Reviews - What do customers think about Responsa: Literary History of a Rabbinic Genre?
shockingly bungled attempt at a scholarly book Jul 14, 2001
This book claims to be a basic history of rabbinic responsa. But if you are really looking for a good book on that subject, you must look elsewhere, regrettably. Although the book was published by a well-known scholarly press, it would appear that the publisher did not ask anyone competent in rabbinics or talmudic jurisprudence to look over the book beforehand. It would also appear that the author himself rarely consulted standard translations of the Talmud, or even bothered to look up critically important words and phrases in commonly available talmudic dictionaries, such as Jastrow's.
As a result, the book is rife with mistranslations and misunderstandings of key Hebrew and Aramaic legal terms and concepts. For instance, Haas translates "arev kablan" as "one against whom a lien is held" although it really means "one who has guaranteed a loan." A more shocking example: Haas translates the legal term "din merumah" as "too much litigation," when in reality it means "court proceedings dealing with a fraudulent claim!" In both cases the correct translation of the mistranslated term could have been found in any Aramaic or Hebrew dictionary, or in any standard English edition of the Talmud. As a result of serious mistakes like these, most of the legal discussions and analyses found in this book end up being irrelevant to the subject and merely extended flights of fancy. To state it frankly, many of the longer translations of passages in rabbinic literature are no more than gibberish.
The most shocking example, in my opinion, of Haas building up major theses on mistaken premises can be found on pages 150-151: Regarding a certain responsum of Rashi he writes, "What the responsum does not do is the one thing we might expect, namely, to frame matters explicitly around talmudic precedents. . ." The surprising truth is that in reality this very responsum uses no fewer than SIX talmudic prooftexts! Haas's translation of the responsum shows that he simply did not recognize passages from the Talmud when they were being quoted or cited! (If he had, he might have looked them up and translated them correctly!) Basing himself on this erroneous assessment, Haas claims that Rashi was not interpreting the Talmud and applying its rulings on the authority of its authors, but was actually making up the law on his authority, as he felt right, and was utilizing talmudic jargon merely to obfuscate the matter for the laity! He writes, "The nature of the discourse is such as to discourage secular adjudication by invoking technical, one might say, holy discourse of the rabbinate."
Although Peter Haas holds a Masters degree from Hebrew Union College, is an ordained Reform rabbi, and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Brown University (supervised by, not surprisingly, none other than that infamous academic charlatan, Jacob Neusner) he does not seem to possess any competence in or even basic familiarity with talmudic and rabbinic jurisprudence. It is profoundly disconcerting that such a book could be authored by an Ivy-League-trained scholar and published by a scholarly press. For a thorough critical (and sometimes humorous) review of this sad book, read Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's essay in volume 24 issue 1 (1999) of the prestigious AJS Review. (AJS=Association for Jewish Studies)