Monday, March 12, 2007

An academic Talmud primer I

Someone asked me if I would do a post on academic Talmud. What is it about and why is it opposed by, for lack of a better term, traditionalists? Two points, so I think I will do two posts.

At the outset let me clarify three things (which turned into six by the time I was done with this post):

1. There isn't any one thing called academic Talmud (henceforth, AT). Although I will try to describe some things about it, AT isn't really an "it"

2. That I don't know that much about academic Talmud. I was not trained in it and, personally, when I learn Talmud I don't use academic methods very much. A little bit, but not substantially so. Any errors are to be understood in this light.

3. When I speak of "traditionalists" I am not talking about a monochromatic group. To the extent that AT is opposed there might be some reasons in common but others which aren't shared. For example, a Chassidic opponent might be more concerned with something that seems mystical (eg, AT surrounds the Gemara with impure klippos) while a Yeshivish opponent might not be so much concerned with something like that but may consider AT to be in opposition with mesorah, tradition.

4. While here I call them opponents, in truth AT is not necessarily on the radar of such people as I have in mind all the time, if at all. There are opponents who know a great deal about AT, who might even sometimes glean some things from it, and their opposition is informed and conscious. Others, probably most, are either scarcely aware of it, don't really understand it but by the form and method of their own Talmud study show that they implicitly oppose AT.

5. Much, if not all of what I am going to write apply more generally to academic Jewish studies of classic or canonical Jewish texts and not only to AT.

6. Finally, I'm not really so thrilled with the label traditionalist at all, since that itself cedes ground I don't necessarily agree deserves to be ceded. To the extent that traditionalism is an important Jewish value and is not something to be conceded lightly, why must I agree that text studies are not traditional? But more later.

In any case, onto AT. I think its fair to speak of three general categories.

1. As in all historical disciplines AT is first of all concerned with establishing a correct text. It is important to remember a principle articulated well by R. Saul Lieberman:

"There may be one historical truth, but the truth of a text is the truth peculiar to its one literary or oral tradition." (quoted by Dov Zlotnick in his introduction to Greek In Jewish Palestine/ Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York: 1994).

However, that depends upon what you are trying to do. If you are trying to establish how the Talmud was understood in Catholic Europe in the century following its censure by the Catholic Church then one is not looking for what the Talmud text looked like in Babylonia circa 600 CE, but what it looked like in the hands of those who studied the Talmud in the century and places in question, errors and all. Here the Lieberman principle would apply. Similarly, if one wants to understand a comment by Rashi, one is interested in which reading Rashi had before him and not what the earliest possible reading is. But if one is interested in a historical-critical interpretation of something in the Talmud then one will wish to know what the text in question looked like or sounded like at the earliest possible time.

How does one go about establishing a correct text? Here the usual canons of textual criticism applies. Witnesses for the text are sought. This doesn't only mean manuscripts (or printed copies). Other witnesses include text cited by others, whether in responsa or commentaries, whether by ge'onim or rishonim. For example, Nathan ben Yehiel's 11th century 'Arukh contains copious citations from the Talmud, a lot of it differing from our text. All this evidence must be scrutinized, without neglecting the fact that the witnesses themselves might have their own textual issues. When this work is done, a critical edition of the text may be produced.

2. Once one is reasonably sure that the text reads correctly, then other AT methods come into play. At the simplest level there is the question of peshat, as in Bible study. What does the text mean? Although usually each word of a passage can be translated reasonably accurately taken in sum each word does not always add up to a sure coherent whole. This is precisely what the great Talmud commentators like Rashi were interested in elucidating. To the extent that this work has already been done, thanks to the great commentators, we can get through the Talmud. But that doesn't mean that obscurities and problems don't remain, especially if our text reads differently from Rashi (and we don't have good reason for preferring his). Furthermore, resultant studies or comparison with parallel rabbinic texts sometimes raise issues which might call into question an earlier understanding and require a renewed investigation (perhaps here the reader may anticipate one of the traditionalist objections to the entire enterprise). Here philology can help. Perhaps the full range of a word or technical term was not previously appreciated and once its mystery is revealed the peshat will be clear. Perhaps some historical knowledge about the realia of the period and place in question will elucidate the obscure. Perhaps a Jewish opinion quoted in a non-Jewish source will reveal the necessary information to yield the true meaning, or more probable meaning of the text. Scholars who have and continue to use such methods include the aforementioned R. Saul Lieberman and R. Yaakov Elman.

3. Getting into the composition of the Talmud. If the first task is what the Talmud says and the second is what it means then the third is the history of the text itself. It is quite clear that in the Talmud we have a most unusual text. Ready comparisons are not in abundance (which, by the way, is a point exploited by AT opponents). Those of us who are familiar with how the Talmud reads know that there are countless quotations and an anonymous 'narrator,' usually referred to in the yeshivos as "the Gemara." So anonymous is this narrator (whom I don't really mean to imply is one person) that its very presence can easily be overlooked. When "the Gemara" says that Rabbi so-and-so asked something of Rabbi such-and-such someone or someones actually placed that information at our disposal. Historically speaking Rabbi so-and-so may have asked Rabbi such-and-such, but neither of them are the voice in the Talmud informing the reader of that conversation. Beyond this the anonymous narrator asks questions, proposes solutions, brings prooftexts and essentially structures the Talmud in the form that it is.

This leads to the obvious questions. Who, what, where, when, how and why? Is this voice from one place at one time? What relationship did this voice have with the people cited? How did the voice know what belongs where? Is the voice always using prooftexts in a way meant by the original voices of those texts? A thousand other questions along these lines can be adduced.

In this third way the scholar seeks to answer some of these questions and to see if in so doing some other questions might not be answered. The scholar might detect in the Talmud's composition a text created over many generations with new layers added to it, layers which can be separated to reveal earlier 'versions' of the Talmud. An exemplar of this approach in AT is R. David Weiss-Halivni (see, a critique) ) who, I might add, was Chaim Potok's model for Reuven's father David Malter in The Chosen.

Pt II to follow.

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