Saturday, March 3, 2007


In his classic Dictionary of the English Language, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote that “pension” was “generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” This is just one instance of the many famous examples in which Johnson’s personal prejudices got the better of his professional detachment.

Nowadays, we expect more objectivity in our reference books. We would be more than a little surprised if a dictionary or encyclopaedia editor would allow defining “excise” as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” Although we might agree with Dr. Johnson’s opinion, it is hardly the kind of information we seek from a dictionary or an encyclopaedia.

Of course, no reference work can be absolutely objective. The beliefs, understanding and worldview of the authors and editors will always be reflected to some extent, even in the best works. The Hebrew Encyclopaedia Ha-Ivrit provides a telling example. The entry on “Religious Humanism” defines the concept as self-contradictory, and rejects the very possibility of Jewish Humanism. According to the Encyclopaedia Ha-Ivrit, religious humanism is an atheistic form of idolatrous worship of the self. Although Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Eliezer Schweid would no doubt disagree, the article reflects the idiosyncratic views of its author, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who as one of the encyclopaedia’s editors, seems to have allowed himself Johnsonian license.

It is this fear of radical subjectivity that leads some of us to be particularly suspicious of a source like Wikipedia. After all, anyone can write an article for Wikipedia, and anyone can edit existing articles. Some might expect that anarchic approach to result in a nightmare, but surprisingly, it has not..

Yet, even if Wikipedia is the product of collective authorship that does not reflect an editorial perspective, it nevertheless inevitably reflects the society that produces it. For example, the Hebrew version of Wikipedia is quintessentially Israeli. There are articles on the weekly Torah portion, Jewish law, the Knesset and its various committees, “Kalanterism” (the Israeli term for crossing party lines), the Shas party, Peace Now, the Yesha Council, Mizrachi, National Service, Black Hebrews, Land Day, the so-called “Bouzaglo test”, Jewish holidays, and Israeli cities, towns and settlements.

Tellingly, while there is a balanced, factual article on the late Rabbi Eliezer Schach’s infamous “Rabbits and Pigs Speech,” there is no entry for “pig”. There is also no entry for “shrimp,” which is, however, discussed in the article on seafood, where we are informed that shrimp and the like are not kosher and not common on Israeli tables. Although we think of Israel as a modern, western democracy, it is interesting to note that the Hebrew Wikipedia has merely brief “stubs” on pluralism, and cultural pluralism. That’s all, and that says a lot.

Napoleon’s declaration about the Jews of 1799, Sarah Aaronson’s last letter, the Balfour Declaration, the Torah, and the Laws of the State of Israel can all be found in the Hebrew Wikipedia, along with the text of Hatikva, and the original poem Tikvateinu. Surprisingly, there are detailed articles on baseball and American football, but the only thing you’ll find on lacrosse is an article on the Buick LaCrosse. Hebrew Wikipedia is still in its infancy. But reading its articles, and taking note of what its contributors have written and what they have not written can provide some interesting insights into Hebrew-speaking society.

And then there’s Yiddish Wikipedia. This is not a joke. is really out there, in more ways than one.

One might venture a guess that, as in the case of other boutique languages, the Yiddish Wikipedia represents a fairly small, and relatively homogenous society. One might also imagine that the primary surviving group of native speakers of Yiddish - Hyper-Orthodox Jews – would not have Internet access, let alone the inclination to devote time to contribute articles to an online encyclopedia. Yet, reading the articles would seem to contradict those a priori assumptions.

First, there is no mention of Conservative Judaism, and the article on Reform Judaism informs us that Reform Jews “behave half as Jews and half as gentiles, which is why assimilation is very high among them.” The definition of Lithuanian Jews (“Litvaks”) is no less quirky. Litvaks, we are told, are very religious. They follow the teachings of Vilna Gaon, and believe that Torah study is the main reason for living. However, the Litvaks do not speak Yiddish, they trim their beards, and wear their payis behind their ears. (This is a recent correction. The article used to say that Litvaks hid their payis behind their ears).

There is an entry for Coca Cola, which provides us with the important information that in Israel it is certified kosher by Rabbi Landau of Bnei Brak. This tendency to provide “useful” information is also evidenced in other articles. Thus, for example, we are told that one twists one’s payis to calm one’s nerves.

The article on Herzl begins by informing us that he was an assimilated Jew. The article on Ariel Sharon makes a hash of his military career and of history, making him an Israeli army general in 1945, at the age of seventeen, and three years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The sale of The New Republic was described as a sale of Martin Peretz's shares to a "Zionist goyish publisher, the Canadian CanWest company." Needless to say, the article on the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Mehachem Mendel Schneerson, does not mention that he may have died.

The above articles, and the fact that there are articles on virtually every Hassidic dynasty and rebbe, but only a few on the heads of the “Lithuanian” yeshivas, leads one to suspect that while the Litvaks are busy studying Torah, the Hassidim have discovered a way to give new meaning to avodah be-gashmiyut – worshiping God through the material world .