You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Moses Hadas, Democratizing the Classics

Lawrence Bush
June 24, 2017

Moses Hadas, a linguist and scholar of the classics who democratized the study of ancient books at Columbia University by emphasizing the value of studying them as literature, even in English translation, was born on this date in 1900. Ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hadas was fluent in Yiddish, German, ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. Teaching for decades at Columbia, he described himself as “a renegade from the principles of my own teachers as to believe that the teaching of ancient books in translation, even of the Bible, is a good thing.” “Both as a teacher and as a translator of the classics,” writes his daughter, poet Rachel Hadas, he “prized clarity above all. He saw that each generation needs its own versions, and in On Teaching Classics in Translation he has penetrating things to say about the perils of Victorian renderings of Greek tragedy that give students the misleading impression that Aeschylus or Euripides were Old Testament prophets. He once commented: ‘It’s a little too much to expect a student to pick up a Victorian translation of the Iliad. He’s got two strikes against him if he does. No, let each age put down the classics in its own language, just so long as they keep the spirit of the original.’ ” A prolific writer, Hadas also made use of television, recording, and other technologies to spread his message about the value of the classics as literature. “The first rule, especially hard for teachers fresh from graduate school to apply, is to teach the book, not about the book,” he wrote. “It is easier to lecture about the time and place of a book, the culture that produced it, the special historical or linguistic problems involved in it. It is harder, but more to our purpose, to face the book as a masterpiece and to help the student understand why it is a masterpiece.”

“He was a Southerner by upbringing and accent . . . then a New Yorker. He was a rabbi, then a professor; then, like many academics in his generation, an O.S.S. operative who, more unusually, took an active interest in Greek politics after the war; and then a professor again, not to mention a talking head on TV and a telelecturer. He was a scholar at home in three ancient languages who was also a Groucho Marx fan.” --Rachel Hadas

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.