The Surprising After-Life of the First English Translation of the Talmud

After all of the criticism, the minor renewed interest notwithstanding, Rodkinson remained generally neglected. Where recalled, it was more often negatively, and, concerning his translation, in a disparaging manner. Rodkinson is not mentioned in Jewish Publishing in America, nor in The Jews in America: A History. In the latter case, Albert Mordell, reviewing the book for the Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, wrote, “Another woeful lack is that of mention of translations from Hebrew classics in whole or part, even though some of these translations were, like M. L. Rodkinson’s Talmud, not of a high order.” He is also neglected in Meyer Waxman’s A History of Jewish Literature, where mention is made of several translations in various languages. Where the New Talmud is remembered it is negatively, as in Yehuda Slutsky’s comment, “In his later years he devoted himself to translating the Talmud. The value of this translation, printed in two editions, lies only in the fact that it is a pioneering effort.” A biographer of Wise writes that “In 1898 he gave his name to Michael Rodkinson’s quack translation of the Talmud. . . .” More diplomatically, Jacob Rader Marcus, writes, that Rodkinson’s translations “were anything but felicitous and did little to enhance the understanding of the Talmud by non-Hebraists.” Most recently, R. Adam Mintz concludes that “Rodkinson’s work was rejected because of its poor quality, and not because of an objection on principle to this type of abridged translation.”

Rodkinson took great pride in his translation of the Talmud. Indeed, his tombstone has an inscription stating that he was the translator of the Babylonian Talmud, certainly an attribution of questionable accuracy. It is ironic that Rodkinson, who did have other earlier accomplishments, is credited with and remembered for, and negatively at that, a work for which he was responsible and did oversee, but was, in truth, performed, either in its entirety or in part, by others.

There is an epilogue to the New Talmud story. After all of the above it would seem evident that the New Talmud has been forgotten, only remembered by students of Jewish literary history. However, that is not entirely the case, for the New Talmud has been revived, particularly in non-Jewish circles, on the Internet. The Internet Sacred Text Archive has posted the entire text of the “The Babylonian Talmud Translated by M.L. Rodkinson [1918].” Their website is cited by a number of other Internet sites, including at least one for Jewish studies. The New Talmud is available on CD from both the Sacred Text Archive, as one of 500 religious texts ($49.95), and from B & R Samizdat Express, in the latter instance together with several other Jewish texts ($29.95). A number of used and rare book sites offer individual volumes and entire sets of the New Talmud at a wide range of prices.

Internet Sacred Text Archive and Samizdat Express simply reproduce the text and are neutral in outlook. Unfortunately, other Internet sites, more often than not anti-Semitic, reference and quote from the New Talmud. This is also the case with a number of anti-Semitic books. Most surprisingly, to conclude on a relatively positive note, the New Talmud reappears on the reading list for college courses, for example, a lecture on “The Tractate Avot and Rabbinic Judaism,” in Reed College. It seems that Michael Levi Rodkinson’s New Talmud has in fact not been forgotten. Whatever its shortcomings, it has found an audience and is alive today in new and unanticipated formats.

Marvin J. Heller, “Deciphering the Talmud: The First English Edition of the Talmud Revisited. Michael Levi Rodkinson: His Translation of the Talmud, and the Ensuing Controversy”Seforim Blog (19 May 2013).