Reading the Talmud in France

File:Armoiries république française.svgMany people ask me why I chose France when I decided to write my PhD dissertation on rabbinic literature. It is a very good question since there are only a handful of Talmud specialists in this country, and they are hardly read by people outside of France (or inside it for that matter…). France, in that respect, cannot be compared to Israel, the US, the UK or even to other European countries such as Germany or Italy where the situation is somewhat better.

I always found this state of affairs very sad. After all, it is a country with a long history of great talmudic scholarship – Rashi and many of the Tosafists, not to mention the scholars from Provence… I’m not saying that no one reads the Talmud in France. On the contrary, there are many yeshivot and community centers where the Talmud is studied in the traditional way. It goes without saying that only or mainly Jews attend these Talmud classes (in some synagogues women can join too). When an academic approach is at stake, however, one seems to go up a blind alley.

There are many explanations to this sad state of affairs. Of course, we can go back to the 13th century “Dispute de Paris” with its horrific outcome – the burning of hundreds of Talmud manuscripts found all over the French Kingdom, or the decision to expel all the Jews from France in the following century. But for the purpose of this post let’s stay within the limits of the last century, which, in the very beginning saw the promulgation of the “law of 1905” that decreed the separation of the church and the state, and promoted the value of the “laïcité” (secularism), so precious to the French. The “laïcité” in France is much more than a concept. It is a social and cultural value, whose roots are to be found already in the period of the French “Lumières” that defined themselves against religion in a very provocative and combative manner (contrary to the German Aufklärung). As a proof for its importance one can cite the fact that this value is promoted and used by ALL of the main candidates in the upcoming presidential election, even by Marine Le Pen. Of course, the latter, and to a certain extent all the candidates from the political center, use this value in order to defend the Catholic values that are so imbedded in French culture that no one sees them as “religious” any more. No one, that is, who is from a Catholic background. In other words, as some French sociologists have already pointed out, French secularism is a modern form of Catholic Christianity, in which Catholic values (and customs to some extent) are being stripped of their theological load in order to be presented as neutral, humanistic and universal.

In the context of French Academia, the 1905 law had some very significant consequences. Since most French universities are public, the law implied that they could not host departments of theology which in many cases (as in Germany, for example, or in some private universities in the United States) constitute a serious academic platform for religious studies and research. A few such enclaves still exist, as for example in some universities in the Alsace and Loraine Regions that were not part of France in 1905, or in the rare private universities such as the Institut Catholique de Paris. Some fields in religious studies, such as New and Old Testament studies and Patristics, were already imbedded in French universities so that the impact of the law of 1905 was not fatal in their regard. Those specialists found their way to departments of history, philology and so forth. To some extent this is also true regarding medieval Jewish Studies (the first scientific translation of ‘The Guide to the Perplexed’ was produced in French by Solomon Munk in the middle of the 19th century). But as for the nascent field of Talmudic studies, it did not gain enough prestige and importance in order to be integrated in one of these “laic” departments. There were (and still are) departments of Hebraic or Jewish studies in some French public universities, yet most of the specialists that crowded them worked on ancient (biblical, second temple), Hellenistic or medieval Judaism, while the Talmud was  for the most part left aside.

And then there was Levinas. Yet here too, his Lectures Talmudiques were delivered mainly within Jewish circles, and were not viewed as an integral part of his academic work or his philosophy (a trend that may now be changing). Sure, it leads to the fact that we can find some references to the Talmud in the writings of Levinas’ interlocutors, like Derrida or Lacan, but these are by no means the work of specialists, and neither did they influence the heavy apparatus that is the French university to give more importance and space to talmudic studies.

The Talmud is still viewed today in French culture as a religious corpus, intended mainly for religious purposes. I am not saying that this state of affaires is unique to France, but I am still always disappointed to find out that in the country of Derrida or Foucault, who wrote the most interesting and rich critiques on western philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, the Talmud, which offers something that can be viewed an anti-philosophical thought, is mostly ignored by the intellectual circles.

There is also a very practical aspect to this problem – for the French reader there is no complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah, or the Midrashim. As for the Palestinian Talmud – this was indeed translated in the 19th century by Moïse Schwab, though in an admittedly beautiful (I think) yet highly problematic rendition.

The few specialists that are working in France are of course aware to this situation and are working on changing it. The best example is a project I am proud to participate in, which consists of a scientific edition of the Mishnah, and its first complete translation into French – a project led by Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

I have to admit, if I chose Paris as the place to work on my PhD on the “ethics of the self” in the Talmud, it was not because I wanted “to bring light to the Gentiles” but mainly because back then I was still under the “spell” of French Theory (which is after all a much more American notion, not to say invention, than a French one). Ever since, I realized how neglected the Talmud is by the rich intellectual discourse that is going on in this country, and I started to refer to my work as a mission, or at least a very important job. Talmudic thought, when studied in its historical context (that is to say not in a Levinasien way), can shed light on many subjects that occupy western societies in general and the French one in particular. Its “realistic” approach (“no law can be imposed on the public unless it can endure it”), its anti-mystical attitude, and its general ethical demand – to live an individual life of virtue without retreating from the social, day-to-day world – all these and other values discussed in the rabbinic corpus can contribute much to the problems French society has to deal with these days. Of course, it will not be possible to integrate talmudic texts into the public discourse here unless we show that they are not more or less “religious” (in the modern sense of the word) from the founding texts of western civilization. This job is still in its infancy, and with some naivety (some may say pretention), I promise to keep you posted on the developments.

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17 thoughts on “Reading the Talmud in France”

  1. Great post Ron! On this comment, you sound ever so French:
    “I have to admit, if I chose Paris as the place to work on my PhD on the “ethics of the self” in the Talmud, it was not because I wanted “to bring light to the Gentiles” but mainly because back then I was still under the “spell” of French Theory (which is after all a much more American notion, not to say invention, than a French one).”
    But of course there WAS a moment of French Theory – ‘Tel Quel’ etc etc! I never understood why this is always seen as a Northern Californian invention. And more to the point, it seems to me that there is still much to be done with French Theory and Talmud. Sure, we have Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, and we have the Bakhtinian stuff that probably would not have happened without Kristeva, but who (if anyone) is working on, for example, things like Barthes’ division between text and work, and the writerly / readly to think about the process of reading an intricate sugya et al?

  2. Thanks Shai.
    First of all, in the remark you mention about French Theory I alluded to François Cusset’s book with the same title.
    The thinkers of the “French Theory” come from very different fields and do not always communicate well one with the other. There is a post-structuralist moment, to which thinkers like Foucault, the later Barthes, Derrida and Bourdieu belong, but very rare are the French contemporary thinkers that refer to all these figures as representing One moment or One movement. Scholars here tend to use insights, ideas and theories of this or that thinker but more often than not they do it with a grain of salt. Almost no one here will refer to Foucault as saint Foucault (or Rabbi Foucault as does Boyarin in one of his articles), for example. In other words, these post-structuralist thinkers are everywhere and nowhere in particular. There is no institutional infrastructure that will support their independent existence as a unique current of thought. If they are used here it is more as a “toolbox” than as a canonized corpus.

    Every since I came here I realized how the thinkers of the “French Theory” cannot be fully understood outside their French Context (an example I always like to give is that you cannot understand Foucault’s “The Birth of the Clinic” until you go see a doctor in France). So many times the attempts to impose these theories on a non-occidental context are dangerous from a methodological point of view. Sometimes I get the feeling that these “barthian” or “foucladian” readings of ancient texts come to prove and to improve the theory instead of telling us new things about the object in question. That is why I think the French way to use these theories and thinkers is much healthier – you use them as long as they help you to better read your material (of course that cannot be the case when you refer to these thinkers as saints or rabbis, whose words are divinely and eternally true).
    Anyway, I do not know of any scholars using the Barthian division between work and text in relation to the Talmud but I do admit it might prove useful to apply it (and thus to better understand the nature of this corpus).

    1. Ron,
      I’m working on the Talmud as “writerly text.” (And, yes, I’m from Northern California.) I agree, we don’t need to focus on ‘applying’ Barthes to the Talmud, precisely because he oftentimes eerily appears to actually be speaking about the Talmud!
      Zvi

  3. There are some significant elements regarding this reality that I think should be added: the French Jewish population since the 1950s-1960s, and the huge shift from a mainly ashkenazic (and often, secular) population to overwhelmingly sephardic (and somewhat, although of course, not all, traditional). The place and importance of secular scholarship as useful tools to understand Jewish classical texts is often not the same in these types of populations. And those (few) Jews that are really secular in France, are really secular, and cannot care less about Jewish sources. Add to this the strange obsession with (psedo) psychoanalyst that is considered the fourteenth (or first, probably), article of faith for incredibly high percentage of scholars (or mostly, pseudo-scholars) who publish or lecture in the field in France, and their readers and listeners, add to this the amount of pseudo-scholars that go from lecture to lecture and talk about gimatriyas, the shapes of Hebrew letters, codes in the Bible, and midrash as truth, and the result is the existing reality: a desert.

  4. There are more things, but I guess I will stop with this. There is also the strange “under siege” mentality, that makes any discussion about things that do not portray the imagined “Judaism” in the most lovely way, unwelcome. In my most recent talk in France I had a text-book example. I spoke about the possibility that the common depictions of Jews as largly observing halakhah in the past is very problematic, if not totally baseless. A woman from the audience stood suddenly, and shouted “Meme si c’est peut-etre vrai, il ne faut pas le dire!” (“even if this maybe true, one should not say it!”). This was a classic example of this. If you say nice things about Judaism – we love you. If not – we don’t. Needless to say, not the perfect environment for critical scholarship. Or another example, but this time not from lay people, but from an editor. My critical edition of the Baraita de-Niddah, which will be published very soon, was rejected many years ago by a (Jewish) publisher, who wrote me (and I kept this magnificient email) “Je pense qu’il n’est pas souhaitable que cette littérature sorte du cercle des spécialistes” (“I think that it is not preferable that this type of literature [which, indeed, does not show the nicest side of rabbinic Judaism] gets out (=become available) outside of the circle of experts”). Same stance, two people, a decade apart.

  5. meant, of course, above, “pseudo psychoanalysis”, not a specific “psychoanalyst”. The Jewish practitioners of this craft, who consider themselves also experts of Judaism, thus speak and write about Jewish stuff, can populate a mid-size shul easily.

  6. Looking forward to the new Mishna! It’s time France got back on the map of Jewish scholarship. Just don’t get too muddled up with all that theory stuff, comprende?

  7. How pleasant it must be to be able simply to ignore the rampant antisemitism around the world that makes much of an allegedly bestial Talmud and its depraved teachings. The complacency of the comments on this page is impressive. However, not all of us can manage that sleight-of-mind. No doubt the authors here have quite enough time mastering their own field and therefore avoid any perusal of the no-longer subterranean river of mud that courses through the internet every day on this topic, cropping up in comments on mainstream newspaper websites for example, so they need not trouble to take it seriously. But I do wonder whether the greater contribution to a proper understanding of the Talmud both for the present and for the future is made by the current wave of cloistered strongly secularist and post-modernist interpreters, whose approaches so often approach what could be called a “negative apologetics” which highlights their primary self-identity within and allegiance to the secular academy, or by such overtly apologetic and unpretentious persons as, to take an example, “Gil Student” at his http://www.angelfire.com/mt/talmud website which affirms his primary identification with and allegiance to the Jewish people, and his overt and unashamed intention to protect the Jewish community’s continued existence in the world. After all, we do remain, so to speak, an endangered species even now, a (mere) generation or so after the Holocaust. A positive apologetics is not something whose time has passed, nor is it something beneath the notice of serious scholars. Quite the opposite. Ironically, however, the underlying dynamic was already present at the very founding of the academic study of Judaism, as Gershom Scholem himself (despite all the ambiguities in his own scholarly agenda) pointed out in his “The Science of Judaism — Then and Now,” translated by Michael Meyer and reprinted in Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality back in 1971. The disinclination to address the wider environment and the responsibilities that it brought with it constituted a kind of collaboration with the englobing antisemitism seeking the disappearance of the Jewish people, already at the beginning of the nineteenth century at the birth of Jewish Studies, and it is questionable whether it left a good legacy for Germans and German Jews in the twentieth century. So the underlying dynamics predates post-modern approaches to the Talmud or to Jewish Studies more broadly, but none of its ambiguities have been overcome.

  8. I should have written, “underlying dynamic … has been overcome” in my last sentence above. A further clarification: I think the comments by Ron Naiweld are generally very interesting and encouraging and I thank him for his article: French academic Talmudic scholarship has had some very fine expositors, and it is good that it continues. My remarks were chiefly spurred by M. Evyatar’s oddly dislocated reference to ‘the strange “under seige” mentality’ of ordinary Jews, which is even more odd and dislocated now coming as this remark does after the recent antisemitic terrorist killings in France. Neither would I altogether endorse the comments of the lady quoted by M. Evyatar, since I believe that it is less a matter of what one says as the agenda with which one says it, which in turn is shown by the context one puts it in and how one says it, and where one positions oneself in regard to those impacted by what one says. There are a lot of what I would call “false transcendental positions” claimed by too many academics. They too are imbedded in history and society whether they like it or not, and what they do also have wider ramifications for other Jews, and here she is entirely correct and there is nothing strange about her mentality at all.

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