Discovering the “Talmudic DNA” at the National Library

Last Wednesday night, a mixed group of retirees, middle-aged Jerusalemites, and younger students convened at the National Library of Israel for the second event of the series “Meetings in the Bavli,” titled “The Talmudic DNA.” The evening began with a reading of the sugya of “zeh neheneh v’zeh lo haser” from Bava Qamma 20a-20b by the Israeli blogger/scholar of religion/activist/social critic par excellence, Tomer Persico. Persico’s choice of a halakhic portion of the Talmud- albeit one with some story like qualities- was a definite shift from the prior session’s aggadic tale, and from the looks of it, he seemed to have lost some of the audience members when he started to discuss the “toladot” of “shen.” Apropos the Tosafot (20b s.v. ha it’hanith), Persico connected this sugya to one at Bava Batra 12b and the Mishnah in Avot that discuss midat sdom. Connecting the two sugyot brought him to read BQ 20a-20b as a discussion of the role God plays in society’s composition. Specifically, we may understand why Rava draws God into his rebuttal of Rami bar Hama with the words “how little does [lit. how much does not] a man whom his Lord has aided become sick or feel ill!” (Sokoloff trans., DJBA pg. 462) and what Rav Hisda was trying to model to his son-in-law through his respectful silence- i.e., what a world in which God plays an active role might look like.

Persico’s reading prepared the audience for a rather interesting discussion between the evening’s guests, Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham and Dr. Meir Buzaglo. Avraham, who has a PhD in Physics but now teaches mainly in Bar-Ilan University’s men’s beit midrash and authors books on Talmudic logic and religion, took issue with Persico’s location of God in the sugya. For Avraham, God only exists in the formal, purely legal discussion that decides what is right and what is wrong. Only after that can the moral questions come into the picture, and without God “the sugya would immediately deteriorate into a moral discussion.” Avraham then continued to discuss the implications of the Tosfot and Tomer’s marshaling of the concept of midat sdom into the picture, but the complexity soon got to Kobi Meidan, the moderator, who passed the mike over to Buzaglo. The Hebrew University philosopher reminded us “לא להחמיץ את היער”- “not to miss the forest,” and to appreciate the very question that stood at the basis of the sugya and its presuppositions.

The discussion then turned to the logic at play in the sugya as it relates to Talmudic logic as a whole, and how the latter works differently from other systems of logic. The Talmud’s habit of first focusing on details and only then occasionally (as in the evening’s sugya) building up to ideas, principles or concepts, was emphasized.

Given the title of the event, the Talmudic form of logic should apparently be understood as its unique “DNA,” and the leading questions were phrased in a way that assumed its contradistinction  to “scientific ways of thinking.” Indeed, Meidan did not seem to like the logic behind the legal system presented by the Bavli, preferring a more positivist model. Avraham and Buzaglo tried to reassure him that the talmudic fashion is one that spurred the open ended creativity that is the Talmud’s legacy. Meidan did, however, connect to the genre of the sugya at hand, noting the interesting mix of narrative and law (perhaps that is also part of the “Talmudic DNA”?).

Overall, I must say that I enjoyed the event and think that it was quite an improvement from the first session. I appreciated the connection that was made between the two halves of the evening- the teaching of the sugya and the discussion. Additionally, Avraham and Buzaglo seemed to have much more to talk about together than the two guests of the prior session. 

I was still left with a few quibbles: To begin with, I still haven’t been able to connect to the theatrical segments of the troupe Kalabat Shabbat that are sprinkled throughout the evening. The humorous segments, that play off of various stereotypes in Israeli society, tend to be overly cynical for my tastes, and they don’t really have any connection to the Bavli or the rest of the evening.

I’m also still not so convinced by the choice of Kobi Meidan as a moderator. On the one hand, he definitely has a fine set of moderating skills and as an “outsider” to the field should be able to bridge between the academics on stage and the general audience. But on the other hand, he just doesn’t know that much about Talmud. At times, this can be more of a hindrance to the conversation than anything else.  

It is also interesting to see the role that gender plays in the selection of speakers and guests. Over the five sessions, Persico is the only male slated to engage in the instruction of a sugya, yet not even a single woman is scheduled to partake in the discussions held in the second half of the evening – the point at which the experts really “pontificate” on the Talmud and its sense in the world. These discussions about the Talmud- which are really the main part of the sessions and of Kobi Meidan’s “journey through the pages of the Talmud”- are all male dominated. The women were merely invited to teach a little at four out of the five events. To be sure, over here at the Talmud Blog we also have trouble finding women to write for us, and the field’s community of scholars is only slowly bringing more women into its ranks. Yet to me, it seems too odd to have a production of this nature without including more women in the main discussions. If A.B. Yehoshua and Aaron Ciechanover- two speakers who normally don’t really have anything to do with the rabbinic texts (at least not publicly) can speak about the Talmud, then couldn’t non-Talmudist female public intellectuals have been brought in for the discussion as well, and not just to teach?

Finally, as a frequent user of the National Library, I wonder how cultural events can be created to involve more of the readers who frequent the library. As noted by David Blumberg at the first session, the NLI has been very good at opening its doors to a wider audience, and at the same time, it should be noted that it has been great at designing events for the readers by the readers (such as its “חוקר בצהריים” series). But one of the best resources that the library has to offer is its readers, and one of the questions that I was left with was what would an event look like that had both demographics present? In tomorrow’s session, two of the library’s stalwart readers, Prof. David Weiss-Halivni and Dr. Uzi Fuchs, will discuss the interpretation of the Talmud, and it will be interesting to see whether some of the other readers come to hear them. That would be a great sight to behold.

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2 responses to “Discovering the “Talmudic DNA” at the National Library

  1. Pingback: Videos of Talks on the Talmud at the NLI « Menachem Mendel·

  2. Pingback: Talmudic Culture and its Discontents | The Talmud Blog·

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