Book Review // The Talmud: A Biography Banned, Censored and Burned…The Book They Couldn’t Suppress

By | Dec 01, 2014

The Talmud:
A Biography Banned, Censored and Burned…The Book They Couldn’t Suppress
Harry Freedman
2014, pp. 243, $19.50

A Cathedral of Knowledge

by Eugene Goodheart

Full disclosure: I am not a biblical or Talmudic scholar. As a professor of literature, I have taught selections from the Bible in humanities courses. I think of myself as a secular humanist and an agnostic interested in understanding the role of religion in the lives of millions of people. I deplore the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and his ilk, and their view of religion as an abomination.

Freedman’s book is addressed to believers and non-believers alike. Indeed, close to the end of his short book on this immense subject (millions of words in 37 volumes), he informs us that “the Talmud is no longer the exclusive property of the religious… It helps, of course, to be familiar with the Bible and religious concepts, but the Talmud is fundamentally an exercise in interpretation and logic. It assumes, but does not demand belief.” Perhaps the most astonishing confirmation of this claim is the fact delivered on the next-to-last page of the book: The Talmud has been adopted as a primary school text in, of all places, South Korea.

I’ll begin with a serious reservation about Freedman’s “biography,” really a potted history of the role of the Talmud in history. The book is not about what is in the Talmud, but rather about what happened to the Talmud. Freedman provides an abundance of welcome historical information and anecdotes about the actors in Talmudic history, but he can also frustrate the reader by failing to develop a theme, abruptly moving on to the next topic. He tells us that “Maimonides’s Commentary on the Mishnah is probably best known for his formulation of what have become known as the Thirteen Principles of Faith: the nearest thing that classical Judaism has to an ‘official’ dogma, and the subject of considerable controversy and scholarly discussion.” We are then told that Maimonides sojourned in Fez. Not a word about a single Principle of Faith or of the ensuing controversy. This is consistent with his unfortunate decision to avoid telling us what is in the Talmud. The failure to do so turns Maimonides’s achievement into a blank; Rashi, the other great dominating figure in the story of the Talmud, suffers the same fate.

What, then, is the Talmud? Based on the sacred texts of the Jewish people, in particular the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, it is an immense work that has evolved over time, to codify the laws, customs and rituals of a people. How did it come about? Freedman traces its origin to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans—the great traumatic event in the history of ancient Israel. Here is Freedman’s succinct summary of the consequences: “It was far more than the destruction of a building. It was more even than the razing of a city and the destruction of its population, horrendous as that was. The Temple was not only the centre of the Israelite religion, it housed the legislature and the judiciary. It was the commercial centre. The destruction of the Temple threatened to herald the end, not just of the religion, but even of the last vestiges of Israelite autonomy. Like so many before them, the Israelite nation was threatened with extinction.”

The Bible, in particular the Torah, replaces the iconic temple as the object of worship. There are two Torahs, one oral and the other written, which become the occasion for a struggle between the Pharisees, who embraced both Torahs, and the Sadducees, the priestly elite, for whom the written Torah had exclusive authority. Unfairly notorious in New Testament accounts, the Pharisees, wanting to make the Bible more open to the people, emerged victorious and “set in place a process that would eventually result in the composition of the Talmud and two thousand years of unbroken study.”

Unlike the Bible, the Talmud is not a fixed text; it is subject to the vicissitudes of history. Freedman notes “the cross fertilization” of Talmudic and Islamic scholars “in legal matters because they lived together in the same mercantile society…They shared the same cultural norms, particularly around family, trade and social organization. They had a linguistic affinity; Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic are all part of the same family. Islam’s acceptance of Moses as a prophet, coupled with the institution known as dhimmi, through which minorities were protected, had allowed the Talmud to develop freely alongside, and even in partnership with Islamic legal tradition.”

The Talmud was not free of conflict within the confines of Judaism itself. Its very validity was at stake in the challenges mounted by the Karaites, who favored a literal interpretation of the Bible unmediated by Talmud, and by the Hasidim, who tried to convert Talmudic study from an intellectual to a spiritual exercise, “elevat[ing] the soul to a mystic state of union with God.”

The greatest threats to the Talmud, indeed to the Jewish community, occurred when it encountered Christianity. In the Middle Ages, the Talmud became the occasion for staged disputations between Jews and Christians about whether the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament, in the Christian lexicon) foretold the coming of Christ. Perhaps the most famous or notorious of the debates took place in Paris in the 13th century between Rabbi Yehiel and Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity. Donin quoted from the Hebrew prophets; Yehiel availed himself of Talmudic interpretation. The debate turned into a questioning of the integrity and validity of the Talmud. After the papacy ruled that the Talmud was a threat to Christianity, the Catholic Church ordered the burning of all copies of the Talmud. In a subsequent debate, the Catalan Dominican friar, Raymond Martini, who had been appointed by the Church to study Talmudic and rabbinic texts, argued that the Talmud “actually refuted the practices of contemporary Jews.” In a perverse way, Martini exemplifies the interpretive latitude that characterizes the Talmudic tradition.

The 18th century Enlightenment presented the Talmud with still another kind of challenge. Baruch Spinoza, the offspring of a family of converso refugees from Portugal, is the exemplary rationalist. His God, purged of ritual, is the God of pure Reason. Anathema to traditional Judaism, he is excommunicated as an apikores (an apostate). His rationalism, nevertheless, has affinities with Talmudic reasonings, though they were not acknowledged at the time. As Freedman points out, “[by] subjecting religion to the new tools of rationalism, he opened up the Talmud to a new form of investigation…He separated the realms of reason and ritual and in doing so laid the foundations for 19th-century thinkers to construct an academic discipline in which Talmudic texts would be subjected to the same forms of analysis and criticism as any other work of classic literature.” Indebted to Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, however, did not follow him in his radical rationalism. His loyalty to Judaism is reflected in his “translation of the Hebrew Bible into German based on the Talmud’s interpretations.”

The Talmud has survived every catastrophe, including the Holocaust, the greatest catastrophe of all. It has also survived the challenges of modernism by adaptation. The modern history of the Talmud is one of increasing secularization. Where traditionalists remained largely concerned with practical law, others “focused on the analysis of argument.” Even where belief in God no longer accompanies Talmudic study or where Talmudic study no longer occurs, we might think of it as a legacy of all textual study. Literary critics and students of philosophy are heirs of the “Talmud chochom.” What they have ideally inherited is intellectual and moral seriousness as well as analytical ingenuity.

In Surpassing Wonder, his impressive 2001 study of the Bible and the Talmud, Donald Harman Akenson, characterizes the Bible and the Talmud as architectonic in their structures, fitting replacements of the destroyed Temple. The image of the Talmud that emerges in my mind, borrowed from another religious tradition, is of a Gothic cathedral, a great structure composed over centuries, sustained by thrusts and counterthrusts. There is never an absolute conclusion to the codification of the law, because each formulation is an interpretation that can be challenged by another interpretation. The subtitle of the Talmud could be a “conflict of interpretations.” The law must be obeyed, but the meaning of the law and its practical applications are subject to reasoning and therefore always debatable. God seems to play a minimal role in the Talmud. He is an assumed presence in the background of free debate about law and conduct. As Freedman nicely phrases it: “There may be one truth, but there are multiple realities,” and, I might add, multiple perspectives. Is it extravagant to see Talmudic study as a democratic, intellectual model for the free exchange of ideas?

Eugene Goodheart is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Brandeis University. He is the author of many books of literary and cultural criticism as well as a memoir, Confessions of a Secular Jew.

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