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.”