Friday, May 15, 2009

Errata I

Two readers of my book have pointed out to me a serious error I made in regard to the Gaon of Vilna. Lawrence Kaplan suggested that I take a second look at a particular passage when I saw him at a conference in December and more recently Arie Stern wrote to me to point out that something seemed wrong with my translation of a description of the Gaon's endorsement of the Kuzari. I am very grateful to them for pointing this out. I hope readers of the book who also spot the error somehow find their way to this blog and see this correction as I do not know whether there will be a second edition and an opportunity for me to correct the mistake in print.

Here is how I quoted the Gaon of Vilna (The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, p.275):

“And the Gaon lamented over Sefer Menorat ha-Maor and Sefer Hovot ha-Levavot, except for the section on the unity of God. Instead of this section, however, he would say that one should learn the Kuzari ha-Rishon which is holy and pure and the fundamentals of the faith of Israel and the Torah are hanging in it; and he would lament over Sefer Mesilat Yesharim.”

The source of this statement is a nineteenth-century work by Baruch Broyde included in his Sefer Beit Yaakov (Jerusalem, 1994).

Messrs Kaplan and Stern both raised a question about my translation “lamented over.” And indeed, I made a big mistake here.

I first saw a copy of Sefer Beit Yaakov in Jerusalem in 1997-1998 and took my notes on it rather quickly--too quickly as it turns out.

More than 10 years later, the book is now available in digital format at Comparing the digitized version to my notes from a decade ago, I see immediately where I went wrong:

The text actually says that the “Gaon honored Sefer Menorat ha-Maor and Sefer Hovot ha-Levavot, except for the section on the unity of God..... and he honored Sefer Mesilat Yesharim.”

Where the original text had “מחבב” I mistakenly transcribed "מיבב". I was taking notes on the computer and I’m not a very good typist in Hebrew. Apparently, I mistakenly typed a “yud” rather than a “het.”
In other words, I read it as a form of the verb יבב (to lament, to weep, to wail) rather than the correct “honored” (or “loved” or “cherished”).

The correct reading also makes much more sense, especially given my other findings. The Kuzari, held in very high regard, is cited as the proper substitution for the highly philosophical section of Hovot ha-Levavot which is otherwise an honored book, along with the other musar classics, Menorat ha-Meor and Mesilat Yesharim.

On the basis of my misreading I advanced the notion that perhaps the Gaon’s disciples were somehow trying to counter the popularity of these books among Hasidim. This notion must be entirely discounted when the passage is read correctly.

I do not think this detracts from my overall argument that the Kuzari functioned as an authority for maskilim, Hasidim, and mitnagdim for most of the nineteenth century and that the Kuzari was considered a “safe” way to learn some philosophy. Indeed, the correct reading may actually strengthen the larger argument of the book.

I accept full responsibility for this error and for not re-checking the Hebrew. Although I only discovered that the book was available on-line this spring after receiving Mr. Stern’s note, I should have endeavored to check the original before publication.

A series of lessons in what to avoid in scholarship--my note-taking was too hasty; I should have paused longer over what seemed to be a strange statement in a primary source; and I should have re-checked the original before publishing a translation.

(Another small error: the work included in Sefer Beit Yaakov is “Tosefet Maaseh Rav” not “Toledot Maaseh Rav.”)

I expect other readers will find other errors; please write and let me know about them.