The Sages: Char­ac­ter, Con­text and Cre­ativ­i­ty, Vol. IV: From the Mish­na to the Talmud

Binyamin Lau; Ilana Kur­shan, trans.
  • Review
By – March 14, 2016

In this vol­ume, Rab­bi Binyamin Lau con­tin­ues his pop­u­lar series of dis­cus­sions focus­ing upon the per­son­al­i­ties whose ideas and per­son­al­i­ties dom­i­nate the pri­ma­ry sources of Jew­ish tra­di­tion. His descrip­tions are schol­ar­ly in terms of not only his Tal­mu­dic inter­pre­ta­tions, but also the man­i­fold cit­ed arti­cles that serve as the basis for his analy­sis and con­clu­sions. Rab­bi Lau’s descrip­tion of his method­olog­i­cal approach intend­ed to estab­lish the his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy of tra­di­tions regard­ing these per­son­al­i­ties, where­by he com­pares when­ev­er pos­si­ble mul­ti­ple ver­sions of sim­i­lar sto­ries and accounts in the Baby­lon­ian and Jerusalem Tal­muds as well as Midrash, is not only of inter­est to the casu­al read­er, but can also serve as an inspi­ra­tion and guide for one’s own research should he be inter­est­ed in and famil­iar with this field of material.

Rab­bi Lau not only dis­cuss­es the inter­ac­tions among the per­son­al­i­ties dur­ing the tran­si­tion­al peri­od when reliance upon the Mish­na gave way to the devel­op­ment of the Gemara, but he sets these inter­est­ing vignettes com­prised of the behav­iors and com­ments of schol­ars, polit­i­cal fig­ures, rulers and par­a­digms of piety, against the back­ground of the rise and fall of var­i­ous empires and the result­ing fluc­tu­a­tions in eco­nom­ic, secu­ri­ty and legal con­sid­er­a­tions. The author does not allow the Jew­ish dimen­sion of his sub­ject mat­ter to exist in a his­tor­i­cal vac­u­um, and he often accounts for cer­tain prac­tices, atti­tudes and school of thought in light of the con­di­tions of the day result­ing from the cur­rent polit­i­cal dynam­ics that were at play.

In addi­tion to the pure­ly schol­ar­ly aspects of his dis­cus­sions, Rab­bi Lau occa­sion­al­ly attempts to inter­pret on a deep­er lev­el the ser­mons, Halachic deci­sions and the bib­li­cal cita­tions offered by the indi­vid­u­als that he presents in the inter­ests of try­ing to under­stand the essence dri­ving them to be the unique per­son­al­i­ties that they obvi­ous­ly were. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est is the por­tray­al of Reish Lak­ish, to whom a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the end of Rab­bi Lau’s book is devot­ed. We learn that there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between the por­tray­al of this indi­vid­ual in the Baby­lon­ian and Jerusalem Tal­muds, as well as his approach to many issues that could be under­stand­ably attrib­uted to what some sources sug­gest was his way­ward youth and rel­a­tive­ly late return to Torah study and Halachic obser­vance. His sharp ana­lyt­ic approach was both wel­comed and dread­ed by his men­tor, R. Yochanan, and Reish Lakish’s repeat­ed demon­stra­tion for a basic lack of tol­er­ance for what he con­sid­ered to be digres­sions on the part of oth­ers from a pure and strict inter­pre­ta­tion and appli­ca­tion of reli­gious prin­ci­ples, tru­ly brings him to life.
Rab­bi Binyamin Lau’s book serves to demon­strate that while these var­ied per­son­al­i­ties and the times that they lived in were cer­tain­ly unique in cer­tain respects, human nature is such that par­al­lels even to our own times can eas­i­ly be drawn, con­firm­ing once again George Santayana’s tru­ism, Those who can­not remem­ber the past — in this case, study Tal­mud — are con­demned to repeat it.”

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Biel­er is Rab­bi of Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD. He was a stu­dent of Rab­bi Riskin at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and fac­ul­ty mem­ber of the Joseph Shapiro Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies. Sub­se­quent­ly, he was Chair­man of the Tal­mud Depart­ment of Yeshi­v­at Ramaz and per­ma­nent Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at Con­gre­ga­tion Kehi­lath Jeshurun.He has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions