Talmud Today

Miami Boys Choir's classic album "Torah Today"

In a previous incarnation, I mentioned a symposium entitled “Talmud Now?” held at the National Library. That tireless recorder of the Israeli-Jewish Renaissance,  Menachem Mendel, has just noted that the the symposium was recorded and is now on-line. Watch it now, in all six parts.

Back in November when I posted the event, it generated a bit of discussion, particularly by mv who noted:

Two observations based on the identity of the panelists:

1. Two of the participants are rabbis, and the other two are also associated with institutions committed or associated with a religious form of Judaism (SHI, HUC). Casual Google prosopography (not serious research or personal acquaintance, so take this with a grain of salt) suggests that all come from the orthodox world.

I am not noting this to criticize the organizers or to complain against them: not every panel needs to be “representative” of the society it wishes to study or impact, but it is interesting that it includes no one from secular Israel, or at least from the institutions that identify themselves as secular (oh, one can think of Alma, a secular scholar from one of the universities, or even a poet or a novelist that is not connected with the religious institutions).

Even to the extent that this is somewhat undesirable, the blame must be shared with us secular Talmudists as well: for many years and with much resources, we have tried and failed to convince Israel’s cultural elite that the Talmud is a document worth engaging with. There are exception, of course; but Israeli culture largely ignores the Talmud, and when it does pay attention to it, it is mostly through “religious” mediators (think Kosman’s essays in one of the most prestigious fora of Israeli culture, Haaretz’s Tarbut we-Sifrut). In that sense, the panelists list itself epitomizes a problematic aspect of the issue it addresses.

Notice how Dr. Ruhama Weiss begins her remarks. After being introduced as someone who will describe Talmud study in non-religious institutions that do not feel bound by halakha, she rejects the distinction between “secular” and “religious” for her discussion.

And then, finally, listen to Dr. Yair Eldan who says precisely what was raised in the comments.  We still essentially have no true Hiloni Talmud renaissance. And on the other hand, the religious community is largely incapable of fully appreciating talmudic discourse in its great variety.

9 responses to “Talmud Today

  1. I do not think that the secular talmud renaissance will ever materialize. It must come from the MO and from hareidi “dropouts”

  2. Who is “the religious community”? Are there gradations in the extent to which members of this putative community and its various sub-communities are resistant to the full spectrum of Talmudic studies?

    On a related note: Is it possible that the extent to which academic Talmudists have failed to normalize their craft within [some] religious communities that might otherwise have been expected to be well-disposed to this sort of project might be related to a failure on the part of academic Talmudists (rather than, or in addition to the communities themselves), in similar fashion to the way in which Talmudists have failed to reach “Israel’s cultural elite”?

    • In the Israeli context, this discourse is NOT about the inroads that critical Talmud study as a discipline has made in wider society. Instead, the question is to what extent any Talmud study that is unmoored from its traditional, pietistic confines, engages the people. This includes anything from Levinas’ philosophical school to Ruhama Weiss’ ethical readings to strange modern retellings like Ari Alon’s.

      I think a related part of the discussion is the extent to which (and where) serious engagement is taking place in greater Israeli society regarding any significant cultural object. At this phase in (Late) Capitalism, the answer is; rarely outside of certain rarified circles. So then the question really is, within secular intellectual Israeli society – will these people make space for Talmud alongside Agnon, Yehoshua and Oz? Everyone else seems too busy with kohav nolad.

      • General lack of interest in Humanities X Secular Israeli hostility to any discussion of Halakha X Level of difficulty of Talmud = ZERO chance of renaissance

        “Hearat Shulayim”:
        A talmudist may be interesting, but certainly not the talmud itself.

      • I know. But in that respect discussing Israeli culture, as such, in the same context as some construction of a religious-secular dynamic within Israel (let alone without) is comparing apples and oranges. It’s almost more useful that way since “preaching the gospel” therefore does not have to be a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

  3. I think an important question that should be addressed is what role did Talmud historically play in the lives of the Jewish people outside of certain small rabbinic groups? The desire to have the Talmud become a part of the cultural or religious discourse of large numbers of Jews may be attempting to create something that never existed. If the desire is to limit it to a small number of cultural and intellectual influencers, without it becoming part of the larger discourse, then this is another question.

    • True, but even when it was the domain of the elite few it had a much broader effect on Jewish culture. Obviously through practice, belief, etc., but also through jewish folklore and even Jewish languages.

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