Talmudic Culture and its Discontents: The NLI’s Series on the Talmud and Israeli Society

From its beginnings, classical Zionism dreamed not only of resettling the Land of Israel but also of re-occupying classical Jewish language and literature.  For most Zionists, the language was Hebrew and the literature, the Bible.  After all, it is the Hebrew Bible that is concerned with Israelites fighting wars, settling their promised land, and tilling the good earth. The Talmud may very well have been the focus of more intellectual energy than any other book in Jewish history – but it is still the handbook of a powerless, landless people written in the dark and confused tongue of the Babylonian Diaspora.  That old scrappy ethos,from the Tanakh to the Palmach”  captured the Israeli imagination not only because of the pleasures assonance works on the ear; rather, because the startling return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel was the culmination of a specifically Biblical vision. 

For decades, the presence of the Bible was palpable in virtually all levels of Israeli society. It was a staple of the curriculum and a focal point of national pride even among the common folk; and then it wasn’t. During the 1990′s Israel underwent dramatic modernization, and among other results was a significant change in the locations of Israeli Culture. As the old social(ist) contract and bad hairdos began to disappear, so did the ubiquity of the iconic (and imagined?) Israeli cab driver armed with a biblical verse for every traffic event. Sources of cultural inspiration shifted – some would say degenerated – and the ever-presence of a meta-text as profound as the Bible became…less present.

And then came the Second Renaissance, with its ambitious mega-funds, sleek tiqunei leil shavuot, secular yeshivot, and indefatigable cultural warriors. The canon would have to open – and open it did.  Among other sources of inspiration, Midrash, which had been an area of interest in the ivory tower for some time, put on a particularly good public performance. More recently,  the Talmud has, if ever so hesitatingly, begun to regain its traditional pride of place in Israeli society, at least among a certain culturally literate class. When Ruth Kalderon’s inaugural speech in the Knesset went viral, it was a climax to a crescendo that had been building for some time.  Now the question is simply, what next?

nliNifgashim ba-bavli, the ambitious five-part series convened at the National Library of Israel (now up on youtube), provided a dynamic space to work out a few answers to this question. Overall, the series was  an impressive effort. It was least successful when most predictable – that is when simply celebrating the emergence of the Talmud in Israeli culture or boringly questioning the relevance of an ancient text in a contemporary, frenetic society like Israel. And it was most successful when things seemed to turn genuinely subversive and even unexpected.   The final evening was perhaps the most important of the series – and the only one that I was fortunate enough to personally attend. It dealt head-on with questions of the Talmud’s relevance and influence in Israeli identity formation. And there were moments when it seemed to veer, blessedly, off the rails. (For a comprehensive although somewhat sanitized write-up of the evening by the NLI, see here) .

I arrived relatively early and alone – my lovely date stuck at home due to a late babysitting crisis – and headed over to the small exhibit put together in honor of the evening. It was nothing special, but still nice to see some of A. B. Yehoshua’s books brought into conversation with Agnon’s famously ‘rabbinic’ prose. It brought back fond memories of my yeshiva days, when by pure chance one of the first works of Israeli fiction I got my hands on (even before Agnon) was Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani.  As a young yeshiva bochur I had found the work exhilarating and also challenging – how (and why?) could a staunchly secular Jew skillfully craft a mythic tale that was in such deep conversation with traditional Jewish sources?  Alongside a softcover copy of Mr. Mani was the original, handwritten draft of Yehoshua’s Journey to the End of the Millenniumanother book that closely engaged traditional Jewish sources and even halakhic culture – and which became a topic of conversation later in the evening.

The program took place against the backdrop of the exquisite Ardon windows which seemed to almost dance around the room; with the professional lighting, they never looked better. The evening kicked off with a charismatic teaching by Malka Puterkovsky in front of the illuminated mystical pastiche. Ms. Puterkovsky, who is one of the exceedingly talented traditional female scholars that have grown up here in Israel, provided a reading that was novel and particularly precious because of the genuinely felt, humanistic, and dare I say ‘feminine’ way in which she articulated it. The passage was from the extensive suyga at Bavli Ketubot 62  (part of the “new canon” of the new non-traditional batei midrash) that deals with rabbinic ‘married monks,’ that is, rabbis who would leave their homes for extended periods to pursue Torah study in rabbinic centers. Although earlier rabbinic tradition is quite unequivocal that scholars are not allowed to abandon their wives even with “permission” for more than a month at a time, a stray testimony essentially ignores this rule and allows rabbis to leave home for years at a time. Puterkovsky highlighted  how on the one hand the Talmud and later Jewish legal literature seem to privilege this minority opinion and advocate total sacrifice for Torah study, and yet on the other hand she demonstrated how a critique is already present within the very fabric of the text: In her reading, death and tragedy lurk in many of the subsequent stories told about rabbis who left home for too much time – including the introductory phrase עבדי עובדא בנפשייהו (normally ‘personally performed a deed’; but now ‘performed a deed with their souls’ – a reading inspired by Rashi ad loc) and in the story about R. Hamma who leaves his family for years to travel to a rabbinic center, only to later stand up in honor of a son who  during that same time period managed to develop into a perfectly accomplished scholar without ever leaving home.

The comedy troupe Kalabat Shabbat performed in-between (and during) the main readings and conversations. One could interpret their presence variously along the lines of the longstanding debate concerning the function of talmudic aggada: Is aggada lodged between more serious halakhic discussions to simply provide breathing space and quite literally, comic relief? Or perhaps aggada is there to teach some sort of deeper message that cannot be conveyed directly? Or maybe, following Robert Cover, it constitutes a space in which the law both conflicts and yet is simultaneously actualized in the Real: To put it differently, aggada as the very site of cultural critique. The troupe’s first act was about a pair of aspiring TV anchormen who were auditioning for a “Talmudic Channel.” The sketch was the purest form of satire in that it demonstrated how ridiculous a certain cultural value might be if taken to its logical conclusion – in this case an unadulterated and uncomplicated realization of the newly celebrated “Israeli Talmudic culture”.  What would it actually look like to have talmudic news shows and talmudic reality TV being broadcast live? As in the internal talmudic critique in Puterkovsky’s reading, Kalabat Shabbat’s location in the spaces between the evening’s regular programming wonderfully exemplified the Talmud’s redactional art of critique and ironic counter critique.

Most of the evening’s productive tension was provided by none other than A. B. Yehoshua - the celebrated Israeli author and all-around cranky old Jew – or should I say ‘Israeli’. Yehoshua was clearly brought in as a straw-man opposite Rabbi Benny Lau to articulate the evening’s antithesis; namely, that the Talmud is a diasporic Jewish text that simply does not speak to the challenges of Israeli society. When it does speak it is through the racist rants of figures like former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef and ‘backward’ yeshiva students who although they devote their lives to Talmud study somehow never seem to promote humanistic values. Yehoshua overplayed his role – or maybe that was the point – and made the crowd squirm. (He also came off quite poorly and close-minded when he seemed unaware of Lau’s recent books on biblical figures while Lau described how he uses Yehoshua’s Journey to convey the flavor of Sefardic-Ashkenazic tension to his rabbinical students). But this did not mean that his interlocutor was entirely free to sing an uncomplicated love-song to the Talmud.  One could say that the entire affair was nicely redacted.  I suspect that the apparently fortuitous sharp and sudden turns and accompanying ‘dissonances’ were actually, paradoxically, curated by the National Library, and particularly by the curator of the Judaism collection, Aviad Stollman. After all, we know now that it is specifically creatio ex materia that reaches the very heights of (postmodern) artistic creation. 

Yehoshua did not only lambaste the haredim. He even voiced heretical displeasure at Agnon’s ‘talmudic’ tales, and was quite frank in describing the way he (and Ben Gurion) found the Talmud simply uninspiring when  compared to the poetic utterances of the Bible’s later prophets. His anti-talmudic stance took no hostages, as he was also dismissive of the significance of Bialik’s yeshiva training. Most unsettling of all – especially for those of us aware of countless anti-Semitic websites dedicated to cursing the Talmud – Yehoshua came close to calling the Bavli a racist and misogynistic text, which he demanded Lau publicly denounce.

Impressively, Lau kept his cool and freely admitted to the Talmud’s warts. What is more, against Yehoshua’s old-school Zionist ethos Lau developed an idea of the Babylonian Talmud as an ex-territorial critique (similar to some of Boyarin’s past and future work on the Bavli as Diaspora incarnate) of the Hebrew Bible’s message of territoriality.  It was truly something to watch the bare-headed secularist advocate for a hard, biblically-based Zionism while the bespectacled and whiskered rabbi (it was the traditional period of ‘Summertime Sadness‘) praised the Talmud as a critical document in the way it offers a post-Zionist (admittedly my words, not his) critique of un-evolved, purely territorial Zionism.

Listening to Yehoshua’s rants, I could not help but think that I was in a time-warp. He was expressing the hardy arguments of a graying generation that, at the risk of sounding agist, is not terribly relevant in Israeli culture. And it wasn’t just Yehoshua. Most of the audience was middle-aged and older, while there were very few young people in the crowd. True, many may have been stuck at home because they couldn’t find baby-sitters, but their absence still made me unsettled. Where I live – in the suburbs between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and outside of the rarefied neighborhoods of South Jerusalem – most Israelis are either too busy raising their children or better, too preoccupied watching non-talmudic Reality TV to be able to really participate in this conversation. And my sad ruminations were only heightened by the, I’m sorry to say, embarrassing ignorance of the series’ mediator, Kobi Meidan (couldn’t they have gotten the hyperactive ever frenetic Dov Elboim?). At the end of the day, Israeli society is reeling not simply from a shift from biblical influence to other forms of inspiration, but suffering from a much more troubling cultural void. And so the real, dark question is whether the Talmud’s miraculous resurrection in Israeli society has simply come too late.

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7 responses to “Talmudic Culture and its Discontents: The NLI’s Series on the Talmud and Israeli Society

  1. What is unfortunate, is that many American Jews are not getting exposed to this. According to a Harris Poll, 42% do not attend a synagogue, and a synagogue is a house of assembly, a house of worship, and a house of study. So they are not being exposed to a Halachic education. I learned this as an adult, and I am very glad that I did. In the 21st century, Jewish is a voluntary behavior, not re-enforced by the community, like it was in the past.

  2. thanks Shai for posting this!
    I think that before the Midrash and the Talmud became (relatively) “in vogue”, the kabalistic and hassidic forms of Jewish knowledge filled the void left by the Bible in Israeli culture. The Talmud stepped into the national scene only afterwords, perhaps also as a mean to contain the subversive potential of the mystics. In any case, as you said, the rise of the kaballah and the Talmud testifies to the failure of traditional (“biblical inspired”) zionism to provide israelis Jews with an efficient ideological framework that will give sense and meaning to their life in the Jewish state.

    • I have never experienced that at all. Of course, I always walked on Shabbat. Sometimes motion pictures can get overly sensationalistic. But walk on Shabbat, it is a time of reflection.

      • That really wasn’t the point. The point was that the references cited were all from נ”ך(except the first).

  3. Pingback: On the Israeli Seder: Four Fragments | The Talmud Blog·

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