Sage Tales: Wis­dom and Won­der from the Rab­bis of the Talmud

  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
It says in Pirke Avot 1:6, Pro­vide your­self with a teacher; get your­self a com­pan­ion.” To fol­low that sage advice, take Rab­bi Bur­ton Visotzky as your teacher and his new book as your com­pan­ion. Visotzky, Apple­man Pro­fes­sor of Midrash and Inter­re­li­gious Stud­ies at The Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, first sets the scenes for the cast of char­ac­ters,” the rab­bis who are men­tioned in the Tal­mud with their attrib­ut­es and their moti­va­tions. Then he illus­trates their inter­ac­tion in the var­i­ous sto­ries, act­ing as an inter­ac­tive guide lead­ing us through the paths of tan­gled bram­bles of Tal­mud. Visotzky’s express pur­pose is to exam­ine these rab­binic sto­ries from the third to the ninth cen­turies CE and unlock them.” As he writes: In learn­ing how and why these oft-told tales were spun, we can learn how they con­tin­ue to hold val­ue for the fab­ric of our lives.”

Through­out the book, Visotzky cracks the code” of these amaz­ing Tal­mu­dic sto­ries by reveal­ing, explain­ing, clar­i­fy­ing, and extract­ing the inner ker­nel of the sto­ry along with the char­ac­ters involved. It is as if he were read­ing our minds about the ques­tions we have been ask­ing or had not even thought to ask. He does all of this in a delight­ful con­ver­sa­tion­al and humor-filled style. Although at times, his use of ver­nac­u­lar Eng­lish and con­tem­po­rary and sec­u­lar lit­er­ary analo­gies intrude on the les­son. Sage Tales demys­ti­fies the Tal­mu­dic texts so that the morals and val­ues are revealed through the bril­liance of this teacher, per­haps sim­i­lar to the teach­ers of Mish­nah and Gemara known as Tan­naim and Amoraim of old. Just as the Tan­naim were also referred to as liv­ing books,” Rab­bi Bur­ton Visotzky ful­fills this role as he dis­cuss­es and dis­tills the wis­dom and won­der from the sto­ries of the rab­bis of the Tal­mud. Glos­sary, rec­om­mend­ed read­ing, who’s who.
Penin­nah Schram, well-known sto­ry­teller & author, is Pro­fes­sor of Speech and Dra­ma at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stern Col­lege. Her lat­est book is an illus­trat­ed anthol­o­gy, The Hun­gry Clothes and Oth­er Jew­ish Folk­tales (Ster­ling Pub­lish­ing) and a CD, The Min­strel & the Sto­ry­teller, with singer/​guitarist Ger­ard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recip­i­ent of a Covenant Award for Out­stand­ing Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor and the 2003 Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

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