Why do People Speak About the Talmud in Jargon?

Two widely diverse items that we read this weekend made us ask, Why do people speak about the Talmud in jargon?

The question, in greater detail, in two parts, is first, Why do American Yeshiva trained Jews speak about Talmudic matters in a private dialect of English that some call "Yeshivish" and others call "Frumspeak"? (The similar question may be raised for Hebrew discourse about the Talmud. It too is in a dialect separate and apart from the secular modern Hebrew that is spoken in the marketplace in Israel today.)  And second, Why do some university scholars speak about the Talmud in inaccessible learned terms?

The Forward's Philologos column proposes to explain this week, "How To Understand Yeshivish." It's the beginning of a good discussion of the subject. However the columnist does not cite much linguistic theory on dialects. He does conclude that Yeshivish is not a distinct language and will not become one. But the research for the claim is sadly missing. He cites no authority or scholar, and hence leaves his opinion bare and exposed to a simple rebuttal, such as, I disagree with you. And the writer of that column makes a bunch of mistakes in re-translating the example texts that he embeds in his essay from the Yeshivish dialect into standard English style, which does not foster confidence in the solidity of his viewpoint.

Out of the comments on that Forward piece we found our way to Havolim, a learned blog actually written in Yeshivish, where the blog owner warns all comers, "How to use this site - Some knowledge of Yeshivishe jargon is helpful for this Site." We wish other Orthodox sites would be so self aware as to put disclaimers up and warn their readers.

The question we raise though is, What about the Talmud makes it so necessary that a special private dialectic way of speaking be used to discuss it?

That question became more urgent in our mind as we tried yesterday to read the new American scholarly book, Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

We say "tried" because this book is written in a dialect of its own with no self aware disclaimer for the reader. Okay, the author really does not have to warn us. As Havolim opines in "About Me" on his blog page, "I'm sorry if the yeshivishe jargon puts you off, but I don't understand Pound or Derrida, and I don't expect them to accommodate me." So sure, author Barry Scott Wimpfheimer of the learned book in question need not warn nor accommodate, a broader readership in his original and intelligent writing about the Talmud's legal stories.

But again we ask, Why do people invest the time and effort to say complex and learned things about the Talmud in such private dialects -- be they Yeshivish or Frum-speak, in the one instance, or Derrida-ish deconstruction-ese in the other case?

The obvious answer is that when speaking about the Talmud, it makes sense to people to mirror what the Talmud itself does, namely employ a sui-generis discourse style, unlike any other.

And you do this when you want to restrict your audience and speak only to the privileged. In the ancient and modern rabbinic case, that would be the rabbis and their students. Nobody else should be able to access the discourse.

In the modern literary critical case, that would be the cadre of other literary critics. Again nobody else should be able to access that discourse.

By asserting privilege, writers in both instances one, create a sense of charisma for their respective writings and two, effectively curtail criticism from outsiders.

Enfin, if you cannot understand what people are saying, one, you may assume it is because they are smarter than you, and two, you have no right or ability to say that they are wrong.


Eliezer Eisenberg said...

Self aware I am, for better or for worse. One of the wonderful things about the net is how it so often generates hitherto highly unlikely cross currents, such as this. But to the point: I think that every area of interest develops a jargon by creating clear and concise terms for concepts and objects peculiar to that field. Everyone does this, from surfers to janitors to philosophers.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

Ah yes, nice to have you comment. One issue is the degree of transparency - can others enter into the discourse with relative ease if they want to...?

b said...

There are two completely different tracks in Talmud study, as I suspect you know. One is that of the serious amateur, and the other of the person who immerses himself in it. The serious amateur can accumulate a great deal of knowledge. But the immersion method, which requires years of absolute focus, changes the student's intellectual perspective. You can see this division in yeshivos: the two groups seem to have different languages. More: within Talmud study, those that focus on Sacrificial Law and those that focus on Civil Law often have a hard time communicating. It's not intentional. It just happens. natural result of that