Talmud for Today

What Price the Future of Jewish Exegesis?

By Lawrence Grossman

Published November 23, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.
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The Talmud: A Selection
Selected, translated and edited by Norman Solomon
Penguin Classics, 896 pages, $16.00

By Lawrence Grossman

The distinguished Penguin Classics imprint began in 1946 with a translation of “The Odyssey,” and it has published more than 1,300 titles since, under the motto: “The best books ever written.” The inclusion of a volume of selections from the Talmud in a series of world classics is long overdue, since the Talmud is, in the words of Norman Solomon, editor of this anthology, “the classic text of Judaism, second only to the Bible.” The fact that it was never finally edited, Solomon explains, in no way diminishes its significance, since “Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book,” whose purpose is “to facilitate a discourse in progress” about how to apply Scripture — and hence the will of God — to every aspect of daily life.

One would hardly guess from such a benign description that the Talmud has been vilified more bitterly and over a longer period of time than any other Jewish literary production. In the Middle Ages, Christian spokesmen accused it of mocking the fundamentals of their faith, teaching contempt for Christians and delaying the conversion of the Jews by setting up a legalistic smokescreen that prevented them from seeing how the New Testament fulfilled the teachings of the Old. Copies of the Talmud were censored, confiscated and destroyed, largely explaining why the earliest extant manuscript of the entire Talmud dates back to only 1343.

The Talmud has not fared much better in modern times. Antisemites ascribed to it every vice they associated with Jews: xenophobia, materialism, aspirations to world domination and more. August Rohling titled his classic 19th-century work of Jew hatred “Der Talmudjude” (“The Talmud Jew”).

The 19th century also saw many Jews turn against the Talmud. As ghetto walls fell and Enlightenment liberalism began opening up Western society to Jewish participation, Jews eager for acceptance were embarrassed by a Talmudic legacy that presupposed an autonomous Jewish community closed off from broader cultural trends, posited a system of Jewish law separate from that of the host nation and, for good measure, operated according to a system of reasoning seemingly alien to modern modes of inquiry. Far more congenial for such Jews were the prophetic books of the Bible, with their universalistic message of ethics, social justice and peace. Zionist thinkers also denigrated the Talmud, but from the opposite standpoint: Unlike the Bible — the inspiring record of ancient Jewish political sovereignty — the Talmud reeked of exilic powerlessness and meek submission to the gentile.

Those eager to retrieve the Talmud’s good name were reduced to cherry-picking quotations from the work that they deemed wise or charming and passing them off as the Talmud, much as many Jews identify Sholom Aleichem’s character Tevye with prewar Eastern European Judaism. Emanuel Deutsch, the scholar who tutored novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in rabbinics, noticed this as early as 1867, when he criticized those who “have torn a few pieces off that gigantic living body.” A good example is “The Talmudic Anthology,” a very popular book, published in 1945, whose title page announces the real content: “Parables, Folk-tales, Fables, Aphorisms, Epigrams, Sayings, Anecdotes, Proverbs and Exegetical Interpretations.” One would never know that the Talmud is primarily concerned with the legal analysis that is the basis for living a Jewish life.

The publication of “The Talmud: A Selection” suggests that we have entered a new era in which the Talmud can be discussed objectively, without Jewish defensiveness or fear of antisemitism. By presenting meaty selections from every one of the 63 Talmudic tractates in English translation, the book conveys something of the real feel of the Talmud as a whole, interspersing complex legal discussions with stories, practical rulings and wide-ranging biblical commentary. Solomon’s introduction, which covers the history and literary character of the Talmud, and his erudite footnotes to the selections themselves, admirably convey the insights of both traditional and modern authorities, ranging from the classic Medieval commentary of Rashi to 20th-century figures like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

“The Talmud: A Selection” is so instructive and well crafted — as well as accessible to the educated reader who has never before studied Talmud — that it seems ungrateful to ask for more. But in truth, it could have used a short epilogue that would step back from the texts and examine the Talmud’s formative role in shaping the Jewish people, a long-range influence that takes the work out of the category of ancient literary curiosity and renders it a true “classic.”

The reader ought to be told, even in summary form, how the centuries that Jews spent steeped in the Talmud laid the basis for the contributions that their secularized descendants would make to world culture. The penchant for studying godly law and lore, for example, engendered the interests and habits that sparked later Jewish intellectual achievement; the open-ended Talmudic debates set the stage for some Jews to think “outside the box” and chart new paths in science and mathematics; the stress on rationality and quantification sharpened Jewish business acumen, and the wordplay, irony and whimsicality encountered in the Talmud bred a distinctive Jewish humor — no Talmud, no Woody Allen and no Seinfeld.

The publication of this impeccably scholarly and nonpolemical book of extensive selections from the Talmud comes at a time when serious Talmud study and the determination to live by the light of its teachings are almost exclusively confined to Orthodox Jews. If secular Jewish high achievers have been living largely off the cultural capital of their Talmudic progenitors, how many more generations will it take before the legacy of the Talmud fades out completely for them, leaving such Jews with… what?

Lawrence Grossman is editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

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