Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 18b and Yevamot 37b: is this temporary marriage?- Guest Post by Zvi Septimus and Lena Salaymeh

Zvi Septimus and Lena Salaymeh are currently (at the time of publication) giving a lecture entitled “Marriage for Sex in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Legal Debates” at The Jewish Law Association’s 17th International Conference, going on now at Yale University.  This post is a summary of their talk and an opportunity to participate in the discussion. 

Two well-known and seemingly anomalous lines in the Babylonian Talmud have troubled many Talmud commentators for the last thousand years—yet these lines were notably ignored by the Gaonim: “When Rav came to Ardashir, he announced, ‘Who will have me for a day?’  When Rav Nahman came to Shkentziv, he announced, ‘Who will have me for a day?’”  What do these proclamations mean? The subsequent give and take of the Talmud implies that both Rav and Rav Nahman were the equivalent of modern-day rock stars.  They would send their entourage to the next stop on their tour in order to scout out groupies willing to engage in casual sex—or a temporary marital relationship—during their stay in various cities.  After their encounter they would be on their way, off to the next city to be coupled with the next willing set of groupies.  Had these rabbis actually been modern-day rock stars, these stories would probably not trouble us or the medieval commentators, many of whom felt forced to sanitize them.  But these stories are about rabbis.

The trouble with the rock star metaphor is that it implies that sexual relationships, or any relationship for that matter, between men and woman in the ancient world were anything like the way they are today, or even the medieval Christian and Muslim worlds in which medieval Talmud commentators lived.  The story we will now tell is about the evolution of the contexts in which these two Bavli lines were positioned from the time of their first appearance as historical anecdotes of the near past to the time when, as part of a Talmudic sugya, they needed to be incorporated into the complex web of rabbinic legislation.

The two statements of these rabbis appear in succession at two very different locales in the Talmud.  The first, in the order of tractates, and, as we argue, the development of the sugya, is at Yoma 18b and the second is at Yevamot 37b.  The Yevamot context is far more expansive and has therefore generally received more attention from traditional jurists seeking to contextualize the statements legally—to make laws for their contemporaries based on the way the Talmud discusses them.  At stake, for jurists like Alfasi, Maimonides, the Ravad, Nahmanides, the Rosh, and the Tur, is the legislative approach they would take toward casual or time-bound sexual relationships in their own eras in light of both the Talmud’s attitude toward such relationships and their own social and religious realities.  While traditional marriage may receive the most attention, there are many types of sexual relationships between men and women discussed in the Talmud.  Indeed, considerable effort is expended fleshing out sexual relationships between men and women outside of the standard permanent marriage arrangement, including conditional marriage and divorce, levirate marriage, servant marriage, slave marriage, concubines, casual sex, prostitution, and incest.  The Bavli’s discussion of these varieties of sexual relationships is reflective of late antique Near Eastern customary practices.  The question we would like to pose today is: To which of these categories did the Bavli’s redactors and the rabbinic commentators assign the relationships expressed by the stories of Rav and Rav Nahman?

Even within the Bavli itself, the statements of Rav and Rav Nahman—”who will have me for a day?”—can be seen in multiple contexts.  The first is to look at the statements themselves as actual stories recorded at or slightly after the times of their occurrence.  The second is to view them in the context of the extended sugya at Yoma 18b.  And the third is to understand them within the framework of Yevamot 37b.  When looked at this way, the stories can have three separate meanings.  To compound matters, there are numerous manuscripts containing alternate versions and textual variants.  Each of these, in addition, portrays different attitudes toward the story itself.  Of primary concern is the question of what type of relationship is meant by the words “who will have me for a day?”  Is it casual sex, a form of pilegesh relationship, or a temporary marriage?  If it were a pilegesh relationship, then was qiddushin performed?  Was nissuin performed?  Was there a ketubbah?  Is it realistic to think that the rabbis would be willing to pay the 100 or 200 zuz marriage settlement for a day’s worth of enjoyment, or, from a different perspective, a day’s worth of abating sexual urges in a legitimized manner?  Secondly, was the marriage for a day or “days”?  The manuscripts contain both readings.  If “days,” then was the marriage for a specific amount of time or just designated as temporary in some non-specific way?  If for a pre-determined amount of time, was this marriage naturally dissolved or was a get required?  If for a non-specific amount of time, could either party leave at will or was the husband the sole authority in determining the marriage’s end?  Further does the term yiud in these Bavli passages refer to non-sexual seclusion or is it a term referring to designating the woman as a partner, perhaps a pilegesh, where there would be neither qiddushin nor a ketubbah?  These questions are not only of interest to modern academic analysis of the positions of the authors of each sugya, or versions of the sugya preserved in a manuscript tradition, they also drive the medieval commentatorial tradition of those sugyot and the efforts of the codifiers and jurists in trying to incorporate these sugyot into their legal systems.

The inconclusiveness of these narratives and the widespread Near Eastern practices of temporary marriage suggest that at the time of the Bavli’s redaction, some form of temporary marriage was being practiced.  Indeed, Yaakov Elman argues that these “two prominent rabbis contracted temporary marriages in accord with the Sassanian institution.”  So, if rabbinic Jews practiced temporary marriages in late antiquity, then did these Jewish temporary wives receive a ketubbah?  Moreover, how did these temporary marriages end?  Did the rabbis in Yoma 18b or Yevamot 37b deliver divorce decrees or was a divorce effected at the moment of their departure or the conclusion of the day(s)?  This is of course probably depends on whether these temporary arrangements were actual marriages or merely pilagshut. The Bavli does not provide a clear answer on any of these technical details.

This leads us to wonder, how did the Gaonim understand this rabbinic practice of temporary marriage considering their context of Islamic debates about it?  It was not until the late 8th or early 9th century that a majority of Muslim scholars prohibited temporary marriages; prior to that time, temporary marriages were widely practiced and debated.  There is a notable geographic distribution, with Muslim jurists from Mecca generally permitting temporary marriage and jurists from Iraq and Medina opposing it.  Since the Gaonic academies were located in Iraq, it is quite likely that the Gaonim were exposed to these debates about temporary marriage among Muslim jurists.  There are three different forms of temporary marriage in the late antique Near Eastern world.  First: the Shīʿī version, in which the temporary marriage contract specifies the duration of the marriage, which ends automatically without a divorce declaration.  Second: the Sunnī version, in which the temporary marriage contract does not specify the duration, but the husband and wife or one of them intend to divorce and this type only ends with a divorce declaration.  The Sunnī version is a legal fiction because the husband and wife may have agreed upon the specific duration of the marriage, but simply did not specify it in the contract; in addition, in the Sunnī version, either the husband or the wife may intend to divorce the other without this affecting the validity of the marriage.  The third version may be understood as one component of the second version: the uninformed temporary marriage mentioned by Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yaaqov, in which the husband intends to divorce the wife with a get, but has not informed her.  Yet, somewhat surprisingly, there is little Gaonic discussion of the Yoma 18b or the Yevamot 37b sugyot.  Why is it that the “Who will have me for a day?” statements in the Talmud did not generate Gaonic commentary?

We want to end with this question and encourage those of you who are able, to attend our panel at the Jewish Law Association meeting or continue this conversation in the comments section of The Talmud Blog.

Lena Salaymeh is Robbins Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley School of Law and recently earned her PhD in the History department at UC Berkeley; and Zvi Septimus is Anne Tanenbaum Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. He was previously Alan M. Stroock Fellow for Advanced Research in Judaica at Harvard University and received his PhD in Jewish Studies from UC Berekely.

Reading the Talmud in (The Islamic Republic of) Iran – Two Documents

One of the central interests of this blog is the relatively recent scholarly trend of ‘Reading the Talmud in Iran’ – that is, the practice of locating the Talmud in its Iranian context by highlighting connections between it and the Late Antique Iranian world from which it emerged. But we are also interested in the way the Talmud is read today – from Northern California to Korea. With all the excitement of recovering the composition of an ‘Iranian’-Babylonian Talmud, we must not ignore the experience of reading the Talmud in the Islamic Republic of Iran today.

The Vice President of Iran, Mohammad Reza Rahimi’s recent remarks that “the prevalence of narcotics and drug-addition throughout the world finds its roots in the wrong teachings of the Zionists’ religious book, Talmud (paraphrased by Farsnews)” was particularly troubling for us. Not only are his comments (and ‘retraction’) offensive in the extreme, they are entirely ignorant of the role that Iran played in producing the Talmud.

It is no secret that Iranian Jews, along with other non-Muslim minorities in Iran, frequently find themselves in precarious positions in the Islamic Republic. For Jews, one of the most disquieting matters concerns the Islamic Republic’s alleged contrast between Jews and Zionists – a distinction made by Khomeini to a delegation of frightened Jews sent to Qom on May 14, 1979, which is frequently transgressed by both the non-Jewish Iranian public and, as we recently saw, government officials.  That said, the experience of Jews in Iran today is by no means black-and-white, and Iranian Jewry’s complicated and fraught relationship with Zionism and the State of Israel must be parsed with the utmost care.

Notwithstanding the media coverage of Rahimi’s comments, there remains an extreme dearth of information regarding the state of Iranian Jewry today. We thought that it would be useful to provide our readers with two documents culled from the recent affair – a pair of letters sent by and to the Jewish community in Tehran concerning the Vice President’s offensive statements about the Talmud. The letters were posted to the Tehran Jewish community’s website and were kindly translated from the Persian by our friend and colleague Dr. Thamar E. Gindin. Needless to say, the appearance of the documents here is by no means an endorsement of their contents. Instead, we post them for posterity and discussion:

Dr Homayun Same-yah

Tir 91 (June 2012)

Mr. Mohammad Reza Rahimi
Honorable First Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

With greetings and honor,

Following the speech delivered by his honor, as quoted by the Persian news agency, on the international day against drug abuse, and his expressing an opinion about the holy book of the Talmud, I hereby state: The valuable treasure of the Talmud of the Jews includes manners of carrying out the verdicts and laws of the holy Torah. Its composition began about 1800 years ago by the Jewish sages, and took about 300 years to complete. This collection, besides discussing matters of religious law, also describes the lives of the sages and prophets, aspects of proper moral and behavior, and matters of health and medicine, within the limits of that time’s science.
The Talmud, compiled in 37 volumes, holds a very detailed, specialized, and massive text and content, which, regrettably, has not been translated to Persian to this day.
What is certain is that at the times of the Talmud, drugs for abuse were practically unknown, and had no use. Moreover, in the centuries that follow, no Jew has been known or arrested as a drug smuggler.
Since exact research and correct and valid description of affairs is every speaker’s duty and every listener’s right, when the matter is discussed by a high official authority, it especially raises the expectations in this arena. Additionally, the confusion and lack of distinction between the two matters – Judaism as a divine, monotheistic religion, and Zionism as a political party, is a big mistake, standing in contrast to the saying of the great leader of the revolution, his holiness Imam Khomeini (BM), who said “Judaism counts separately from Zionism”. Especially in this sensitive time, when the foreigners and the enemies sit in ambush to defame and create a hostile propagandistic atmosphere toward our beloved country. Therefore, the community of Jewish Iranians demands its right – the rectification of words said.
His honor Mr. Rahimi, because the Tehran Jewish Committee is certain that your honor’s sayings have been based on views of people unaware and unknowledgeable of the holy treasure of the Talmud, the Committee expresses its readiness to explain to his honor the very valuable doctrines of this book, especially doctrines dealing with love for others.
Moreover, the Committee announces that it has always kept in mind the administrations of his holiness the late Imam (Khomeini – ThEG), and likewise the valuable words of the leader of the Islamic republic of Iran regarding unity of speech (i.e. complete compliance with the supreme leader’s words – ThEG) and harmony in the great and powerful country of Iran, and expects each and every Iranian to also respect this right.
With honor,

Head of the Tehran Jewish Committee

Dr. Homayun Same-yah

———————————————————

The Vice-President’s office reply July 16, 2012

Dear Mr. Dr. Homayun Same-yah,
Honorable head of the Tehran Jewish Committee,

With honor, with peace and greetings to all the divine prophets, especially the prophet of Islam, of great dignity, and his holiness Moses who spoke with God.

In reply to your honor’s letter nr. 17326 dated 3/4/1391 (23/6/2012; sic), I hereby say:

Following the speech of the honorable first vice-president at the “international day against drug abuse” ceremony (6/4/1391 [26/6/2012; sic]), the foreign media, especially media linked to the world-arrogance (the West – ThEG) and to the Zionist regime, have selected and distorted parts of his speech, launched a propagandistic tumult, and with this excuse, put the high officials of the sacred regime yet again to under attack.

As your honor rightfully mentioned in your letter, according to the doctrinal principles of the Islamic Republic regime and the commands of the Deceased Imam (Khomeini – ThEG) and the supreme leader, “Zionism” and “Judaism” are two completely different matters. The leaders of the regime have from the very beginning of victory of the Islamic Revolution, always differentiated between the true followers of his Holiness Moses (BM) as a divine monotheistic religion, and the current of “World Zionism”. Today, the Muslim nations of the world hold the Jewish religion and its followers in great respect, but know that Zionism is a satanic doctrine, characterized by traits such as occupation and proliferation-ambitions, and strives to achieve its goals and control the world’s sources. In the past 32 years, World Zionism and its agents have never let go of their misconception against the Islamic Republic regime. They have always strived, by means of the media related to them, to distort the facts, divert the world public opinion, and attribute to Iran and to Muslims faults such as support of international terrorism, fundamentalism, deprivation of human rights, proliferation ambitions etc.
The last hustle and bustle about the words of the honorable First Vice-President are also – like dozens of the previous false clamors, from the fatwa issued by the Holy Imam (BM) (Khomeini – ThEG) against Salman Rushdie, to the studious question of the honorable president about the Holocaust – based on distortion and lie. Regretfully, the leaders of the ruling regime, who are themselves of the main architects of racism and genocide in the world, have titled this speech “anti-Jewish and racist”. The first Vice-President, in the aforementioned ceremony, has elaborated on some matters as an opinion holder in an academic and logical discussion, regarding Zionism and their misuse of some of the sanctities of Judaism. He is the author of the book “Land Wound”, which describes the history of the formation of Zionism, the genealogy of the Islamic Resistance Movement etc. The book was published by the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in 1388 (2009-10), and for authoring this book, he has been hailed by Palestinian and Syrian elites and academics. Reviewing the text of the First Vice-President’s speech, it can be seen that he has announced “Zionism” as an agent of proliferating drugs and other corruptions in the world, and explicitly distinguished between “authentic Jews” , who are followers of Holy Moses (BM), and “the Zionists”. But agents of the Arrogance, who are terrified that the hands of World Zionism behind the curtains may be exposed, immediately tried, by distortion and partial quotations of some of the parts, to launch another propagandistic turmoil against the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  We appreciate the consciousness of the Tehran Jewish Committee in recognizing the political atmosphere of the country and the world in the present situation, and thank this committee for its perseverance in observing the administrations of his Holiness the Deceased Imam, and the statements of the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution regarding unity of speech and harmony in our beloved country. It should be noted that in reply to the demand of the community of Jewish Iranians and in order to rectify the misconceptions arising from the speech delivered by Dr. Mohammad Reza Rahimi, First Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a statement has been put at the disposal of internal and foreign media. At the end, we ask the Lord Almighty for the success of our Jewish compatriots.
Mozaffar Torabi

Thamar E. Gindin is an Iranian linguist. She’s a research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies in Haifa university, teaches Persian to private groups and in Tel Aviv University, lectures about present day and ancient Iran in various settings, and is the author of “The Good, the Bad and the Universe – a Journey to Pre-Islamic Iran. She intends to be Israel’s first cultural attaché to a friendly Iran.

Rabbinics in the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature

The international meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature will be held next week (July 22-26) in Amsterdam. As always, many sessions will be devoted to rabbinic literature; most notably this year are two multi-session units that will focus on (1) the Tanhuma midrashim and (2) on the dynamics between verse and prose in late antique Jewish and Christian texts. In addition, a session of the Judaica unit will be devoted to Midrash. So if you are heading to Amsterdam, prepare yourselves for a feast of five days of rigorous discussions of rabbinic literature in different contexts and settings. If you’re not, at least you’ll know what you’re missing! Full details concerning the sessions and the papers (including abstracts) can be found here.

Monday

9:00-12:00

The Tanhuma – Text and Story I

Gila Vachman, Hebrew University- The charachteristics of the later layer of the Tanhuma literature as demonstrated in Geniza fragments

Paul Mandel, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies- The Religious World of Midrash Tanhuma: A Comparison with early aggadic midrashic parallels

Dov Weiss, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign- Confrontational Theology in Tanhuma-Yelammedenu

13:30-14:30

Judaism in Transition: Cultural Changes of the Byzantine Era

Marc Bregman, University of North Carolina at Greensboro- From Synagogue Sermon to Literary Homily The Early Stratum of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature

15:00-16:15

The Tanhuma – Text and Story II

Elisha S. Ancselovits, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem- Hukkim as Inexplicable Laws: An Ideological Innovation of the Tanhuma

Yehonatan Wormser, University of Haifa- Early and Late Layers in the Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature – The Linguistic Aspect

Tamas Biro, University of Amsterdam- May I circumcise myself? On rituals and “halakhically incorrect” cognition in midrashic exegesis

Tuesday

9:00-12:00

Dynamics between Verse and Prose: General Approaches and Case Studies

Marc Bregman, University of North Carolina at Greensboro- The Metastructure of Midrash and Piyyut

Moshe Lavee, University of Haifa- The Art of Composition: Common Aspects of Rabbinic Homilies and Qerova Poetry

Michael D. Swartz, Ohio State University- Becoming Spirits: On the Functions of Angels in Piyyut and Esoteric Literature

Yehoshua Granat, The Hebrew University- Retelling the Jonah Story in Early Medieval Hebrew Prose and Verse

15:00-17:30

The Story of the Ten Martyrs between Verse and Prose – A Textual Workshop

Raanan Boustan, University of California-Los Angeles; Ophir Münz-Manor, Open University of Israel and The Talmud Blog

15:00-18:00

Tanhuma and Its Milieu

Rivka Ulmer, Bucknell University- The Yelammedenu Unit in Midrash Tanhuma and in Pesiqta Rabbati- a Text Linguistic Inquiry

Arnon Atzmon, Bar-Ilan University- The Tanhuma and the Pesikta

Amos Geula, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem- The relation between two lost Midrashic compositions: the lost Midrash Yelamdenu and Midrash wa-yehullu

Orly Amitay, University of Haifa- The Midrash of Ten Kings

Wednesday

9:00-12:00

Dynamics between Verse and Prose: A Comparative Outlook

Kevin Kalish, Bridgewater State University- Eve Lamenting Her Sons: Ephrem Graecus’ Re-imagining of Genesis 4

Peter Sh. Lehnardt, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev- Bound to Be Unbound: Genesis 22 in Early Jewish and Christian Liturgical Poetry

Laura S. Lieber, Duke University- “The Play’s the Thing”: Theatricality in Aramaic Piyyutim

15:00-18:00

The Reception of Tanhuma

Moshe Lavee, University of Haifa- Ten Dinars for the Talmud, a Fifth for the Tanhuma- Assessing the Cultural Value of a Literary Work

Shalem Yahalom, Bar Ilan University- The Tanhuma in a New Shell: Incorporating the Tanhuma in the Latter Midrash Rabbah Texts

Ronit Nikolsky, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen- The Tanhuma Material in Sefer Maasiot

15:00-17:45

Judaica – Midrash

Shamir Yona, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Ariel Ram Pasternak, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev- The “Better” Proverb in Rabbinic Literature

Katharina Keim, University of Manchester- The Function of the Rabbinic Attributions in the Pirke deRabbi Eliezer

Deborah A. Green, University of Oregon- Expelled from the Garden Again: Eve and Shekhinah in Genesis Rabbah

Barak S. Cohen, Bar-Ilan University- ‘Forced’ Amoraic Interpretations of Biblical Sources: A New Methodological Perspective

Aaron Koller, Yeshiva University- Redeeming the Queen: Rabbinic Readings of the Book of Esther

Thursday

9:00-10:15

Dynamics between Verse and Prose: Piyyut, Midrash, and Targum

Gila Vachman, Hebrew University- From Piyyyut to Midrash: The Dedication Offerings in Midrash Chadash

Jan-Wim Wesselius, Protestantse Theologische Universiteit- The See-Saw between Poetry and Prose in the Targumim to the Poetic Books of the Bible


Some Useful New Websites

Some new sites have gone up over the past couple of weeks that might be of use to our readers.

The first, brought to our attention by Talmud Blog reader and commentor Zohar, is the Israel National Library’s new website of Rabbinic Manuscripts. This site replaces the old one (www.jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/talmud) with a new interface and- perhaps most importantly- the Leiden manuscript of the Yerushalmi, browasable by the pagination of the Venice edition.

The site is still in beta version and they are looking for feedback. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interface here in the comments section and we’ll make sure to pass them on to the library. Personally, I would prefer an option to search the Yerushalmi by chapter and halakha, and also that they list the folio numbers of the manuscripts. Regardless, users should be aware that much higher quality images of the Leiden manuscript are availble on the website of its home library (easily accesable here). The only problems with that site is that it’s hard to navigate and the pictues take a long time to load- ideally one could find the folio that she needs using the NLI interface, and then just open up the bigger picture on the Leiden site if need be. Also, for manuscripts with wide lines (like Leiden), the viewing window is relatively small. [The site still isn't linked to that of the Munich library, whose manuscripts can be accesed from there or via the NLI catalog].

The Syriacists over at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks research institute have compiled a useful site: “Resources for Syriac Studies- an annotated collection of free and open source books, journals, and more related to the study of Syriac.” Kishmo kein hu- the site lists and describes dozens of PDFs of books available for free online that relate to all aspects of Syriac. I haven’t gone through everything yet, but it seems like they did quite a good job of finding all that’s out there. Many of these items should be of interest to Talmudists, from those who are just getting interested in Syriac (for whom I’d suggest starting with Brock’s A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature), and to those who already turn to Syriac frequently (see R. Payne Smith’s Thesaurus Syriacus).

Enjoy!

On the Arabic Talmud

I cannot remember exactly when I initially heard about the first complete translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic, but I can remember what I felt: excitement, bewilderment, curiosity, and, I must confess, the quickening of my liberal heart.  From the first reports in the Western media, it soon became clear that the translation was not just a rip-off of prior renditions, but a massive and utterly serious undertaking.  Yet like a summer rain that sweeps in to ruin an otherwise joyous party, many of the articles in the newspapers included the comments of a number of Israeli Middle East experts who, to put it mildly, raised doubts about the ecumenical nature of the translation.  As a certain Dr. Esther Webman ominously intoned:

“The Talmud in the Muslim world is considered to be the main source of Jewish iniquity,” she said. “They highlight aspects of it which are not so flattering and put it at the forefront of their presentation of it. Essentially, they use the Talmud as a tool to accuse Jews of certain habits and traits, so it is portrayed as the epitome of the Jewish and the Zionist mentality.

And yet, I wondered then and I still wonder now why such immense financial and intellectual resources would be poured into this translation if the intent was merely to propagate anti-Semitic ideas about the Talmud.  If the whole thing was just about antisemitism, well then anyone with a modem, the requisite computer savvy to cut and paste, and proximity to Kinkos can produce an impressive neo-classical anti-Talmudic tract within a few hours. Why the official backing of the Arab League, the hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and the purple prose?

Soon after the initial announcement, the Talmud Blog got to work. An Arabic translation of the entire Talmud was big news, with all sorts of political, theological, and scholarly implications (just think of how the Talmud can now be brought back to Iraq in the local language, and less romantically, of what this could ultimately do, in a different world, for the comparative study of Geonic and Islamic law).  We contacted the Amman based Middle East Studies Center which was responsible for the translation and learned of how much the Talmud set costs (a prohibitive, if understandable $750.00). We then spoke with people connected to the National Library of Israel and Harvard’s Widener library about purchasing a complete set; we found someone studying in Amman who could enquire into whether a single copy might be purchased for a lower price and brought to Israel for Passover (it could not); we had the original advertisement translated into English; with the help of another scholar we discovered a link that contained much of the introductory material online; we were contacted about a working group forming at the National Library to assess the quality of the translation; and mainly, we waited.

In the meantime, subsequent news reports moved in two different directions. On the one hand, Aryeh Tuchman, who is an expert in anti-Semitic and anti-Talmud propaganda, found that the introduction to the translation was literally littered with classic anti-Semitic and anti-Talmud tropes.  At the same time, the earnestness and unprecedented scope of the project – which supposedly included Christian speakers of Neo-Aramaic – came into relief.  A working group to analyze the translation at the National Library of Israel is finally taking shape, and surprises may still await. But where do things currently stand?

For one, the ADL machine is up and running. I am well aware that the threat of a major, semi-official Arabic translation of the Talmud backed by official organs of Arab countries is not just an academic occupational hazard.  Presumably, the Arabic translation of the Talmud will be the window by which most scholars, Islamic jurists, and plain old curious souls in the Arab world will access this central Jewish text.  Accordingly, the ADL has issued a statement that briefly outlines some of the problems of the introduciton, and has even sent a dispatch to the Jordanian government requesting that immediate action be taken. And yet, the way this whole affair went down seems so very predictable: Arabs produce a translation of the Talmud with an introduction that states its aim as an endeavor to explain why the Zionists make life for Palestinians in the territories so miserable.  The ADL condemns the translation, op-eds appear in the Jewish press, and we all go home. The fact that just last week, the vice-president of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, delivered a totally confused (and, from a certain perspective, hilarious) discourse about  how the Talmud encourages Israelis to flood Iran with narcotics (temporarily forgetting that Afghanistan borders Iran to the East) has seemed to confirm this narrative – even if Rahimi certainly did not read the Talmud in translation, Arabic or otherwise.

From my view, there is still plenty of room for further reflection on this affair, at least in two related respects.  For one, consider for a minute the uses, in certain quarters, of Islamic studies in the West since 9-11.  At some think-tanks and research centers, Islamic studies has come to center around a very specific set of questions, especially: ‘why do those turban-heads[sic] blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces and crash themselves into US and Israeli targets?’  The intriguing spiritual and intellectual history of Islam and the central role it has played in the evolution of rationalism (especially in Judaism!), its startling mysticism, etc etc etc are simply of no concern in those settings.

A personal anecdote: Some time ago I published an article in a popular Jewish magazine. My article was juxtaposed to a lengthy and fascinating piece on the massacre of the Jewish tribes in Medina – no doubt a worthy and important topic in Early Islamic history. But appended to that article was a very specific, directed discussion of why the violent aspects of Islamic history (and they are, to be sure, many) essentially precludes the possibility of any form of coexistence with Jews – particularly in regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  The pair of articles drew a very straight line between a late antique massacre and the modern conflict. And my protestations won me a funny sort of ‘concession’ – the ability to draft an article about Jews and Sufis in a later issue of the magazine.  In any case, this sort of thinking plagues a lot of the current discussion, even beyond the Arab world – such as in regards to Iran.  It is all too easy to pontificate on the current tensions between Iran and Israel by elegantly referring to Iran’s pre-Islamic dualistic ‘us-them’ heritage, thereby skipping over thirteen hundred years of effervescent and incessant re-configuring of Iranian and Islamic culture in Iranian lands.  I wonder, for just a moment, whether the Arabic translation of the Talmud is engaging in much of the same.  As Aryeh Tuchman put it in that Jerusalem Post op-ed

Studying the Talmud to understand the mindset of modern Jews, let alone irreligious modern Jews, let alone the government of Israel, is like trying to understand the mindset of modern Catholics by studying Augustine.

A second point has to do with the way the Talmud is described in the ADL press release (and in the Arabic translation!) – “a sacred collection of Jewish law, ethics, philosophy and history.”  It is certainly sacred and holy to the countless Jews who gave their sweat, tears, lives, and souls to plumbing its depths.  But still, ‘sacred’ is a funny marker for the Talmud to anyone who knows it (or ‘her’, in the traditional androcentrism) intimately.  The Talmud is not a pristine collection of canons containing stale legal pronouncements and theological reflections, but something far more dynamic, irreverent, and, sometimes, problematic. I know I am taking a risk here, but one would have be a pious fool to deny the fact that the Talmud does indeed house some of the problematic statements  that anti-Semites ascribe to it – just as Patristics and Early Islamic literature offer up plenty of dubious things themselves.  Once again, context is key.

If some Arabic-speaker living in the Middle East has even the beginnings of a desire to venture into the Talmud’s water with a charitable curiosity, he or she will certainly not understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict any better. But what just might come into view is the complexity and beauty of a robust Jewish culture in late antiquity – and today. (Incidentally, some of the better Islamic studies programs in the academy have accomplished just that for non-Muslims studying Islam).  Just maybe, the very desire that powered a massive translation project to render the Talmud in Arabic will actually engender the beginnings of an appreciation of the rabbinic mind – at least of the 99.99 percent which has nothing to do with the hermeneutics of שבו פה עם החמור.  If something like that could happen with the Abbasids, maybe there is still hope today.