The Tal­mud: A Biography

Har­ry Freedman

  • Review
By – January 15, 2015

The Tal­mud is the pri­ma­ry Jew­ish text after the Bible itself, and its devot­ed study has been the linch­pin of Jew­ish sur­vival. Dilet­tantes may dab­ble in it and cite a few pas­sages here and there. Mature schol­ars devote their lives to under­stand­ing the under­pin­nings of Jew­ish legal the­o­ry and its appli­ca­tion to cur­rent life. His­to­ri­ans must first mas­ter the com­plex text and then ana­lyze it from var­i­ous inter-dis­ci­pli­nary perspectives.

Its impor­tance is axiomat­ic. Attempt­ing to describe the Tal­mud in the abstract is quite a chal­lenge. How­ev­er, Freed­man is on the right track. It is pre­cise­ly because of its impor­tance in Judaism that the Tal­mud has been banned, cen­sored, and burned. Those who pio­neered in this field were great schol­ars. A few of the clas­sics are cit­ed, how­ev­er, a work which pur­ports to show not only the world’s treat­ment of the Tal­mud but why Judaism and Jews view it with such rev­er­ence can­not omit the con­clu­sions of Agus, Albeck, Cha­jes, Lieber­man, Twer­sky, Weiss, and oth­ers of sim­i­lar rank. Not cit­ing Grayzel’s work on papal edicts nor Finkelstein’s book on Jew­ish com­mu­nal ordi­nances is an equal­ly egre­gious omission.

Extracts and antholo­gies do not ful­ly explain why the Tal­mud is so impor­tant. It is as ancient as many of the world’s clas­sics, length­i­er than pos­si­bly any oth­er, com­plex in its com­po­si­tion, fre­quent­ly pro­found in its con­tent and it has had a far more tumul­tuous sto­ry than most.

The book does, how­ev­er, reflect tur­bu­lent events in Jew­ish his­to­ry, and present pieces of Jew­ish his­to­ry and the his­to­ry of anti-semi­tism as reflect­ed in con­tro­ver­sies over its cen­tral text.

In dis­cussing the devel­op­ment and impact of the Tal­mud, Freed­man first con­sid­ers the Tal­mud as a devel­op­ing text, explor­ing its ori­gins in the Roman Empire after the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. He also pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into cross-fer­til­iza­tion between Jew­ish and ear­ly Islam­ic schol­ars and its impact on the ideas and devel­op­ment of the Tal­mud. Some of his con­clu­sions are ques­tion­able and oth­ers are sim­ply inac­cu­rate. His claims that before the Tem­ple was destroyed, the lulav was only used there, his dat­ing of the first Jew­ish print­ing press­es, and claim­ing that the rab­bis of the San­hedrin were Sad­ducees are erro­neous. Equal­ly impre­cise is his claim that there were 19,000 doc­u­ments in the Geniza, when in fact there are hun­dreds of thou­sands. When dis­cussing Jew­ish flight from the Holo­caust, the com­mu­ni­ty of Shang­hai is men­tioned, but omit­ted is any dis­cus­sion of the trans­plant­ed Yeshi­va of Mir and the famous Shang­hai Talmud.”

Mas­tery of the Tal­mu­dic text requires years of con­cen­trat­ed study. His­tor­i­cal analy­sis of it requires a knowl­edge of many lan­guages, dif­fer­ent legal sys­tems, lit­er­ary styles, and the breadth of Jew­ish his­to­ry. Freed­man has read wide­ly and relies heav­i­ly on sec­ondary sources, many of which are not list­ed in the Bib­li­og­ra­phy, yet are cit­ed in the notes. The field of Tal­mu­dic his­to­ri­og­ra­phy is not for the faint of heart nor for those lack­ing a rig­or­ous ground­ing in Tal­mud. Haym Soloveitchik’s with­er­ing cri­tique of Talya Fish­man is total­ly omit­ted as is his new the­o­ry about a third cen­ter of Tal­mud study which influ­enced the schol­ars of ear­ly medieval Ashkenaz.

Freed­man com­pre­hen­sive­ly cov­ers the ugli­er burn­ings and bans, why and how the Tal­mud sur­vived, how it became a cen­tral study text, the influ­ence of print­ing on its dis­sem­i­na­tion, its encoun­ters with Chris­t­ian schol­ar­ship, sci­ence and enlight­en­ment thought, and its role today. It’s a broad, ambi­tious work, which suc­ceeds as an out­line for fur­ther study.

Relat­ed content:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions