Ever since I discovered this great Talmud Comics site, I’ve been gnashing my teeth trying to decide how to portray it. Yonah Lavery constantly produces a great, sometimes clever, sometimes thoughtful and always outright stunning adaptation of the Talmud in the form of comics. It doesn’t get the whole scope and nuance of a Talmud page — but, then again, it’s not supposed to; it’s a totally different dimension of interpretation. What’s cool is how, the same way that the Gemara itself switches from dishing out laws to narrative storytelling and then into arguments that jump between the two, Lavery’s adaptations also jump, dodge, and veer between them, from a sleeping woman wondering when to say Shema to Rabbi Yose’s unfortunate venture into abandoned ruins.
But the great Jewish art site Mimaamakim beat me to it. In a great interview, Mimaa’s Aaron Roller asks Lavery about her background in art, Judaism, and being Canadian, and digs deep to explore the questions of just why Talmud obsesses people so. (Lavery herself doesn’t have a deep childhood background in Talmudic study. But that’s okay. It even lends a fascinating spark to her artwork, the freshness of discovering this material for the first time.) She’s also not afraid of pushing boundaries, much like the Talmudic stories themselves: the frontspiece to her volume, the first page of Berachot, features a naked (though strategically-posed) woman; one of my favorite adaptations, below, in which R. Kahana, a student of R. Yochanan, follows his teacher into the bedroom to learn, well, everything from him:
AR: Most of your drawings relate to Aggadata, the narrative component of the Talmud. Is that your primary interest (as opposed to the more legalistic passages), or is it just that those sections better lend themselves to illustration?
YL: Iâ€™m very interested in halachic passages. But I feel like we have lost a certain fluency in aggadah and midrash that came very easily to Chazal – it is an entirely different way of learning. In a sense, studying this kind of material lets you be a Kahana, hiding and watching how people loved Torah. It fosters a closeness to the text and those in it which I think is important.
AR: What is a kahana?
YL: I mean someone who behaves like Kahana in Berachot 61a (he hides under Ravâ€™s bed to find out how his teacher has sex).
AR: Of course. Kahanaâ€™s response upon being caught: â€œIt is Torah and I am required to learn it,â€ was my yearbook quote.
And that, my friends, is why I wish I went to high school in a yeshiva. And why I wish I could draw.
Pronounced: huh-LAKH-ic, Origin: Hebrew, according to Jewish law, complying with Jewish law.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.