“Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud” by Joseph Skibell— The Talmud as a Storybook

six memos

Skibell, Joseph. “Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud”, (Exploring Jewish Arts and Culture), University of Texas Press, 2016.

The Talmud as a Storybook

Amos Lassen

The Talmud one of the great collections of ancient Jewish wisdom and is also one of the sacred texts of Judaism. It is made up of the Mishnah, the oral law of the Torah, and the Gemara, a multigenerational metacommentary on the Mishnah dating from between 3950 and 4235 (190 and 475 CE). The Talmud is a challenge to understand without scholarly training and study. However, it is fascinating to think about how it would be interpreted if taken as a collection of tales with relevance for modern readers. This is just what Joseph Skibell does in this volume. He found such stories as “a thief-turned-saint who was killed by an insult, a rabbi burning down his world in order to save it, a man who lost his sanity while trying to fathom the origin of the universe, a beautiful woman battling her brother’s and her husband’s egos to preserve their family.”

Skibell reads some of the Talmud’s tales with a storyteller’s insight. He concentrates on the lives of the legendary rabbis depicted in its pages to find what wisdom they can give to our modern age. Then by uniting strands of the stories in the Talmud and scattered throughout, he gives us narratives that he analyzes and interprets as novelists do. This is an imaginative way to look at the holy writings and we see a denial of what are considered conventional notions of piety. They are “wild, rude, and even racy yet these writings are transcendent as they bring together the mundane and the holy instilling a sense of awe in the reader. Skibell takes us through the Talmud with its stories and teaches us to pay attention to both what is said and what is unsaid. He takes age-old stories and breathes new life into them.