Why Do I Read the Talmud?

About a year ago I was asked to write an article for a French Jewish Studies Journal – Tsafon (published by the University of Lille), that would offer to the French scholar a status quaestionis of Talmudic studies. I wrote this article in French and it can be accessed here, but I would like to summarize its main point that I tried to develop in its second half.

The title of the article is “Why one reads the Talmud Today?”. It echoes a very interesting volume edited by Matthew Kraus in 2006 – How Should Rabbinic Literature Be Read in the Modern World. In the article I don’t try to answer this question, but to point out the importance of asking it when we read the Talmud; the importance of being aware of the variety of possible answers, of the one that we come to choose, and of the reasons that lead us to this choice.

It seems pretty obvious today to almost everyone that there is no such thing as objective reading and that the way we read the text is influenced by many personal and subjective factors. The problem is that most of us just nod when hearing this and then go ahead to develop our objective statement, thesis or theory. In other words, we do not learn (in any case I didn’t) how to overcome the problem of our subjective bias. What we do instead is to silently acknowledge the existence of subjective factors in our scientific judgment, without really accounting for the nature of the bias, and the way it actually biases our perspective. In the case of Talmud scholars – we do not always understand (or will to admit) how the reason for which we read the Talmud influences what we read in it (Boyarin’s preface to Borderlines is one, among several, rare exceptions).

There are some obvious examples for this unconscious bias. One of them is described in the interesting contribution of Seth Schwartz to the Cambridge Companion to Rabbinic Literature, published in 2007. Schwarz attributes the position of many Israeli scholars, according to whom rabbinic Judaism was dominant in first centuries Palestine, to their Zionism. Of course, a similar claim can be made on Schwartz as well – the idea that the rabbis occupied a minor position in ancient Jewish society, held by many American scholars like himself, may be influenced by their situation as Jews in the American diaspora. Hillel Newman makes a similar claim in his article “The Normativity of Rabbinic Judaism: Obstacles on the Path to a New Consensus”. And we haven’t even started to speak about questions of gender and sexuality and the way they bias a scholar’s perspective on his/her subject matter.

So what can we do? On the one hand we cannot ignore the fact that our social, psychological, economic, religious, and political positions influence our scientific work. On the other hand we do not want to fall into a post-modernist caricature, where “truth” only exists in our individualistic hearts.

The thinker that helped me most to think this problem through is the French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, especially in several passages from his book The Logic of Practice. Bourdieu writes about the work of the anthropologist, who tries to understand societies other than her own. But his ideas can and should apply to us as well, because just like the anthropologist, we too are facing an object produced by people who are not us, and our job is to understand this object, and through it, perhaps, understand the people who created it. Thus, the advice, or maybe even prescription that Bourdieu gives to the anthropologist may be relevant to us as well – according to Bourdieu we should not only acknowledge the fact that we have a subjective relation to the research object, but we should also objectify it. In other words, our own relation to the object (the Talmud in our case) has to be regarded in an objective way. Of course, it is always easier to objectify the bias of someone other than oneself – in a sense that is what I tried to show by referring to the claims of Schwartz and Newman. However, if we want to try to produce objective knowledge (and yes, I still think this is possible), we have to take into consideration, in an objective way, our own relation to the subject matter.

Some questions I find worth asking when I try to objectify my relation to the text I study are: Why did I choose this text and not another? How does the (short) history of my research influence my reading? Do I read the text only to prove I was right, or to understand it better? What is my relationship (real or imaginary) with others who studied the issues I tackle in my research? These questions do not find their way to the paper, but asking them before and during research and writing often proves itself extremely helpful.

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7 thoughts on “Why Do I Read the Talmud?”

  1. Sure there is no way out. We will always have blind spots, will always be biased by factors we are not aware of. We can only aspire to have the most objective view.. in a sense it corresponds to talmudic ethics, which is more about the way, the process than the final goal..

  2. Great post! It seems to me that this whole project of a sustained and ongoing “critique” of the self and its practices.sounds very…French – which of course makes sense! I’ll ask the opposite question of Moshe’s: Won’t this be impossibly debilitating. If we are always second-guessing our research and interrogating our biases, we may preclude the possibility of new research
    Perhaps instead of self-critique, we should all critique each other! But to do so there would have to be a massive cultural shift. That is, we would need to change the normal etiquette of the field, where questioning biases of living scholars is totally off limits.

      1. The source of halakha is the Talmud. The more one learns and the better one understands the Talmud, the better will he be able to fulfill the requirements of halakha.

  3. The little debate at the end of the comments, between Not Important and Shai Secunda, reveals the chasm between academic research and traditional Torah study. The author of the post itself seems to be writing from and for the academic perspective, though I detect real love and respect for the Sages themselves. I think his point is relevant to all students of Rabbinic literature, no matter how religious we might be. Whenever we dive into the Talmudic sea, we do so for a personal reason – even if that reason is simply to come closer to Hashem. If we then write about what we find, and/or discuss it with an audience, the personal component is magnified by the desire to engage, impress, teach, publish, etc.

    Taking a moment to ask, “How is my agenda affecting my truth-sense as I approach this text?” seems to me not only valuable, but holy.

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