While many books have been written on the history of the Talmud, rabbinic Judaism’s most essential work; Barry Scott Wimpfheimer’s The Talmud: A Biography, is unique in its investigation of the Talmud as a contemporary Jewish icon.
In the prologue, Wimpfheimer, an associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University, outlines the structure of his analysis. He identifies three vantage points from which to understand the Talmud’s history: Essential, Enhanced, and Emblematic. “This book explores the three different registers of Talmudic meaning both as discrete and intertwined entities,” he writes. In the five chapters that follow, Wimpfheimer explores these three categories of meaning, providing a close reading of Talmudic texts to support his argument.
Wimpfheimer’s first two chapters provide an overview of the Talmud’s content, its antecedents, and its principal characters. In chapter two, through a close reading of Talmudic passages that highlight the distinction between halacha (Jewish law) and aggadah (Jewish narratives). Wimpfheimer gives readers a real sense of what Talmud study entails. This chapter, more than any other, challenges the reader to take a deep dive into the language of the Talmud and the intricacies of its argumentation.
Chapter three, “Election: How the Talmud’s Discourse Developed (Enhanced Talmud),” is Wimpfheimer’s examination of the Enhanced register, the focus of which is the Talmud’s history of reception through the Middle Ages. This chapter focuses on authors such as Maimonides, Rashi, and the Tosafists, whose commentaries added to the Talmud’s accessibility and, by extension, its widespread acceptance as the preeminent text of Jewish thought throughout the Middle Ages. The following chapter tracks this history until early Zionism, but emphasizes the movements that opposed the Talmud’s centrality as a legal, philosophical, and cultural authority.
The Haskalah, Reform Judaism, and Zionism, three movements of Jewish modernity, Wimpfheimer writes, “distanced themselves from the Talmud in order to establish the new group as modern and non-traditional.” In the section on Zionism, Wimpfheimer recounts Ben Gurion’s debate with the writer Haim Hazaz about the role of rabbinic literature in the Zionist agenda. As the product of a diaspora community, Zionists rejected the Talmud as they sought to connect the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the Bible, a text of Jewish nationhood and sovereignty, “whose every story decorated another peak or desert valley” of the Jewish State.
The final chapter centers around the Talmud’s place in contemporary life. Wimpfheimer considers the widespread practice of Talmud study – among the Jewish intellectual elite; the larger religious Jewish community, through the daf yomi cycle; and the secular Jewish community. He also discusses how the Talmud has been translated or adapted for non-Jewish audiences. A Korean translation of a compendium of Talmudic wisdom, for example, has been adapted into illustrated and children’s editions, and is prized for providing a window into the secret of Jewish success for a philo-semitic audience. Wimpfheimer writes, “Though the Korean example is an extreme one in which ‘the Talmud’ is not the book itself but a different book altogether, it highlights the idea of the emblematic Talmud quite well.”
The Talmud: A Biography is an engaging read and a wonderful presentation of Judaism’s most discussed book. Readers will appreciate Wimpfheimer’s analysis, regardless of their experience in Talmud study.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.