The Tal­mud: A Biography 

By – March 14, 2018

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.

Discussion Questions

In The Tal­mud: A Biog­ra­phy, Bar­ry Scott Wimpfheimer por­trays mul­ti­ple aspects of what is at least the sec­ond most impor­tant work in the Jew­ish canon. While show­ing respect for tra­di­tions, Wimpfheimer sub­jects the Tal­mud to care­ful aca­d­e­m­ic crit­i­cal analy­sis. His work exam­ines the tech­ni­cal legal argu­ments that under­pin some of the work, puts its sto­ries (“Aga­da­ta”) in per­spec­tive, and describes the soci­o­log­i­cal and his­toric impact of the Talmud.

Although part of the dis­cus­sion is some­what tech­ni­cal, the work demon­strates the evo­lu­tion of Tal­mu­dic analy­sis from the orig­i­nal text to sub­se­quent com­men­taries by repeat­ed­ly exam­in­ing one par­tic­u­lar sec­tion that deals with prop­er­ty dam­aged by fire. In doing so, Wimpfheimer pro­vides the read­er a glimpse of how gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars who appear in the Tal­mud, and clas­sic com­men­ta­tors who fol­lowed, devel­oped their crit­i­cal analy­sis of the Tal­mu­dic text.

In this addi­tion to a Prince­ton series that pro­duces biogra­phies” of writ­ten works as liv­ing enti­ties, Wimpfheimer suc­ceeds in the mon­u­men­tal task of mak­ing the Tal­mud acces­si­ble while empha­siz­ing its complexity.