How Jews Became the People of the Talmud

Thinkers Have Long Puzzled Over Oral and Written Traditions

By Lawrence Grossman

Published October 26, 2011, issue of November 04, 2011.
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Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures
By Talya Fishman
University of Pennsylvania Press, 424 pages, $65

Basic to Jewish religious teaching is the distinction between “written” Torah — Scripture, the Jewish Bible — and so-called “oral” Torah, a diffuse tradition of legal and homiletic rabbinic commentary that over the centuries has interpreted and elaborated the written corpus and applied it to shifting social, economic and political realities. This oral component, sensitive to historical change, has worked to prevent religious fossilization.

Paradoxically, the distinction between written and oral Torah remains, even though the latter lost its oral quality centuries ago. Since then it has been studied and conveyed in written form, scholars of each generation producing volumes upon endless volumes. Why and how what was oral became written is a question that has interested Jewish thinkers since at least the year 987 C.E., when Sherira Gaon, head of the Pumbedita yeshiva, in Baghdad, wrote a lengthy letter dealing with the subject in response to a query from North Africa. And the issue, by no means settled today, continues to draw scholarly interest.

Talya Fishman’s new book, “Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures,” addresses an important aspect of the subject. The Babylonian Talmud (there is also a Palestinian version, called the Jerusalem Talmud, that has had far less influence) emerged as the central and most authoritative accretion of generations of oral Torah — legal disputes, biblical exegesis, legends, folklore and more. It developed in Mesopotamia during the sixth and seventh centuries C.E., though changes in its memorized formulation continued long afterward. At some point it became a written document, a multivolume work at first copied by hand, and, since the 16th century, printed. It became the almost exclusive subject of study in yeshivas, especially in Ashkenazic Europe, and remains so today. Hardly confined to rabbinic scholars, Talmud study also attracts the intellectual energies of a considerable portion of the Orthodox laity, most notably in the form of the daf yomi program, in which participants around the world study a page a day, culminating in the completion of the entire talmudic cycle roughly every seven years.

Fishman, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to pinpoint when and how the Babylonian Talmud as a physical book turned into the very essence of Jewish learning, or, put conversely, how the People of the Book — the Jews who brought the Bible to the world — became, as her title puts it, the “People of the Talmud.” She also addresses the social and religious impact of the change.

With admirable candor, the author admits that she is not a scholar of Jewish law — the primary talmudic genre — but rather an intellectual and social historian. She has certainly done her homework, though, providing 162 pages of glossary, endnotes and bibliography for 224 pages of text, a proportion that will force those compulsive about checking documentation to flip pages back and forth at a furious pace. And many nonacademic readers might find Fishman’s prose hard going, as she carries on running battles with scholars dead and living who have weighed in on the heavily contested history of the Talmud.

Fishman’s thesis, though, is exciting and well argued. She demonstrates not only that even when written copies existed, the Talmud in Mesopotamian, North African and Iberian Jewish communities of the early Middle Ages was still primarily transmitted by word of mouth, but also that authoritative pronouncements on Jewish law often diverged from that Talmud. It was only in 11th- and 12th-century France and Germany — the Ashkenazic heartland — that Jews began to experience Talmud “as readers studying a book,” and that book came to be viewed as the paramount guide to practice, a process similar to the shift going on at the same time among non-Jews, as Northern European Christianity moved to a text-based culture from a custom-based one.

The work of the 11th-century French scholar known as Rashi facilitated the treatment of Talmud as one long book by preparing the authoritative running commentary still in use today. The next step, accomplished by several generations of scholars beginning with Rashi’s grandsons — collectively known as the Tosafists — was to identify and seek to reconcile the multiple contradictions in the book, a problem that had rarely surfaced when the Talmud was an oral tradition. By the 13th century, this focus on the intricacies of the written text had spread across the Pyrenees to scholars in Spain and then elsewhere, quickly establishing itself as the normative form of Jewish learning.

As the medium transforms the message, two key substantive changes in Judaism wrought by textualization are discussed in “Becoming the People of the Talmud.” Clearly, the newly constituted “text” is more rigid than oral tradition, reducing the flexibility of the religious authority to reinterpret past wisdom in light of new reality in a way that does not disrupt the consciousness of a seamless tradition. Thus, Fishman notes, the Tosafists were often perplexed when they saw that customary religious practices that had evolved naturally differed from those prescribed in the talmudic texts, and so they exerted remarkable casuistic energy in attempts to reconcile them. But at the same time, the very availability of an authoritative book — especially with Rashi’s commentary appended — could make the presence of a live teacher unnecessary, and hence served to democratize Jewish scholarship.

What Fishman chronicles is, of course, just one example of how shifts in the way that Jewish knowledge is transmitted affect the nature of Judaism itself. Having superseded customary practice and challenged rabbinic authority, the textualized Talmud today faces competition from new modes of communication. Increasingly, Jews get their Jewish knowledge (whether accurate or not) with minimal effort via email, blogs and Twitter, and anyone who insists on a book can download a virtual one. The oral Torah’s transfer to cyberspace is, like its textualization 1,000 years ago, likely to transform Jewish life in unpredictable ways.

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