The ProsenPeople

The Drama of the Talmudic Page

Wednesday, November 08, 2017 | Permalink

Ruby Namdar is the author of the novel The Ruined House, out this week from Harper Books. Earlier this week, he wrote about how he came to see the Holy Temple as a source of inspiration. He has been blogging here as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe Series.

I did not grow up religious, and received no Yeshiva-style Talmudic training. Growing up in a nostalgically traditional home and attending a secular public school in Jerusalem during the seventies, I knew almost nothing about the Talmud. All I knew was that it was ancient, complex to the point of being unintelligible, and completely irrelevant to my life as a modern Jew.

There were a few reasons behind this ignorance. For decades the Talmud—once the most dominant sources of Jewish learning—has been marginalized and pushed aside by secular Zionist culture. Instead of studying the strange and wonderful tales of the Talmudic ages, we studied the differently wonderful epic tales of the Bible, stories of kings and warriors which resonated much better with the Zionist Zeitgeist. Another reason for the alienation we felt towards the Talmud was the language barrier. The Talmud is written mostly in Aramaic, a dead language that, not unlike Latin, was preserved only in a narrow religious context. Talmudic Aramaic, albeit bearing some similarities to Hebrew and being written in Hebrew characters, is a foreign language for most Israelis.

Lastly, there was the layout: the complex, maze-like, multi-columned page with its almost microscopic letters and strange, archaic fonts. This layout served as a wall, fencing us out of our ancestral cultural heritage and one of the most intellectually challenging works known to humanity, the Talmud. Paradoxically, it was a discussion of a wall, and especially the technical and legal aspects of it, that the Israeli education system chose as the gateway to our acquaintance with the Talmud. It was in high school when we received our first and last dose of Talmud. A short, round, aging teacher wearing a tattered yarmulke on his balding head stood helplessly in front of a class of indifferent, hostile teenagers and tried to open our minds to the intricacies of the discussion about sizes, lengths and width of walls, fences and partitions separating two adjacent yards. How pathetic, how hopeless, how doomed to failure was this effort! Now, knowing what exciting narrative parts and incredible textual riches are hiding in the Talmud, I cannot but think that this sugia (Talmudic debate) was deliberately chosen in order to stifle any interest we may ever develop in this grand intellectual work.

Ironically, the same layout that stood as a tall wall between me and the Talmud is now one of my main points of attraction to its wonderful world. Having discovered aggadah (Talmudic narrative parts) with its intense chamber drama featuring sages instead of kings and intellectuals instead of warriors, I also opened myself to exploring the drama of the Talmudic page itself. And what a drama it is! Where else will one find so many levels and layers of meaning arranged side by side on the same page? Apart from the aesthetic value of the pages, many of which were early print masterpieces laid out by the leading master typesetters of Europe, there was the vast richness of content. So many generations of commentators huddle together on the same page, vocally conversing and debating with each other across the divide of time and place. On the same Talmudic page you can find the words of a second century CE scholar from Babylonia (where the modern state of Iraq and parts of Syria are now), a Hebrew scholar from Roman-era Palestine, a medieval French and Italian scholar, as well as Renaissance-era scholars from Morocco, Germany, and Poland. The lively conversation can resonate over a gap of a thousand years, and remain as heated as if the speakers are sitting in the same room.

I find the drama of the Talmudic page so inspiring, so captivating, that I felt compelled to “import” it into my own work. The subplot of my new novel, The Ruined House, is not only told as a Talmudic tale but is also laid out on the page as one. Parts of the text are my own fiction, while others are original quotes from different parts of the Talmud and of various other midrashic and kabbalistic sources. Few projects in the past were as challenging, but also gave me as much pleasure, as composing and laying out the pages of this “Talmudic” subplot. I know that I am taking a risk, and that the drama of the Talmudic page may at first scare off some of my readers, but I am taking this risk happily knowing that those who brave these pages will gain something unique and truly gratifying.

Ruby Namdar's first novel, The Ruined House, won Israel's highest literary award, the Sapir Prize. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters.

Image via Flickr/TikkunGer

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Holy Temple

Monday, November 06, 2017 | Permalink

Ruby Namdar is the author of the novel The Ruined House, out tomorrow from Harper Books. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe Series.

The Holy Temple in Jerusalem, what a formidable and alluring symbol! Yet for me, like for so many of my fellow contemporary Jews, the immediate reaction to any mention of the Holy Temple used to be one of alienation. The notion of the Temple—with its priestly practices, animal sacrifices, and incense burning rituals—felt to me to be foreign and archaic. It seemed almost pagan, and certainly not “Jewish."

There are many reasons for this reaction, some more obvious, others less so. For many American Jews raised in the Reform tradition, the Temple was an absent symbol, removed from the liturgy in 1818 in order to “modernize” Judaism and make it more palatable for the German Jews who took their religious and cultural cues from their Christian surroundings. For those who, like myself, grew up in Israel, there was a complexity of a different kind: the absent Temple, replaced by the Muslim Haram al-Sharif compound with its famous golden dome, became the center of the messianic obsession of religious right wing groups that call for its reconstruction and the renewal of its priestly practices. Talking, writing, and even thinking about the Temple was viewed as a loaded political act instead of a cultural gesture.

Many of us are unaware of how central the memory of the ruined Temple and the yearnful fantasy of its rebuilding were to our ancestors' Jewish consciousness. The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE was a formative moment in the collective Jewish mind, a trauma that we’ve never really healed from. The Temple symbolized a golden era of innocence, of wholeness, that we have not experienced since its destruction. It wasn’t only the falling out of grace with God, the loss of the sense of Chosenness—it was also the loss of the physical, sensuous elements of our faith and culture, and making do with mere words instead.

One of the most important elements of the Temple was its immense beauty: “He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life,” says the Talmud, elaborating on the magnificent colors of the fine marble with which King Herod built it. Some rabbis state that it was built of yellow and white marble. Others say yellow, blue and white marble. According to the Talmud, Herod intended at first to overlay it with gold, but the Rabbis told him, “Leave it alone for it is more beautiful as it is, since it has the appearance of the waves of the sea.” Other parts of the Talmud tell of the magical fruit bearing trees made of pure gold that were planted in the first Temple by King Solomon and would miraculously yield their fruit every season. My favorite parts are the Talmudic discussions of the priestly garments; a story is told about a certain High Priest whose mother made for him a fine linen tunic worth the enormous sum of twenty thousand minahs. Once this garment was ready his fellow priests would not suffer him to put it on because he looked naked in it, his bare flesh shining through the fine material as wine shines through a glass goblet.

It was that legendary beauty that captivated my imagination and allowed me to stop being afraid to touch this potent cultural symbol, and to embrace the Holy Temple as a vibrant source of artistic inspiration. As a writer, my imagination is ignited by descriptions of immense beauty, riches, excess, and the very intriguing mixture of decadence and holiness, corruption and piety. The more I learned about the Temple from Talmudic and Midrashic stories as well as from the work of ancient historians such as Flavius Josephus, the more drawn I became to its strange and wonderful atmosphere. The grandeur, the pageantry, the obsessive attention to detail and aesthetics, were all so different—and refreshingly so, I may add—from what I knew as Judaism. This symbol became even more vivid for me when I started writing my novel The Ruined House, which describes a year in the life of Professor Andrew Cohen—a charming, successful and totally secular New York Jewish man—who's going through a severe crisis and begins to see visions from the Holy Temple without understanding what he sees and why he sees it. For me, nothing could be more creatively inspiring than the tension between our modern, secular, and intellectual existence, embodied by Professor Andrew Cohen, and our ancient collective memory, embodied by the absent Temple and its mysterious rites and practices.

Ruby Namdar's first novel, The Ruined House, won Israel's highest literary award, the Sapir Prize. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters.

Image via Flickr/Dennis Jarvis