Six Mem­os From the Last Millennium

  • Review
By – May 6, 2016

Joseph Ski­bell, a Sami Rohr Prize choice-award win­ner cel­e­brat­ed for his rich, imag­i­na­tive writ­ing, takes on the sto­ries of the Tal­mud, or Aggadah, in Six Mem­os from the Last Mil­len­ni­um: A Nov­el­ist Reads the Tal­mud. Instead of a more typ­i­cal read­ing of the sto­ries as his­to­ry, or even a lit­er­ary analy­sis of the sto­ries them­selves, Ski­bell finds these episodes to be myth­ic, larg­er than life, and deli­cious­ly enig­mat­ic. His treat­ment of them is high­ly read­able, and deeply thought-provoking.

The style of the Aggadah is terse, describ­ing char­ac­ters’ dia­logue and actions almost like stage direc­tions in a screen­play. It does not describe their moti­va­tions, nor does it ren­der defin­i­tive judge­ments, and Ski­bell right­ly plays up that ambi­gu­i­ty as he flesh­es out the nar­ra­tives. It is not always clear if a line of Tal­mu­dic dia­logue was meant to come across harsh­ly or calm­ly, earnest­ly or sar­cas­ti­cal­ly, or even as a ques­tion or an answer (this is even true in its legal sec­tions, rais­ing argu­ments that have spanned the cen­turies of rab­binic tra­di­tion). The best actors can con­vey mul­ti­ple mean­ings at once, and, as Ski­bell unpacks these sto­ries, he accom­plish­es the same effect in his writ­ing to mes­mer­iz­ing effect.

Each of the five chap­ters, or mem­os from the past, is based around a series of aggadic sto­ries that is reprint­ed in trans­la­tion and then elu­ci­dat­ed. Skibell’s own writ­ing is thick and lush­ly lay­ered, pro­vid­ing a com­pelling con­trast to his source mate­r­i­al. He adds con­text by mak­ing ref­er­ence to oth­er sto­ries about the char­ac­ters that pro­vide more detail, and by expand­ing each small detail into crit­i­cal plot points. For exam­ple, his first sto­ry cen­ters on the fourth cen­tu­ry sage Rab­bi Yohanan, whose last name, bar Naph­ha, lit­er­al­ly means son of the Black­smith.” From there, Ski­bell con­structs a sto­ry of Rab­bi Yohanan the mas­ter smith or alchemist, even­tu­al­ly even blend­ing him with the cre­ative pow­er of the fire itself. As he describes them, the rab­bis blur the line between being his­tor­i­cal peo­ple and dis­em­bod­ied, ele­men­tal forces, work­ing against each oth­er and react­ing in each other’s presence.

The sages in Skibell’s sto­ries are set against the dev­as­tat­ing back­drop of the destruc­tion of Judea at the hands of the Roman Empire, and com­pen­sate by cre­at­ing rich worlds of their own. Through the rit­u­al­ized back and forth of Tal­mu­dic dis­course, they build the Torah that ani­mates the inner world of their study halls. Through the inten­si­ty and pas­sion of their argu­men­ta­tion, they build each oth­er — and them­selves. How­ev­er, the sto­ries Ski­bell selects are tragedies, not come­dies (at least that is how he reads them). The sages were ulti­mate­ly unable to keep their inter­nal worlds from col­laps­ing just as their exter­nal world had. In fact, they were usu­al­ly the cat­a­lysts of their own down­fall. Some­times it was because they failed to live up to their own exact­ing stan­dards. Chill­ing­ly, though, Ski­bell shows us that often it was pre­cise­ly because they had. In this way, he presents the Talmud’s treat­ment of its own authors as both role mod­els and warn­ings, a remark­ably self-reflec­tive approach that is need­ed today per­haps more than ever.

Avra­ham Bron­stein writes fre­quent­ly on top­ics of Jew­ish thought, con­tem­po­rary issues, and their inter­sec­tion. A past Assis­tant Rab­bi of The Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue and Pro­gram Direc­tor of Great Neck Syn­a­gogue, he lives with his fam­i­ly in Scran­ton, PA.

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