The Sages: Char­ac­ter, Con­text and Cre­ativ­i­ty, Vol. V: The Yeshiv­ot of Baby­lo­nia and Israel

Binyamin Lau; Ilana Kur­shan, trans.

  • Review
By – January 16, 2023

The lat­est vol­ume in this ongo­ing series deals with the back­grounds and sto­ries asso­ci­at­ed with the rab­binic lead­er­ship of the great Tal­mu­dic study halls in ancient Baby­lo­nia and Israel. Through­out the book, Binyamin Lau ana­lyzes rel­a­tive­ly eso­teric Tal­mu­dic pas­sages and then recounts a par­tic­u­lar sage’s lin­eage and for­ma­tive teach­ers, the seat­ing arrange­ments in his acad­e­my, his spe­cif­ic ped­a­gog­ic style, the pow­er strug­gles in which he engaged, and the impli­ca­tions of his dis­cus­sions with var­i­ous contemporaries.

Lau takes an aca­d­e­m­ic approach, sur­vey­ing the exten­sive his­to­ry of each of his sub­jects by way of clas­si­cal Jew­ish sources and con­tem­po­rary schol­ar­ship. The vol­ume serves more as a ref­er­ence guide to the per­son­al­i­ties pop­u­lat­ing midrash and the Tal­mud than as a con­ven­tion­al page-turn­er — although devel­op­ing a focused view of a par­tic­u­lar sage is clear­ly ben­e­fi­cial to one’s Torah learn­ing, a pur­suit that can be read­i­ly achieved by read­ing this book.

That being said, the vol­ume is more of a ref­er­ence guide to the indi­vid­u­als pop­u­lat­ing the Tal­mud and midrash than a book that one choos­es to read from cov­er to cov­er. If one wish­es, how­ev­er, to read the vol­ume from begin­ning to end, it may be best to read a sec­tion at a time and pair it with the teach­ings of a par­tic­u­lar sage or author­i­ty in midrashic and Tal­mu­dic study. This will allow for a focused and com­pre­hen­sive view of that individual’s out­look and per­son­al tendencies.

Binyamin Lau con­tin­ues to do a great ser­vice with his writ­ing, keep­ing alive the achieve­ments of prin­ci­pal per­son­al­i­ties of the ancient past. We should strive to get as much as we can from his work.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions