped by Rashi, Targum Onkelos, and many further influences, such as Tosafos, Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Mikra’ot Gedolot, etc.
A translation which is slavishly literal lacks this connected nature, and this effectively forces the reader to learn Torah “out of context,” and this is not desirable for any Jew learning Torah “li’shmah,” who wishes to grow closer to Mesorah. The Mesorah is an unbroken chain of teaching from Har Sinai to us today, and is vital to the continuity and understanding of the Jewish people.
Artscroll’s translations can thus be tremendously helpful to the novice student or the Baal Teshuvah, and since most have parallel Hebrew and translated pages or sections, the intermediate student can check the understanding word-by-word, and the senior student can ignore the translation altogether.
The second benefit of this type of translation is that an obvious misunderstanding or inappropriate conclusion can be avoided. An enigma is not the same as "the world," and man's heart is not the same as his mind, although this expression is more complicated, as we will discuss in Part 4 of Bell Curves and Bechira (in short, the Talmudic explanation of mind includes functions of the body as a whole, not just the brain).
The negatives are two-fold as well.
First, this is a patronizing and judgmental method of translating. The translator is effectively declaring that the student does not have the right to read the true text and think for themselves, lacks the ability to understand the true meaning, or is somehow gifted with less bechira - the translator is making choices for them of what is desirable and undesirable within the Mesorah, where the entire purpose of the pluralism of Jewish Torah thought is intended to allow the thinking Jew to sort through many points of view and derive their own conclusions and understandings, granted within the boundaries of halacha and Mesorah, but this is self-evident - any work which ignores these issues is thus not part of the Mesorah because of this flaw itself.
Second, the translator may be incorrect or may choose incorrect sources to explain the meaning, thereby giving a very different understanding of the text from the correct one, as I showed with the single quotation from Koheles.
It is possible to explain how and why Rashi made the comment he did, and why Artscroll thought this was the better selection for their translation than the literal meaning, but this itself changes the meaning. Rashi, of course, would not do this - he gives his peirush “outside” the text. Since the Torah adjures us not to change a single word, this is tremendously controversial of Artscroll in itself, and an inherent difficulty of translating Torah into any other language.
(m) To See This Difficulty in Action, One Must Look No Farther than the Word "Torah"
Consider one example of how difficult this can be. What does the word “Torah” actually mean in English?
There are three correct understandings that I know of, and probably many I do not. The question becomes which is the understanding we select, given the impression we wish to convey to the student of the translation.
The most common, following Greek tradition, and already shown to be used in translation of the Ramban’s discussions at the Disputation of Barcelona, is “the Law.” This is a wonderful decision if one is approaching the Torah from the perspective articulated by Rashi, Rashi’s father, R’ Yitzchaki, ZT”L, Ramban, and in many cases, Chazal themselves, that everything in Torah constitutes some halachic teaching, now matter how agadic or existential it appears to be.
R’ Dr. Akiva Tatz brings one excellent example in his disc-set the Messianic Era (itself a surprisingly and enchantingly existential work), where he gives over, outside, a comment from Chazal: if everything in Torah teaches us a halacha, what do we learn from the comment in Tehilim that man’s days are but a passing shadow? We learn that it is a halacha to make every day count...
Thus, the Law is a good translation of Torah, as far as it goes. It neglects the incredible spiritual depth of the Torah, however, and presents Her to the new student as some dry and limiting work, given the English connotation of the word "law." The Torah is not named Ha’Mishpat, Ha’Din, or Ha’Halacha, is it? Students drawn to Kabbalah and Mussar will probably be dissatisfied with this translation, no matter how accurate it is within its own context.
The second translation is “Teaching.” This translation fits the complex and multi-faceted nature of the Torah beautifully. Whether Halacha, Agadata, Kabbalah, Mussar, Hashkafa or any other aspect of Torah, all are undoubtedly teachings about G-d and what He wants from His people and from humanity as a whole.
Yet this translation is very vague as well. Does this mean that learning English nursery rhymes is Torah, if it is taught in school? We all insert the meaning we know - "G-d’s teaching, given to the Jewish people at Har Sinai and in the Midbar, consistent with the lives, actions and values of the Avos and Imahos." Yet this relies on our understanding. The word “teaching” itself does not refer at all to G-d or spirituality! Lashon Kodesh is a much more powerful and precise tool than English.
Finally, we come to my favorite: Oraisa. Oraisa means “Light,” and thus Torah could either be translated as “the Light,” or perhaps better, “Enlightenment.” The Zohar and the Bahir, two very important works of Kabbalah, are also closely associated to light. Zohar means “Splendor” or "the Radiance" in translation, and the Bahir means “the Brilliance,” and is drawn from the first mishnah in the work, about the brilliance of G-d’s light.
For the mystically- or existentially-inclined Jew (I would argue these two are often the same person, myself), this translation is perhaps most appropriate. Yet this ignores the legal aspects of Torah, and one might not realize from this term that the Torah’s halachos are not guidelines or good ideas, but rather firm rules, commanded to us by Moshe Rabbeinu, and received by him directly from Hashem Yisborach.
It is interesting that, of these three, Oraisa is the translation which was the first one used by Jews. When we entered our first exile from Eretz Yisrael as a people - the Babylonian exile - we began to speak Aramaic, a patois primarily made up of Babylonian and Hebrew - a precursor to the similarly developed patois known as Yiddish. This is, then, how Jews first conveyed to each other the meaning of "Torah" in another language.
Translation into Greek, with the meaning being “the Law,” was in the times of the Greek Exile, when we were actually forced to do so, and when many Jews were enamored of Helenistic ideas and had begun to abandon Torah for the ways of non-Jews.
In the Babylonian Exile, we had certainly strayed from a derech of Torah, but Jews were not yet trying to be assimilated Babylonians.
The term the Law, then, reinforces the understanding that the Torah is a divine chiyuv, an obligation all Jews are given by their Creator, to lessen the impact of Galus on the Jewish people. Changing times and changing needs lead to changing translation by our Sages. Yet the term Torah has not changed, and its Lashon Ha’Kodesh meaning encompasses all three terms used here.
(n) Who Knows Best - the Translator or the Reader?
In their translation of Shir Ha’Shirim in the Stone Tanach, Artscroll uses Rashi’s allegorical translation as the English primary version, and refers the reader to tiny sections at the bottom of the page for the actual literal version.
Again, Rashi did not do this. He “decoded” Shir Ha’Shirim so that one who did not see the deeper meaning would be able to do so. Artscroll’s use of this allegory as translation is for obvious reasons: Shlomo’s amazing work on love of G-d is in a feminine voice, and so obviously sexualized that it is difficult for the modern rabbinical community to discuss this topic in many cases. What if someone’s young child reads this literal translation and asks their parents “why does Shlomo write as a woman, and what is all this information I don’t understand?”
Again, the problem is obvious. Shlomo Ha’Melech, OH”S, wrote the work, and selected his words carefully. Had he intended the pshat of the work to read as Rashi wrote his decoding, he would have selected this version from the outset. Did Shlomo Ha'Melech lack wisdom that Artscroll possesses? This cannot be the case.
I remember attending a truly beautiful shiur on Shir Ha’Shirim at the Kollel Avreichim in Toronto, run by R’ Pesach Moldaver. The class was an hour or two long, and involved young boys, perhaps eight to twelve years old, singing Shir Ha’Shirim, from beginning to end, using its unique and beautiful ta’amim.
At the end, students received prizes of sforim or similar items based on raffel numbers they were given at the beginning, and treats like "Bislis" and soft-drinks.
It was so beautiful to hear - and in my case, to participate, as I had never had this opportunity, as a Baal Teshuvah - that I was often in tears by the end of the reading. This shiur was held every Yom Shishi mi’bod yom during the summer, which was a tremendous way to build up towards Shabbos. I recorded one session for my son, and this recording is still a treasured possession.
For those who would like to hear this recording, I have uploaded it for you at:
I wondered the first time I attended, however, how R’ Moldaver would manage the questions of the children about the language. These young boys were Frum From Birth, and understood Lashon Kodesh far better than I did, despite my being almost five times the age of many of them.
Not a single question was asked. Lo kashia - it is simply not a difficulty to them. Children are sometimes wiser than adults.
If this is true, why does Artscroll think there is some problem with adults and children who do not know Lashon Kodesh reading a literal translation? Is Artscroll more machmir than the Lakewood Yeshiva hashkafa of Ha’Rav Aron Kotler, ZT”L, out of whose traditions the Kollel Avreichim in Toronto was founded and directed by its roshei kollel, R’ Hershman and R’ Miller, shlita?
Myself, I prefer to know the literal version of what I am reading, and to have the commentary provided to me separately and distinctly. I only realized how different Artscroll’s translations are from the literal meaning when I began to write about Koheles in a close textual manner, analyzing word-by-word, and noticed the discrepancies. When I began writing about Sefer Iyov, the discrepancies seemed so profound to me, it seemed to me that Artscroll’s editors and translators at least distort the meaning of Iyov, and more likely fail to understand it!
This is not so shocking as it might seem. Since Sefer Iyov discusses the issue of Tzadik v’Rah Lo, Rasha V’Tov Lo, it is the one subject so difficult even Moshe Rabbeinu could not understand it (and probably authored Iyov), and a complete understanding certainly eludes me as well.
Sefer Iyov is also very challenging hashkafically, and Artscroll is clearly very wary of any translation they feel might weaken emunah. Yet the point remains: this is what Moshe Rabbeinu wrote for the Jewish people to read. Who is Artscroll to tell Moshe he is wrong? Did Moshe, the Eved Ne’eman, lack emunah or the understanding of how to teach it? Rather, it is the case that our generation is a result of thousands of years of Yeridat Ha’Doros, the decline of the generations, and we do not understand emunah as HE did.
(o) The Proper Translation of "l'Etranger" is "the Stranger" - and This Is Vital to Understanding Camus
This is a long digression on the issue of translation, but I hope, a useful and purposeful one. It does, however, relate to our discussion of Albert Camus’ novel l’Etranger, and the influence of Torah on both Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.
I would translate l’Etranger as “the Stranger.” When translated as “the Outsider,” much like Artscroll, the translators of Camus are imposing their understanding of Camus’ original choice of wording on their readers, with the assumption we will not understand what Camus is saying without this "assistance," or that our conclusions might be different from theirs, and that they alone have the correct understanding of his work, given their scholarly efforts. This is quite arrogant, and my translation of this title shows a very interesting influence of Camus by the Torah that cannot be made if the title is “the Outsider.”
In Torah, the word for stranger is "Ger." In different contexts, "ger" can be translated differently: as much as it is stranger, it can also mean convert to Judaism, or someone dwelling temporarily or permanently in a community he is not native to, and in some contexts, a righteous Goyishe individual.
For those who would argue that "ger" can only mean "convert," consider Moshe Rabbeinu’s words when he named his son Gershom - "I have been a stranger in a foreign land (Shemos 2:22)." Did Moshe Rabbeinu, CV”S, convert to Midyanite religion? Of course not. He is referring to his status as an alien, and yes, as an outsider.
Yet "Ger" is not translated as “outsider.” If Camus chose the word “stranger,” it is closely connected to the existential alienation felt by a stranger in any group not his own, and epitomized by the words of Moshe Rabbeinu, OH"S. The selection of this specific word, however, gives the game away - and sheds light on Simone de Beauvoir as well, in her discussions of “the Other.”
For those who have not read Camus’ work, or not for some time, the novel is a very strange one if read without an understanding of his existentialist intent. For one who knows the work but does not see the philosophy behind it, the connection to Torah must seem bizarre.
Camus’ novel follows a disaffected man on a beach who, for almost no apparent reason, decides to shoot and kill a man he does not know, and is then arrested, tried and sentenced by a society which does not understand, or even attempt to understand him, and which he does not attempt to understand either. The entire novel is one extended experience of alienation and dissonance in communication. The Stranger - the protagonist - simply cannot understand the French society he lives in.
This is not a choice, but a simple truth. It is equally true that they cannot understand him. He is his own little world, cut off from the larger one around him, by his very choice to act as he sees fit, and not to be bound by the conventions and mores of those around him, who seem, comparatively, simple-minded, opinionated, inauthentic, conventional in the extreme, and in short, assimilationist. Peer-pressure and convention, not wisdom or authenticity, guide the angry and patronizing society in its treatment of the murderous stranger.
He is, to them, un-knowable, not because they choose not to in his personal case, but because they have no depth of self-knowledge. This is the critical choice at the center of the work - the knowledge of self, not the knowledge of others. Camus seems to suggest that it is the inauthentic knowledge of self which leads to the inability of human beings to connect to each other on an authentic basis at the societal level.
There is no doubt Camus is not advocating murder or suggesting it is acceptable. His point is rather that the choice to murder by the Stranger is driven by motivations and beliefs held sacred to him as a part of his authentic self-awareness, and is thus a completely unintelligible one to those around him, who effectively sleep-walk through their lives without giving it much thought - and in fact, who seek to avoid thinking about it whenever possible. Their very anger at the Stranger is more driven by his forcing them to think about their own bad faith than it is by his crime.
(q) Kafkaesque From Beginning to End, While Lacking Authentic Jewish Angst
The entire work is so clearly reminiscent of Kafka’s story “the Judgment” in its tone, that one cannot fail to note how indebted Camus, like Sartre, is to Franz Kafka, and the Jewish writer’s sense of alienation as a Jew in Czech society, and from his own father, society and species.
Kafka’s expression of existential alienation was driven completely by his own personal experience, and “the Judgment” is as much an autobiographical work as it is an existential one. The transformation of Kafka’s sense of paralyzing guilt over his father’s disappointment in him is transformed through Kafka’s usual surreal technique into a judgment and suicide which did not actually take place in a literal way.
Thus we can see that Camus, like Sartre, was heavilly influenced by the writing, technique, life and thought of Franz Kafka, the prototypical angst-ridden Jew in Galus, who was, in turn, shaped by his love of the writing of R’ Nachman of Breslev, and the latter’s longing, like Kafka’s, for redemption.
No redemption theme can be seen in Camus’ l’Etranger (or in “the Judgment” for that matter), but I would argue the French Existentialists, like Camus, transformed the Jewish concept of Ge’ulah into a philosophical possibility of a world where everyone is authentic in thought and deed. It is probable they did not think such a profound world would ever actually be reached, however desirable they might have felt this would be.
Camus' choice of expressing his philosophy through fiction is also derived from Kafka's demonstration of the effectiveness of doing so, just as Sartre's was, and Kafka's was shaped, in turn, by R' Nachman's understanding of the value of stories as hashkafic tools.
(r) Torah Does Not Need Existentialists, But Existentialists Need Torah
It is clear, then, that Camus’ most well-known work of Existential philosophy was shaped by his impressions of the Jew in Exile, from Franz Kafka, indirectly, R’ Nachman of Breslev, and Moshe Rabbeinu, and thus, the Torah itself.
From this one can see that while the Torah-literate Jew does not need Existentialist philosophy to enlighten them, the Existentialist philosopher absolute needs both the Torah, and the Jewish bearer of it, to produce his own insight into “the human condition.”