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A Talmud for Americans

What is a Shas? Readers of the daily press who have followed accounts in recent months of the sordid bargaining of Israel’s small political parties may reply: an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi political party whose six Knesset members brought down the government of Yitzhak Shamir in March by abstaining in a vote of confidence. Religiously observant Jews are far more likely to reply: Shas is an abbreviation of the two Hebrew words for “six orders,” that is to say, the six major sections into which the 63 tractates of the Mishnah (the first written summary of the Oral Law, ca. 200 C.E.) and the Gemara (commentary on the Mishnah) are divided, the two together, Mishnah and Gemara, making up the Talmud.

Who among enlightened Jews a century ago could have predicted that in the Zionist state of Israel in 1990 a “Talmud party” would make and unmake governments? For that matter, who could have imagined that in April 1990, 20,000 Jews would gather in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the completion (siyum) of all 2,711 folio pages of the Talmud in a method of study called Daf Yomi (daily page)? Smaller commemorations were held in Israel and in Europe of this ninth completion of the cycle since the practice was synchronized in Vienna in 1923 in the hope of keeping Talmud study alive in the modern era.

Between dying and dead, the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer has said, is a long way in Jewish history. Singer was referring mainly to the fate of the Yiddish language, but he might have said the same of the study of Talmud. Modern Jewish writing, from the mid-19th century onward, is full of accounts of rejection of the Talmud by Jews advancing (or was it withdrawing?) toward Emancipation and Enlightenment. In many a Yiddish story, a son’s rebellion against his father and the world of his fathers will begin sartorially and tonsorially, with a shortening of his jacket and hair, proceed to a shortening of his memory, and culminate by his hiding a short French or Yiddish novel in the folds of a huge volume of the Talmud that he is (apparently) studying.

Singer himself recalls, in an autobiographical tale called “Guests on a Winter Night,” how his older brother Israel Joshua (later, as I.J. Singer, also to become an eminent Yiddish novelist) revolted against the traditional piety of their father. “Joshua had become enlightened . . . he refused to study the Talmud. . . . How much longer were [the Jews] going to study the law concerning the egg that was hatched on a holiday? Europe, my brother said, had awakened, but the Jews in Poland were still in the Middle Ages.” It may well be the voice of his dead older brother that we hear in all those Singer characters who complain that (as the hero of his novel The Slave puts it): “One law in the Torah generated a dozen in the Mishnah and five dozen in the Gemara; [and] in the later commentaries laws were as numerous as the sands of the desert. . . . If this continued, nothing would be kosher. What would the Jews live on then? Hot coals?”

Israel Joshua Singer died young, in 1944, but he lived long enough to see that it would have been far better had Europe remained asleep. European “enlightenment” terminated in a new dark age, compared with which the era of talmudic ascendancy among the Jews had indeed been an age of light. The secular wisdom that had enraptured Jewish enlighteners looked good in fair weather but not in foul. As another eminent Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade, said: “There came in the West a booted ruler with a little mustache, and in the East a booted ruler with a big mustache, and both of them together struck the wise man to the ground.”

Grade had witnessed the 1939 occupation of Vilna by the forces of the ruler with the big mustache. But on September 1, 1943, the forces of the ruler with the little mustache surrounded the ghetto of Vilna. Their aim was to remove the remaining few thousand Jews to the death camps. The Jewish resistance fighters, unable to find sand in the ghetto to make the sandbags needed for defense, resorted to Jewish books for the purpose. These existed in abundance in a city long known to East European Jews as the Jerusalem of Lithuania because of its great scholars and educational institutions. Among the latter was a 200-year-old library whose director, a maskil (enlightener), hanged himself rather than witness the destruction of his books by the Nazi conquerors.

But this last director of the Vilna Jewish library “was wrong,” wrote Abba Kovner, commander of the Vilna resistance fighters and later to become a distinguished Hebrew poet in Israel.

On that morning of 1943, I gave the order to collect the remaining books and to use them to provide cover for the fighters. . . . There were the classics, in the original and in translation. There were the avant-garde Yiddish poets, but their books were too thin and in soft covers. There were also the books of Sholem Aleichem, who taught us to laugh with one eye and cry with the other. The central pillars, however, were the great volumes of the Talmud in their brown leather binding. Only a few blocks away [at the publishing house of Romm] the Talmud had been printed continuously for the last 150 years.

In 1975, thinking back, Kovner claimed to see in this episode a revelation of the true meaning of “life in writing,” hayyim she-bi-khtav, the only phrase in classical Hebrew that signifies literature. So far from being, as some of its detractors called it, the Book of the Dead, or what yet another great Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz, called “the Diasporal rope that winds from generation to generation around the Jewish neck and throttles and almost chokes him out of his breath,” the Talmud epitomized hayyim she-bi-khtav. Certainly in Vilna, the great volumes of the Romm edition of the Talmud had preserved life, if not exactly in the way envisioned by the talmudic sages from 30 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.



I was reminded of Kovner’s story about the volumes of the Talmud as “the central pillars” of Jewish self-defense by the very first sentence of Adin Steinsaltz’s introduction to his recently published reference guide to the study of the Talmud.1 “Just as the Bible is the foundation of Judaism,” writes Steinsaltz, “the Talmud is the central pillar supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice of Jewish life.”

This belief in the Talmud as the distinguishing mark of Jewish existence is very old, among Christians as well as among Jews. According to an ancient midrash, all the nations might at some time in the future claim that they too were Jewish: “Then the Holy One, Blessed be He, will say: he who holds my mystery in his hand, he is truly Israel. And what is this mystery?—it is the Mishnah.” The Hebrew Bible may have been “converted” by the imperial Christian intellect into the “Old Testament,” but the Talmud remained incorrigibly Jewish, as recalcitrant and unswallowable as the Jews themselves. “No Jew,” insisted the Christian jurist-scholar Johannes Reuchlin in 1510, “has ever been baptized who has understood the Talmud or has even been able to read it.” Perhaps this is why the Popes, starting in the 13th century (and often urged on by Jewish apostates), ordered the burning of the Talmud, and why milder, Protestant regimes amended and censored it.

But enlightenment, secularization, and modernity proved far more potent than Popes and censors in separating Jews from the Talmud. I hope I am not guilty of impropriety in offering myself as an illustration of how far Jewish life in this country has drifted from talmudic foundations. In the Orthodox school that I attended as a child in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, on weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings, we studied Hebrew, Yiddish, Humash (Bible), but not Talmud except insofar as we heard tales (which I much enjoyed) of the great talmudic sages like Hillel, Shammai, and especially Akiva. My only exposure to Talmud came once a year, on the morning before the first Passover seder, when, at the behest of my grandfather, I would rise at an ungodly hour of the morning to attend a siyum (the completion of study of a tractate of the Mishnah) in order to be exempted from the fast that is otherwise incumbent on first-born sons on that day.

Later, as an undergraduate English major at Columbia, I of course came upon many ignorant, offensive, and ridiculous allusions to the Talmud. These ranged from Marx’s assertion that capitalism is nothing other than the Talmud rewritten in the “real” language of the Jews, which is neither Hebrew nor Yiddish but “haggling,” to the solemn pronouncements of literary critics about the “talmudic” complication and layers of meaning in any work of more than, ordinary complexity written by a Jewish novelist.2 Ignorant though I may have been, one thing I did know was that talmudic learning could not be acquired genetically, and that Jewish writers who had never turned a folio of Talmud could hardly be “talmudic” in their lucubrations or style.

Like many other students of English at Columbia in the 50’s, I was familiar with only one example of serious criticism arising from Talmud study. This was an essay on “Wordsworth and the Rabbis” by the great critic Lionel Trilling, a professor at Columbia. Originally a lecture given at Princeton in 1950, it claimed that the reason for Wordsworth’s “unacceptability” (then) was precisely “a Judaic quality” that ran counter to the sensibility defined as modernism. Trilling said that he himself, despite being infected by modernism, had responded warmly to Wordsworth because of his (Trilling’s) intimacy with the mishnaic tractate Pirke Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers,” as it is usually rendered in English. In an engaging yet highly strained argument, Trilling asserted a “pregnant similarity” between the rabbinical understanding of the Law and Wordsworth’s understanding of Nature. Torah for the rabbis and Nature for Wordsworth were surrogates of God, really divine objects “to which one can be in an intimate passionate relationship.” Moreover, the sages whose sayings make up Pirke Avot are presented by Trilling as precursors and relatives of Wordsworth; Hillel in particular was “a peculiarly Wordsworthian personality.”

But those of us who were inspired by Trilling’s essay to browse in the Soncino Press translation of the Talmud quickly discovered that this tractate (also readily available in the daily prayerbook) is sui generis, distinguished from all the others because it does not deal with halakhic (legal) issues but with ethical duties. If, as John Stuart Mill maintained, Wordsworth is just the right poet for “unpoetical natures,” then “Ethics of the Fathers” is just the right talmudic treatise for untalmudic natures.



My curiosity about the Talmud thereafter burned with a very subdued flame until, a few years ago, it was rekindled by two of my academic colleagues in Israel. Both belonged to that 84 percent of Israeli Jews who, according to a recent poll, have never read any of the Talmud. Neither of them had participated in a synagogue service since becoming bar mitzvah, and one of them had once stunned me by saying, in praise of a candidate for academic appointment who had a thin bibliography, that “at least he has none of that damned Jewish stuff in his articles.” Now, I was shocked to hear, both had been attending lectures on the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of Jerusalem.

Who is the man who has been able to interest so many Jews in Israel in a work whose supposed source—namely, the divine revelation of Torah—a large proportion of them do not acknowledge? Steinsaltz was brought up in Jewish Palestine according to the tenets of left-wing socialist Zionism. The sacred texts of his early education were Lenin and Freud. But his father was not so dogmatic a secularist that he failed to see the importance of making his son a literate, if not a believing, Jew. Adin therefore was tutored in Talmud and attended a religious high school. His university work was in physics and mathematics, yet he became religious, and by age twenty-seven had decided to create a modern edition of the Talmud. The first volume of this edition appeared in 1967. It has been followed by nineteen more, published under the aegis of his Israel Institute for Talmudic Publication.

Although his intention was “not to popularize the argument or the subject matter” of the Talmud, Steinsaltz was convinced that much (not all) of the notorious “difficulty” of Talmud study (or “learning”) was a matter of technical obstacles which he likened to reading a philosophical text only in manuscript composed in illegible handwriting. Consequently, he inserted the vowel marks and punctuation missing from standard editions, translated the sections written in Aramaic (most of the Gemara) into modern Hebrew, and also explained the many words from other languages that appear in the text. About a million copies of the Hebrew edition (planned for completion in about 2003) have been sold. They have earned for Steinsaltz worldwide acclaim, the Israel Prize (in 1988), and adoring followers in even the most unlikely quarters. It only needs to be added that they have also earned him the condemnation of some among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox who in the newspaper published by the Shas party accused him of “heresy,” and specifically of implying through his work that the Oral Law was not given with the Written Law at Sinai. (To the dismay of many Israelis, Steinsaltz responded to these attacks by admitting “mistakes” in some of his popular booklets and offering to refund the purchase price. When asked to explain what one Israeli journalist called his “almost Galileo-like recantation,” Steinsaltz said: “I prefer to be considered a fool all my life than to be considered in the eyes of God a wicked person.”)



Steinsaltz’s Talmud has now begun to appear in English, for the benefit of readers like myself with small Hebrew, less Aramaic, and no ability at all to fill in the ellipses of the original text. The first two volumes, translated and edited by Rabbi Israel V. Berman and three associates, are the reference guide (cited earlier) intended for use in Talmud study generally and not exclusively for Steinsaltz’s edition, and the first of the ten chapters of Bava Metzia (“The Middle Gate”), a tractate on civil law from the Fourth Order of the Talmud, Nezikin (“Damages”).3 The reference guide is comprised of discussions of the Talmud’s “essential nature,” its historical background and its make-up, Aramaic, mishnaic methodology, talmudic terminology and hermeneutics, halakhic concepts and terms, Talmudic weights and measures, rules governing halakhic decision-making, and common abbreviations.

In a book of 1976, The Essential Talmud, Steinsaltz likened the Talmud to a living organism, a tree that has reached the stage where it is unlikely to change substantially, yet “continues to live, grow, and proliferate,” endlessly producing new shoots that become part of a complex unity of leaf, blossom, and bole. This figure is graphically realized in the traditional layout of the Talmud page, with the main text running down the center of the page, flanked by the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, the great French commentator of 1040-1105) on the inner side of the page, and the Tosafot (additional interpretations by Rashi’s 12th-century disciples) on the outer column of the page. Still farther from the trunk, at the margins of the page, are other exegeses of the text, references to relevant halakhic works and biblical quotations, parallel texts and cross-references, and proposed emendations (some as late as the 19th century) in the text of the Gemara.

Something of this sense of the Talmud as a great, rooted blossomer, a glorious living unity in multiplicity, is inevitably lost in the English version of Steinsaltz’s edition. The page here is similar to the original in structure but not in substance or texture. The Hebrew-Aramaic text is again in the center (vocalized and punctuated and with abbreviated terms fully spelled out). To the right of the text is a literal translation into English (often, however, with auxiliary words added). On the left side, also in English, is Steinsaltz’s own translation and commentary, “an integrated exposition of the entire text.”

Thus, to give but one example at random, the literal translation of a brief passage on folio page 5a reads: “Rav Zera said: If the first [ruling] of Rabbi Hiyya is [accepted], he must swear regarding the rest.” Across the page, Steinsaltz’s translation and commentary read: “Rav Zera said regarding this case: If Rabbi Hiyya’s first ruling is accepted, then in this case the shepherd must take an oath regarding the remaining animals, affirming that he never received them; otherwise, he must pay in full not only for the animals about which the witnesses have testified, but also for all the rest claimed by the owners. For Rabbi Hiyya ruled (3a) that . . . ,” and so forth, for another ten or so lines of explication.

Underneath the literal translation is Rashi’s Hebrew commentary, not translated. Near the bottom of the page is a Notes section, which often includes allusions to or summaries of the interpretations of those commentators who appear in the original but no longer speak for themselves here. At the margins of many pages are items of background information, occasionally with drawings. At the very bottom, which some readers will deem the least and others the most important position, is the section on halakhah, the law. This explains the links between legal decisions and the text under consideration.

Steinsaltz has been accused (sometimes by the selfsame critic) of “presumption” in substituting himself for the classic commentators and of timidity for not going beyond the literal meaning in his commentary. A more generous view would be that Steinsaltz is a self-effacing commentator whose learning is everywhere, his “personality” nowhere. This self-restraint has enabled him to convey the drama of a vibrant dialogue carried on through generations of scholars, as real and living today as ever it was. If we grant his starting assumptions—that much of his English readership knows exactly nothing of the Talmud, and that “the vast majority of concepts discussed throughout the Talmud are not defined in the Talmud itself”—his decision to replace the classic commentators with disinterested explanation of these concepts is perfectly reasonable.



But what is the point of this interminable debate? The first chapter of Bava Metzia, called “Two are holding,” has as its ostensible purpose the determination of the law that should obtain in circumstances where two people claim ownership of the same found object. An important topic, no doubt, and one whose principles of argument may be applicable to issues that press urgently upon the Jewish people today. But once the legal determination is made, once the halakhic decision is final, why, one might ask, go on through centuries of hair-splitting and logic-chopping? One reply is that the real point of the Gemara and the commentaries on the Gemara is the cultivation of the intellect as an end in itself. But if the only purpose of Talmudic debate is intellectual calisthenics, then Jewish mental athletes might just as well take their exercise on profane texts as on sacred; philosophy (in which, Steinsaltz claims, the rabbis were not interested) will serve as well as Torah.

The answer to this question can only be that God is pleased by the sinewy logic of these strenuous debates because the solution of theoretical problems ultimately strengthens the commitment to, and belief in, the religious law of Judaism. Steinsaltz has written that the Talmud is “the only sacred book in all of world culture that permits and even encourages the student to question it.” The talmudic practice of preserving minority opinion, rejected arguments, doctrines that have proved fruitless—a practice that to the mind of a zealot may seem inconsistent with the search for truth—might in fact be said to be the only stable foundation for a just reliance on the victorious doctrine or interpretation, the very condition that justifies acting upon it. It is as if no truth could be anything more than a dead dogma unless it contained its own opposite, that is, unless the possibility of refuting it continued to exist. To quote the rabbis, “Both are the words of the Living God, and the decision is in accordance with the House of Hillel.” The Talmud’s moral poise is evident in its recognition that one must ask about every ancient opinion that issued from a sage not only, Is it true? but also, What is the meaning of it?

For Steinsaltz himself, study of the Talmud is a useful rather than a liberal exercise: questions of detail are crucial to him because they may determine his own place in the world to come. But he is aware, perhaps too much so, that for many of his prospective readers (if one can be said to “read” the Talmud), such study will be liberal rather than useful. In his treatment of halakhah there is an ambivalence that seems to derive from his desire to produce a Talmud that will, as the clothing manufacturers say, “fit all sizes.” His potential students, he knows, will vary widely not only in linguistic and mental capacity, but in willingness to obey any authority higher than their own minds, any moral law external to themselves.

The effects of Steinsaltz’s ambivalence are everywhere apparent. Thus, in the Bava Metzia volume he says that “the solution of halakhic problems, and in particular the findings of definitive halakhic rulings, is not the main purpose of the Talmud.” Yet in newspaper interviews he has said of his edition, more sternly: “I would like people to study it. I would like even more for people to obey it.” Again, in The Essential Talmud he refers to knowledge of the law as an end in itself rather than instrumental to observance; but immediately afterward he cites, with apparent approval, the talmudic dictum that he who studies and does not observe what he studies would better never have been born.

In his introduction to the reference guide (which should prove a tremendous help to Talmud students at every level), Steinsaltz is more direct, writing that “the Talmud’s purpose is to seek out the exclusive Torah connection with any given subject.” The truth of Talmud, then, is for him the truth of Torah, of which Talmud is a part. Yet this too is problematic, for in working one’s way through Bava Metzia, a neophyte like myself, noting a certain paucity of references to Scripture, which is after all the final ground of Jewish religious authority, will often have the feeling that Steinsaltz takes for granted what is at issue.

What, then, is the relation between the written Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and the oral Torah, or Talmud? The Mishnah itself remarks in one place that “the Sabbath laws, the laws of holiday offerings and sacrilege are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they contain little scriptural support, but many laws.” In Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (1982), a summary of his prodigious, virtually heroic work of the previous decade on the Mishnah,4 the American scholar Jacob Neusner states the problem with admirable precision: “Formally, redactionally, and linguistically, the Mishnah stands in splendid isolation from Scripture.” Mishnah, Neusner maintains, “is not simply a secondary expansion and extension of Scripture. The Mishnah is a construction, a system, formed out of an essentially independent and fresh perspective. Only after coming to a full expression was it drawn to pertinent Scripture.”

This distinction underlies Neusner’s conception of the ancient Mishnah as a model “city of the mind” that replaced a no-longer-accessible earthly Jerusalem after it was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. Perhaps one can say, however, that his metaphor of an intellectual Jerusalem and Steinsaltz’s metaphor of the Talmud as a living organism do not really contradict each other in the end. There is order in a classical temple, but there is order of another kind in a forest.



Although I can imagine that some learned Jews who pick up Steinsaltz’s Talmud will feel that its author is addressing them as if he were a patient schoolmaster in an idiot school, most readers will be grateful to him for having succeeded in what he set out to do: namely, remove the “technical obstacles” to Talmud study. Thanks to Steinsaltz, anyone who wishes to take the trouble to do so can now begin to acquaint himself with the Talmud.

Yet when in the 11th century Rashi produced a commentary on the Pentateuch that could be understood by ordinary people, he could be confident of the effectiveness of his pedagogy among readers who were pious. Steinsaltz faces a very different situation. He can remove from Jewish shoulders such burdens as mastering Hebrew and Aramaic. But in religious matters it often happens that the lighter a burden is made, the heavier the remainder is to bear. People who fast twice a week have less difficulty fasting than those who do it once a year. People who attend synagogue every morning do so with less effort than those who turn up thrice a year.

The English historian Macaulay once wrote, in praise of a work of biblical exegesis called Paradise Lost, that “the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius” is a great poem produced in an enlightened age. A commentary on the Talmud as a whole was an impressive achievement in the ages of faith; it will be an extraordinary one in this age of doubt, in which one’s reputation for intelligence usually increases in direct proportion to the degree of one’s disbelief. In his Invitation to the Talmud (1973), Jacob Neusner remarks that “Before modern America, it is difficult to find a Jewish community so remote from the classical sources of the faith of Israel as that found in this country.” That remoteness is spiritual as well as intellectual. It forces us to ask whether a work that purports to regulate every detail of daily life—cooking, eating, praying, washing, love—making can find an abiding place in the mental world of people for whom the very notion of moral restraint is often repudiated as a violation of privacy.

Can Jews reenter a vast religious edifice without acknowledging its source? The answer may well be no. But if, however improbably, it turns out to be yes, then we shall all be indebted to those scholar-teachers, Adin Steinsaltz preeminently among them, who, in Matthew Arnold’s words, have “labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought . . . and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.”


1 The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition: A Reference Guide. Random House, 323 pp., $40.00.

2 A typical example of this genre is provided by the egregious Gore Vidal. Complaining (in the New York Review of Books) of the depredations visited upon the purity of the English language, Vidal offers the following explanation of why Jewish writers such as Bellow, Malamud, and Roth appear to be dealing with ideas: “They arrived post-James. Jewish writers over forty . . . comprise a new, not quite American class, more closely connected with ideological, argumentative Europe (and talmudic studies) than with those of us whose ancestors killed Indians, pursued the white whale. . . .”

3 The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition: Volume I: Tractate Bava Metzia, Part I. Random House, 252 pp., $40.00. Additional volumes are projected, but not yet scheduled.

4 Forty-three volumes of commentary and analysis of five of the six orders of the Mishnah. In 1982 Neusner began to bring out 35 volumes of The Talmud of the Land of Israel (University of Chicago Press). In 1984 he began to publish, in 35 volumes, The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation (Scholars Press).

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