Monday, November 21, 2005

Medieval Talmudics

Over the years, in explaining to people that I study in the Talmud department at university, I have elicited a fairly narrow spectrum of responses. First, there are most people, who make some noncommittal grunt and move on to someone they understand. Which is fine.

And there are those who conclude that I must be a holy man, entirely immersed in the world of Torah. You don't believe me? My driving teacher, at the end of my first lesson, asked what I do. As soon as I told him, he started explaining. "Don't think that I'm not religious, just because I don't cover my head. I am. My children went to religious schools. I taught in a religious school myself for many years. But..." I have no idea why he thought that academic Talmud would make me critical of him, but he did.

Then, there are the religious people. Who divide into two types. The kind who was to engage, and ask me innocently why learning in yeshiva wasn't good enough for me. And the "perushim", who end the conversation there and never speak to me again. That happened to me repeatedly in miluim after my first year of studies, and it really hurt.

And then come the academics. Who don't understand how it is possible to study Talmud while focusing on the Middle Ages. Because they know that the Talmud is a phenomenon of Late Antiquity. They have read books in comparative religion. Talmud and medievalism does not go together. I must be wrong. Even a highly intelligent, scholarly and friendly ex-blogger said something like that to me, just yesterday.

Now, the first group doesn't bother me. The second does sometimes, depending on my mood and surroundings. But it's not an argument I have any interest in having, while there are plenty of people who do. The question is why I care about the last group. Do I really feel such a sense of loyalty to the Isaac Wolfson Center of Talmudic Studies?

I think the point is something like this. [Having rewritten this section twice, I still feel it sounds cliched. And so] I just like it. It makes sense to me, to focus on the text for its own sake, and not simply as a historical document. Why medieval halachic texts should be defined as Talmud? Because they are. It is the people who define Talmud narrowly, as a shelf of books produced in between 200 and 500 AD who are being anachronistic.


Anonymous Lia said...

First, anyone who doesn't have an element of "I just like it" in what they study, is probably not going to go too far (or too long) in their studies. Second, I think you underestate your meaningful interest in your field. As a 200-500 buff myself, and as someone who learned from YOU that not all medievalists are annoying, and that some things in the Middle Ages are cool to study, you've had a lot more to say over the years than what you just said here. Don't sell yourself short.
And yes, it would be stupid to pretend that nothing transpired between the end of Late Antiquity and the advent of Wissenschaft des Judentums. Calling it "Talmud" or not, though, is semantics, and arguing about that is pointless.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

You might also point out to people that while the Talmud may be a product of the "talmudic" period, its brand of Judaism only became normative in the medieval period. This probably won't get you anywhere with the folks you meet in miluim but it should work with academics.

You may also wish to tell people that on Italian Jewish booklists from the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries, medieval halakhic works are generally clustered with "Gemara" texts.

6:41 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Talmud does not end with Bavel. Has Talmud ever ended? As long as someone disagrees with what someone else opined regarding something in the Talmud, Talmud continues.

People ask me why, if I am a sceptic, I still read and reread Torah? Because there is still so much more to engage the mind. It is not static, it is a process.

Can one understand an era without familiarity with what the people of that era concerned themselves with? If not, how much less can one understand this era, that rests on that previous one, without delving into the sources of thought of that era?

4:20 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

I enthusiastically endorse Adam's comment. Historical Judaism is not based upon what the text of the Talmud was in flux. It is how the text was received and interpreted. Hence, the study of Rishonim is far more critical to the History of Halakha than Talmudic Philology (with all due respect to the latter).

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Menachem Mendel said...

My department possibly deals with the question by calling itself the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics, although people usually forget about the "Rabbinics", even some people in the department itself. One reason why academics may have a hard time understanding the relationship between Talmud and Medieval is that often the Talmudic period is perceived as one of creativity, argumention, etc., while that dark Medieval period is one of ossification and rigidness. My guess is that it is not so different than the classical Zionist belief, or at least that which is perceived, that very little of importance happened to the Jewish people between the Biblical period and Herzl.

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Lia said...

Menachem Mendel is right on. (I, by the way, drop the "rabbinics" part of our department, since I pretty much only study "Talmud.") As to some of the previous comments though, let's keep in mind: Not everyone is interested in studying the history of halakhah. It is valid and important to choose a period and study it, and not strictly against the background of what came after it. To gain a full picture of the effects that a given period has on subsequent periods, it is important also to look at later history, but focusing one's main energies on what the authors at a given time actually themselves meant, is a worthwhile pursuit. Post-modern (or whatever the right term is) ideas about nullifying the author and hailing the reader as author and the impact as the intent, strike me as narcissitic cop-outs, granting self-ivolved scholars permission to cease and desist from actually investigating what someone ELSE thought. Let's not project that sort of narcissism onto our medieval sages. They should be granted an independent place in our history, along a continuim in which our Talmudic sages are also granted their own place... with integrity and justice for all!

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Menachem Mendel said...

Lia's point that "Not everyone is interested in studying the history of halakhah" is an important point. Although I am "interested in studying the history of halakhah", the study of halakhic texts does not necessarily mean the study of halakhah. One can research the textual history, transmission and reception of a certain halakhic text without necessarily being interested in how halakhah is actually "done" in that text. Alternatively, one can research the lives of halakhists, but not necessarily focus on the content of their halakhic works. Y. Sussman makes this point in his bio-bibliographic article on E.E. Urbach, esp. p. 89ff.

1:58 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Just in case anyone thought I meant that it's somehow better or more important to study medieval interpretation of the Talmud than the Talmud itself or that, in general, I don't think it's valid to try to reconstruct authorial intention: I don't think the study of A is better than the study of B and I don't share the view of some literary theorists that the sole meaning of a text is constituted by reader reception. (You don't have to buy into this fairly radical position though when you endorse the value of reception history). I was just trying to give our host some ammunition in his attempts to convince people that there are some good reasons to be a medievalist who specializes in "Talmud" (or "Rabbinics") if you like.

4:38 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...


All of us who are in this business have to deal with this so often....

Thanks for commiserating.

7:12 PM  
Blogger ezrabutler said...

i believe that the ex-blogger wishes that there is another name for what you call talmud. As he himself deals in the concept of midrash - throughout the ages.
I think that he wishes that there is a real "intellectual history" in Israel, and not only social history, "filosophia yehudi" and talmud.
In no way shape or form would the ex-blogger talk negatively about one who chose such a path in life. (but in jest)

Still, in my conversations with this ex-blogger, he has told me that he concurs 100% with this individual named JRW -- but again -- that is the field of intellectual history. Would one consider the study of the Mishna Torah to be Talmud - where that is in reality a rewritten talmud. One could make the argument that the study of rewritten bible IS in bible.
It is not the idea of the study that i disagree with, it is the fact that the name makes a judgement about the centrality of the code, that was written in one time period. Unless, one would maintain that the talmud is the talmud referred to in the mishna (i believe), that the day must be divided into 1/3 talmud - not the book but the idea.

He is deeply sorry for causing you so much angst.

2:02 AM  
Blogger manuscriptboy said...

The ex-blogger really shouldn't worry. The conversation with him was very enjoyable, and this follow-up likewise. Please tell him I say hi.

8:21 AM  
Blogger TRW said...

Are they not realizing that the only reason that all Jewry (not just those of German and French background) learn Tosafos (or Tosfot, depending on your preference) is because of Israel Nathan Soncino in a little province of Milan in 1484?

And that's not even Middle Ages anymore! (At least in Italy)

Trust me...I'm writing a mini-thesis on this...

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Menachem Mendel said...

Just to comment on one example of a booklist which Adam mentionned, this one from the early 15th century in Germany and published by Isaiah Sonne in Studies in Bibliography and Booklore, 1:2, Dec. 1953. What was interested to me about this booklist is that the medieval halakhic works are listed under "Poskim", with other entries for "Gemarot", "Perushim"=Rashi and "Tosafot". This may differ from the Italian ones which Adam mentionned.

3:48 AM  

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