Commentary Magazine


The Talmudic Anthology, edited by Louis I. Newman and Samuel Spitz

A Jewish Miscellany

The Talmudic Anthology: Tales and Teachings of the Rabbis.
Selected and edited by Louis I. Newman in collaboration with Samuel Spitz.
New York, Behrman House, Inc., 1945. 570 pp. $5.50.

There is a growing tendency these days to publish good books under bad tides. The present volume is a case in point. .It is, as its sub-title suggests, a comprehensive—and, it may be added, an excellent—collection of Rabbinic maxims, adages, parables, anecdotes, and apothegms such as should prove of eminent service to those wishing to recover the nuggets of traditional Jewish wisdom while lacking either the patience or the equipment to delve for them.

But this book is certainly not an anthology of the Talmud. For the Talmud is a vast literature that is by no means confined to such material. .A true anthology of its contents would have to include specimens of its dialectic, its modes of legal argumentation, and so forth. .Moreover, since the Talmud is a compilation of sources extending over several centuries, some sort of chronological stratification is imperative if the impression is not to be conveyed that its thought is everywhere uniform and consistent, and that there is such a thing as a standard Talmudic attitude towards this or that subject.

This volume blandly overlooks such considerations. .No key is provided to the date of this or that authority cited or even to the context in which a given dictum was pronounced. .It is as if the whole of English literature, from Chaucer to Hemingway, had been diligently combed for pithy and arresting sayings and anecdotes, and the results presented in one huge compendium as representative of the character of that literature as a whole, without distinction between the temperaments, attitudes, and social backgrounds of the several periods.

To aggravate this basic mistake, Rabbi New man and his collaborator have included much that does not really belong to the Talmud at all. .Extracts from Midrashic literature and from the Zohar abound in this volume. .Nor are the editors particularly careful about checking the sources of the extracts they include; there are many false references, apparently taken over without correction from those three (unspecified) anthologies in the Hebrew language to which they confess their indebtedness.

Far more serviceable to general readers de siring some acquaintance with Talmudic and Rabbinic lore are A. .Cohen’s Everyman’s Talmud (London, 1932) and the Rabbinic Anthology by Claude Montefiore and Herbert Loewe (London, 1938). .Both of these works likewise digest the material according to topics; both take pains to give the reader a proper historical background and perspective; and the latter especially is careful to indicate the approximate dates of the authorities quoted, and to discuss the particular extracts within the wider compass of Rabbinic thought as a whole.

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Taking the present volume as it is, however. .the work is by no means unacceptable and. .errors and omissions excepted, it may in fact be warmly recommended. .In the comprehensiveness of its selections and in the alphabetic arrangement of topics, it marks a distinct advance upon earlier compilations of the same sort by Polano, Hershon, and Hodes, and it offers to English readers the same kind of thing as was provided so admirably for those conversant with Hebrew by Bialik and Rawnitzky’s classic Sefer Aggadah (Cracow-Odessa 19081910). .The subjects included cover almost the whole range of human experience and of Jewish life.

But to appreciate fully the spirit of these extracts, it would have been well if some attention had been paid to the distinctive categories of thought from which they issue. .It is hopeless to try to squeeze Rabbinic or any other distinctive thought into our own categories and patterns. .Piety, for instance, had an entirely different connotation, or at least a different emphasis, from what it has for us, among whom the concept is charged inevitably with Christian notions and doctrines. .Similarly, Rabbinic ideas about labor conceive of it as something vastly different, both in character and function, from what it has become under a capitalist economy, while maxims treating of social relationships envisage a somewhat different environment from that which confronts the Jew in the modern world.

The principle of mutatis mutandis has to be observed in assessing Rabbinic thought, and the assumption should be resisted that its underlying principles issue from any absolutely valid ethic, independent of the particular situation and peculiar circumstances of the periods from which this or that dictum happens to emanate. .“Permanent value” is a dangerous concept with which to play, and those who would present ancient thought to modern readers should be especially careful to remember that all thought is progressive, not static, and to distinguish the local (in the widest sense of the term) from the universal. .Otherwise, anthologies lose at least half their value.

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