“The “Talmud”: A Biography” by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer— A Remarkable Story

Wimpfheimer, Barry Scott. “The “Talmud”: A Biography”, (Lives of Great Religious Books) Princeton University Press, 2018.

A Remarkable Story

Amos Lassen

The Babylonian “Talmud” is a post biblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary. It was written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic and is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have great appeal. Yet the “Talmud” has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer shares the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia.

It may sound silly, but I have always been afraid of the Talmud, thinking that it is a work by scholars and written for scholars. I would picture old rabbinic looking men sitting around a table and arguing and I always felt that I would never made the grade to be able to partake of such activities, which seemed to be integral parts of male Jewish life. I still fear the Talmud but not as much as I once did and that is probably because of how I live today as an observant Jew.

Wimpfheimer takes readers from the Talmud’s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as “a source of religious ideology, a model of different modes of rationality, and a totem of cultural identity.” We learn of the book’s origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its reception and “its golden renaissance in modernity.” We learn “why reading the Talmud can feel like being swept up in a river or lost in a maze”, and why the Talmud has come to be venerated as well as excoriated and maligned in the centuries since it first appeared.

The Talmud is “a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.”

The cover of this book is quite amazing. It is actually a work of feminist protest art that resembles a rainbow tapestry with shading from red to blue and composed of thousands of small pieces of paper rolled up intro scrolls. Each of those pieces of paper is a small section of a printed Talmud page. American-Israeli multimedia artist Andi Arnovitz entitled the work If Only They Had Asked Us and it suggests that had women been involved in helping to write these books, the laws would be far more colorful and vibrant.

This piece of art is one of the many approaches to Talmud that Wimpfheimer considers here. He was anxious to write about the Talmud because (in his words), it “really lends itself to a biography because it’s had various many periods of existence, and it has lived in various types of ways, and it continues to live in various types of ways: There is the text as it is interpreted and understood in quite different ways and the symbolic register of the Talmud having meaning beyond the meaning of the words inside it. The Talmud can mean so much beyond what is contained within it.”

This study is focused less on what the Talmud contains and what it says, and more on how it has been read and what it has come to mean. Wimpfheimer has explained that “My premise at the outset was that I would embrace the conceit of biography and try to pretend the Talmud was a person, and identify those moments when the Talmud is personified and embodied in its history”. “I began to realize that so often when the Talmud was personified and embodied, it did so in this symbolic register. Thus biography might be the ideal way to articulate this register.”

Unlike most introductions to the Talmud, Wimpfheimer’s book does not include an overview of the topics covered in the Talmud, nor does it systematically lay out the various historical layers of the text. Instead, it considers the Talmud as a work of religious literature produced at a particular historical moment. The Talmud became the central canonical work of the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple and it still serves as “the ultimate symbolic representation of Judaism, Jewishness, and Jews.

Wimpfheimer tries to show the experience of studying Talmud by focusing on two particular passages of Talmudic text, one more legalistic—about liability for the damages caused by starting a fire—and one more literary, about how Israel came to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. He explains these passages in depth and then he demonstrates how they have been understood by various commentators over time giving us an introduction to the classical medieval commentators as well as to Jewish philosophy and to Kabbalah. He distinguishes between traditional readings of the Talmud, in which the Talmud is taken at face value as the record of a historical conversation among the rabbis featured in its pages, and critical readings, in which the Talmud is a literary construct designed by a set of active anonymous redactors to resemble a conversation among those rabbis.


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