The Talmud Goes to College

Ancient Jewish law and legend embraced by the academy.

People who feel little discomfort at the idea of the Bible being studied in secular universities nevertheless display a certain surprise and uneasiness at the notion of extending this academic recognition to the Talmud.

The Bible is after all a recognized pillar of all of Western Civilization, while the Talmud has always been the exclusive and esoteric possession of the Jews. Its notorious hairsplitting dialectic and frequently trivial-sounding subject matter also tend to produce some embarrassment and a certain disbelief that anyone on the outside could find the Talmud of interest.

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Yet the Christian world has long expressed an interest in the study of rabbinic literature, initially limited to those aspects which would help illuminate their own scriptures (and indeed, the Jewish context of Jesus’ biography is so strong that a Jew reading the Christian Bible is likely to doubt the possibility of a non-Jew’s ability to understand much of his own scriptures).

When Jews began to apply critical methodology to the study of the Talmud it was also with various ulterior motives.

Thus, the ideologists of the German Reform Movement in the 19th century sought talmudic precedents for their claims regarding the flexibility and universalism of Judaism. No less a figure than Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Lithuanian Musar [moralistic] movement, believed that the introduction of talmudic study into the curriculum of the German universities would be of value not only to Jews (as a defense against the misrepresentations of the Talmud), but also to the Gentiles, who would benefit from familiarity with rabbinic logic and reasoning.

The situation has progressed considerably until today, when there is a general realization that the study of Judaism is not only as legitimate as that of any other culture or civilization, but also that it holds a special place of interest because of its centrality to Western culture.

At the University

Rabbinic thought and literature are naturally recognized to be preeminent expressions of Judaism. Gone are the days when Judaism was only regarded as a prelude to Christianity. This recognition depends of course on the resources and scope of the particular program. Talmud may be squeezed into a half-hour lecture in a survey course on “World Religions” or it may merit its own department, as is the case in the major Rabbinical seminaries (which function on the whole as full-fledged university-level academic institutions) or the larger Israeli universities.

At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, in addition to a Department of Talmud, which specializes in close textual and philological examination of rabbinic literature, Talmud can be studied from different perspectives in such departments as Hebrew Language or Literature, Jewish History, Law, Jewish Thought and more. In North American universities, the context for Talmud study could range from a “Religious Studies” or “Near Eastern Studies” department to a specialized department or program in Jewish Studies.

The logic of academic study is such that a university is not merely a channel through which a given body of learning is presented to the students. In applying the methods of scientific analysis to a given topic, the scholar is making a new contribution to the scholarship. In our case as well, the university Judaica scholar is not merely reporting the results of the study in the traditional yeshiva, but providing a creative new understanding of the Talmud.

Variety of Texts

The academic approach to Talmud study has made a number of such contributions. The first of these is in defining the scope of talmudic literature.

The traditional yeshivot have generally limited themselves to the study of the Babylonian Talmud, which has for various reasons been accepted as authoritative. The universities have paid equal attention to the vast variety of literature produced by the same rabbis: including a huge library of legal and homiletical biblical exegesis, law-codes and more; as well as such areas as the Talmud Yerushalmi, produced in the Land of Israel and considered by many to be superior in its intellectual vision to its Babylonian “sister.”

The Yerushalmi, as is the case with many other neglected works, had to be virtually rediscovered by means of a painstaking examination of manuscripts scattered through the libraries of the world.

Another contribution has been in the area of text criticism.

Most of the commonly used editions of talmudic texts emanate from a series of early 16th-century Italian printings. Many, like the Babylonian Talmud itself, were published by the Christian Daniel Bomberg.

Much scholarly energy has been devoted to tracing alternate textual traditions from manuscripts (the medieval burnings of Hebrew books has resulted in a relatively small number of surviving manuscripts) and citations in medieval writings. The discovery of the thousand of venerable oriental fragments preserved in the Cairo Genizah (now scattered through many libraries, mostly in Cambridge, England) has revolutionized our perceptions of the nature of the Talmudic text.

University and Yeshiva

The academic approach has also brought the application of other disciplines to Talmud study.

The Talmud has benefited from specialized knowledge of such peripheral fields as ancient languages and cultures (the hundreds of Greek, Latin and Persian words in the talmudic vocabulary are reflections of complex cultural contacts), the study of ancient history and science, etc.

A particularly promising field is the study of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, especially our appreciation of rabbinic Hebrew as a distinct dialect (and not a “corruption” of Biblical Hebrew). Much has been learned from the living traditions assembled with the ingathering of various Jewish communities, notably the Yemenites, to Israel.

Similarly, the application of methods of general literary criticism to Talmudic texts has proven most fruitful. Someone who does not appreciate the standard literary conventions of the rabbinic homily has about as much hope of appreciating a midrash as does a reader of English poetry who has never been told of the sonnet form. Such studies, generally neglected in the yeshiva curriculum, have been carried out with great success in the university setting.

An additional contribution of the academic approach is in “source criticism.” This basically refers to a methodological distinction between the final product and the sources which were put together to make it up.

Understandably, the traditionalist tends to be somewhat uncomfortable with the widespread academic assumption that in the process of editing the various traditions the redactors of talmudic works frequently (whether intentionally or because of misunderstanding) altered their original meanings. Nonetheless, the critical talmudic scholars have shown that traditional commentators often employed such an approach, and have thereby come to a clearer understanding of the original significance of many statements by the ancient rabbis. The fact that the Talmud is manifestly a composite and human creation has made this approach somewhat more acceptable to the religious community than it would have been if applied to the Bible.

One of the most interesting phenomena associated with the critical study of the Talmud has been the degree to which it has been accepted by the traditionalists. Not only are the manuscript-based editions of talmudic texts to be found on the shelves of many yeshivot (often with the Introductions and title-pages removed, to mask their “heretical” origins), but bodies of unquestionable Orthodoxy have been in the forefront of such projects as a text-critical edition of the Babylonian Talmud (at the Rabbi Herzog Institute in Jerusalem), the publication of academic studies of the Talmud (at Jerusalem’s Rav Kook Institute, or New York’s Yeshiva University, for example) and more.

Though we are unlikely to see yeshivot establishing compulsory classes in Greek or Pahlavi, their students are certainly likely to make use of dictionaries that demonstrate such expertise. The fact is that most of the important academic scholars of the Talmud have had traditional religious training.

The shidduch [match] between the university and the yeshiva is thus a complex one, but one that promises to prove valuable for both sides.

Reprinted with permission of the author from the Jewish Star.


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