Perhaps more than other historical disciplines, art history is not merely auxiliary to art, it is integral. It can and has been argued that what renders a banal object a bona fide art-object is some conscious level of participation in the story of art. This is a deep truth about visuality – one which was once compellingly evoked in a scene about a time-traveling modern who baffled his nineteenth century friends with amateurish, minimalist etchings on frosted glass. And it is especially true of modern and contemporary art despite – or maybe because of – incessant attempts by provocateurs to try and blow up art history with one fell swoop of shocking red paint. When you vigorously oppose history’s centrality you only enhance it.
At New York City’s MOMA, the viewer snakes his way through the museum’s classic fifth and fourth floors and thereby traces a visual narrative with his feet and eyes. The curators have ever so carefully placed these famous galleries in their “correct” sequence with corresponding plaques on the wall so that the story coheres and the art properly resonates against its general historical milieu and its own art historical context. Without a previous “academy” to react to, Cy Twombly’s Academy is just vulgar scribbling (it of course remains that even after). One might say that herein lies the successful retort (teshuva nitzahat) to the everyday ‘heretics’ of modern art: Yes, you might technically be able to execute some of the chaos of contemporary art on your bedroom wall, but did you do it at the right moment, with the right intention, and with the right interviews and critics drawing out the greater significance of the project? Regardless, something is lost when art must always narcissistically fold into its own history. The pleasure of the thing, and perhaps even its essence, gets away.
For some time now the dominant critical mode of studying the Babylonian Talmud has consisted of dissecting the sources on the page and placing them on a linear, chronological graph. The early tannaitic passage evolves into a later version, which is reinterpreted by early amoraim, reread by late amoraim, recast by editors, and reworked by redactors. Our mantra is a stutter: “re- re- re- re- re-“. If a Talmudist succeeds in unraveling this history and explaining its historical development – or better yet – correlating it to its historical context, the assumption is that he has succeeded in solving it. The thrill of this scholarly chase, its secret sleuthing and precious eureka moments, can be exhilarating, but also exhausting. What is left after the “problem” of a sugya’s development is “solved” other than to exhale Ruscha’s bright onomatopoeia?
This somewhat unfair characterization of the field need not be seen as a passionate lament, nor as a call to devolve into pre-scientific thinking (in any case, you cannot really go home again). It is instead offered as an honest, even hopeful question: Is this all there is? Or: What other critical modes might be combined with the currently dominant one to create a more complex – and hence truer – picture of the Talmud as something more than just the sum of its evolving parts?
First, we cannot forget that the growing research into the Bavli’s Sasanian context is still in its early years and will continue to yield succulent and novel insights, not all of it simply “more of the same.” There are new relevant sources that continue to come to light, and more importantly, new ways of correlating these sources to talmudic parallels. It is not all cut-and-dry Talmudic history. Readers of the Talmud blog also know that there already are other approaches out there that look beyond diachronology. These include the oft-maligned mishpat ivri school – especially as reinvigorated by Robert Cover, and also a group of literary approaches – particularly those focused on the text’s effect on its readers. In more hopeful moments I realize that where we are now is actually not such a bad place at all.
Back in July I posted some thoughts on the National Library’s final event of the series “נפגשים בבבלי”. I wrote how I was pleasantly surprised to see that the event did not uncomplicatedly celebrate the new place of the Talmud in Israeli society, rather it satirized it, problematized it, and productively questioned it. What follows are some sharp thoughts in that vein by the blog’s resident cultural critic– S.S.
One of the foundational concepts to emerge from twentieth century linguistics is that meaning is produced through difference. Ferdinand de Saussure’s now banal idea that there is no inherent connection between a particular linguistic sign and the object it refers to was path-breaking at its time. It has echoed across countless intellectual and cultural endeavors which emphasize how the relationship between signifiers and their signified is essentially constructed and maintained only relationally. Continue reading
As our readers may have noticed, we’ve recently adapted the blog to WordPress’ new “Twenty Fourteen Theme.” Besides exemplifying WordPress’ sleek sense of style, the theme caught our eye in that it structures the homepage almost like a daf of Talmud, with the main text in the center and related texts surrounding it towards the margin.
In celebration of The Talmud Blog’s redesign, I have been invited to offer some observations on the layout of the Talmud inspired by my background as a practitioner and scholar of the visual arts. This is a double honor for me as this is also my inaugural post. Thank you for the invitation.
As contemporary academics, many of us are both cursed and blessed with a chronic condition of acute-hyper-self-awareness. We cannot simply do what it is that we do. We must question, prod, examine, and analyze our vocation and ourselves to death. A pair of recent articles published by two prominent Talmudists aid us in this sorry task. Both take on the state of Rabbinics, and interestingly enough arrive at different destinations. The first essay, by David Stern, “Rabbinics and Jewish Identity: An American Perspective,” appears in the just released Ben Gurion University volume, Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief (ed. Daniel J. Lasker), which is based on a 2010 conference held at BGU (the audio of Stern’s lecture is available here). The second, by Ishay Rosen-Zvi “לחלן את התלמוד” (‘Secularizing the Talmud’) appears in Teuda 23 (2012). We’d like to invite our readers to read these essays, and in the coming days weigh in on the important issues they raise. To get us going we are happy to present a rather provocative reaction by Michael Satlow, who has just joined the Talmud blog as a contributor. Enjoy the essays, read Satlow’s reflections, digest, and then join us in a spirited conversation in the comments section below!
Rabbinics Must Die
In our line of work, the word “rabbinics” hardly raises an eyebrow; it is, after all, what we “do.” When pressed by our colleagues for a quick word or phrase to describe what we do, many of us (and I include myself here) frequently say that we are “in rabbinics.” The term has long nagged me. Recently, though, having read two excellent and complementary essays by our esteemed colleagues David Stern and Ishay Rosen-Zvi on Shai and Yitz’s recommendation, I have finally been able to articulate why I am so uncomfortable with the term.
Stern’s essay is a personal reflection on the trajectory of “rabbinics” that nevertheless advances a strong explanatory argument. Contrary to all reasonable expectations, the study of rabbinics in America has flourished, both within Jewish studies and more widely throughout the academy. There are several reasons for this, Stern argues, but the primary one is the distinctive way in which American colleges and universities organize knowledge. Rabbinics, Stern writes, “has been decisively, fundamentally, shaped by currents in the American academy and its peculiarly inter-disciplinary – or post-disciplinary – fluidity” (19). At the same time, this fluidity has brought a wider academic audience to rabbinic literature.
Rosen-Zvi’s essay also focuses on the relationship between the study of rabbinic literature (מחקר התלמוד, which I take to be functionally equivalent to rabbinics) and its wider context, but this time in the Israeli academy. Rosen-Zvi is most concerned with the blurry line between the “secular” and non-secular study of rabbinic literature. While on the one hand he appropriately recognizes that the study of this literature, like everything else, can never be entirely “pure” and disinterested, he also calls on his colleagues to remain conscious of the values – if not religious, then cultural, apologetic, or national – that they bring to their scholarship. The purpose of this awareness, it would seem (although Rosen-Zvi does not explicitly say this), is to make the study of this literature more “secular” or “normal.”
Stern and Rosen-Zvi appear to agree that the application of modern, secular academic approaches to rabbinic literature is intellectually productive and worthwhile; that rabbinic literature has much to contribute to the wider academy; and that there is a (perhaps decreasing) difference between how American and Israeli academics study this literature that is based on both wider cultural issues and the organization of the academies themselves. While I disagree with a point here and there in these essays, I am fully on board with their larger appraisals.
These essays are more descriptive than prescriptive, but they raise the question of how we might continue to further the flourishing of “rabbinics” within the academy, both in Israel and America. One thing that I believe we can do to accomplish this is, paradoxically, to kill “rabbinics,” a category that Stern and Rosen-Zvi largely take for granted.
The fundamental problem is that “rabbinics” implies both a body of literature and a distinctive methodology or approach to that literature. In some quarters in Israel this perhaps accurately describes, for good or bad, how rabbinic literature is studied (e.g., philologically in a “department” of Talmud). In the American academy, however, “rabbinics” is not a discipline. Those of us who primarily use rabbinic literature are situated in departments of religious studies (most frequently), language and culture, and history. We are scholars trained in a particular discipline who use rabbinic texts for our data. I do not “do rabbinics.” I “do” Jewish history in antiquity, using rabbinic texts as one (even if it is the primary) set of sources.
This might seem like the kind of inconsequential terminological squabble in which scholars regularly engage, but I think that there really is something at stake. To assert, even in a lazy and casual way, that there is a distinct area of study called “rabbinics” works against our desire to normalize rabbinic texts and their study within the academy. When a colleague says that I work in “rabbinics” they are also implicitly asserting that I do not primarily work in “late antique religions” or history. Despite the many successes rightly held up by Stern, the study of rabbinic literature and its authors remains fairly tightly circumscribed within the academy: few scholars who specialize in rabbinic writings, for example, can be found in comparative literature or philosophy departments, although both disciplines can profitably be applied to them. To see oneself, and to be seen, as a scholar of literature who specializes in rabbinic texts presents a different profile than as one who does rabbinics.
Here we might draw a lesson from our colleagues who used to be in the field called “patristics.” Over the last few decades, the scholars in this field have themselves largely killed it, transforming it into the study of “late antiquity.” They find themselves as scholars of religious studies, history, and classics (an academic division with its own complicated problems). They have largely left it to the theologians to preserve the traditional modes of reading the Church fathers. I think that most would consider this terminological and conceptual transformation to have been largely successful; it has both enlarged their own conception of their academic field and has helped them to grow within the context of the American academy. I think that we have something to learn from their experience.
I am not arguing that those of us who apply different disciplinary frameworks to rabbinic literature have nothing in common and cannot learn from each other, only that the supercategory “rabbinics” obscures boundaries that ultimately are useful to us. As Stern emphasizes, the American academy allows and at times encourages academic work across traditional disciplinary boundaries. (I will leave it to my Israeli colleagues to comment on how this plays out in their context.) Just as there is an organization that facilitates discussions among those who utilize Shakespeare in different disciplinary frameworks, so too we should continue to facilitate interdisciplinary discussions among those who deal with rabbinic literature. And just as the North American Patristics Society brings together secular and religious academics, so too frameworks exist to enable this kind of discussion among those who work on rabbinic literature. Let’s just, as Rosen-Zvi urges, be clear about what we are doing.
“Rabbinics” has led a long and productive life. It is now time, however, for it to pass the way of patristics.
The most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books is now on the stands and online. On the cover of the magazine there is an endearing drawing (below) by Mark Anderson of three cheder kids completely entranced by an iPad running a Talmud application. The image was commissioned by the JRB to illustrate a review of the ArtScroll Talmud App co-authored by our own Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer. The article is not just a review of a piece of technology, but a meditation on revolutions in Jewish learning media and the future of Talmud study in the digital age.
The topic is as massive as it is important. Inevitably, not everything could be included in the final draft, and given the medium, sources and references were not cited. In the following post, the Talmud Blog includes some thoughts from the ‘cutting room floor’ on digitization, media saturation and their implications for Talmud study. An upcoming post will list some of the many articles and books that functioned as dialogue-partners for the review.
The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century had famously revolutionary effects in the Christian world (think Martin Luther), and less known but still substantial repercussions in Jewish culture. Yet, the next truly dramatic innovation in the media of Jewish study was inaugurated only in 1963. It was then that a project got underway at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel to digitize rabbinic texts, mainly responsa, for the purpose of historical research. By 1979, the project had migrated to Bar Ilan University and its database was available at terminals on and off campus. The real breakthrough came in the early 1990s when the entire database was made available on a compact disc. Not only were the contents of a formidable Judaic library encoded in a small bit of plastic, but these contents were searchable. The vast erudition that characterizes the greatest talmudic scholars could now be replicated by a computer, inducing anxiety on the part of rabbis.
The Bar Ilan Responsa Project is now on Version 19 20 and is considered an indispensable tool for teachers, scholars, and indeed rabbis, though one can still hear occasional polemics about reaching halakhic conclusions based on keyword searches. In truth, though, by now the Bar Ilan Project is a small part of the mind-boggling volume of data that is easily accessible and fully searchable using basic internet search engines. PCs and especially laptops have lessened the physical exertion and dampered the thrill of accumulating and working through a mountain of tomes in search of a solution to a particularly thorny exegetical riddle. For those who availed themselves of the digitized Torah libraries (and it should be acknowledged that many traditional Talmudists did not) the frenetic activity of the traditional study hall ground to a halt. There is no longer any need to consult the bookshelf or library when everything is a few clicks away. There is also little room for a study partner or any sort of live conversation when seated at a computer desk. The vast differences between the quiet library and the noisy beit midrash have been lessened somewhat. Not long after the release of the Bar Ilan CD, its traditionalist opponents complained that the classical notion of ‘toiling in Torah’ would go missing if Talmud scholars began learning off of computers. We laughed then, but from this vantage point, one begins to wonder.
The Bar Ilan CD is no doubt a powerful reference tool that supports and enhances the study of printed texts. Yet, it keeps users tethered to the computer screen. Digitization and searchability may have changed the nature of talmudic and halakhic research, but they did not replace the book. This is actually the legacy of media saturation, the shockingly recent transformation of everyday life into a wired reality of screen ubiquity and wireless connectivity. Now, the computers are actually tethered to us, and they simultaneously tally Syria’s dead, recall the date of Shakespeare’s birth, and ferry messages to and fro. Our mobile devices are little more than sleekly packaged portable brains in jars. Actually, they are far more. The grey matter in my pocket is magically, creepily connected to the brains in yours.
The mobility that the portable devices introduced to the experience of Talmud study seems like a relatively minor addendum to digitization, but its effects are profound. It is no longer necessary to stay confined to the beit midrash, like Bialik’s pale-skinned matmid, when the the bookshelf can be transported to the beckoning outdoors. There is something unprecedented in the presence of massive digital libraries on small portable devices. Within the dark confines of a pants pocket, a movable Borgesesque talmudic bibliotheca has grown up.
Media theorists and New Yorker cartoonists have been diligently documenting the diverse cultural changes heralded by this newest wrinkle in the digital revolution. It is the transformation of the book that for many causes the greatest unease. To be sure, digitization has not yet finished off the physical book – and certainly not rabbinic texts – but that honor may well go to the e-reader and tablet computer, and soon. Along with the demise of the traditional book, bibliophile Luddites also fear for our brain chemistry and our family life. Media saturation with its ubiquitous hypertext links, pop-up ads, and assorted bells and whistles has pulled our attention in a thousand directions, making it difficult to pursue any one subject with single-minded focus. Educators, including Talmud teachers, lament their students’ lack of interest in the subject matter, offering Lamarckian theories about how skimming and skipping through material renders one unable to actually read. How can the mind that absorbs information in packets of no more than 140 characters be expected to get through War and Peace, with its one hundred thirty characters?
Concerns have also been raised about what media saturation is doing to the fabric of the modern family. Many of us cannot pull our eyes away from Retina™ displays long enough to look into our children’s faces. This sorry if ubiquitous state of affairs has recently received thought-provoking artistic expression by the contemporary Armenian artist, Tigran Tsitoghdzyan. One powerful image from his ‘Millenium’ series (2012) plays with the intriguing feature of many classical madonna icons in which strangely, to modern sensibilities at least, Mary looks off to the side of the frame, apparently ignorant of attachment parenting’s most sacred rule – ‘lock thy gaze’. In this untitled artwork, Tsitoghdzyan depicts a modern madonna looking to the left, past the baby seated on her lap; her eyes and fingertips fastened to a smartphone. In the far right of the frame one can make out the dark edge of a television, which captivates the baby’s attention.
But all this is old hat. Intellectuals, especially public Jewish ones, have for some time been whining about the disappearance of the book, the death of the publishing industry, and other assorted textual tragedies. Peddling dystopia is easy, and words weary. As we have seen, this is not the first time that changes in technology have altered the way humans obtain and process information, nearly always to the chagrin of the old guardians of knowledge. Perhaps the human mind is simply freeing itself from the illusion that ‘books’ ever really stood alone – hypertextuality makes intertextuality obvious – and rebelling against McLuhanian “hot” books that insist on progressing linearly. Is it possible that an entire generation has been misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder? Alternatively, is it possible that a brain wired to rapidly shift between stimuli is not disordered at all, and in fact better equipped to excel in a media-saturated environment?
Despite the modern air-brushed veneer of Tsitoghdzyan’s madonna, which seems to preach to us about modernity and its discontents, the traditionalist iconography reminds us that we have been here before. As any voraciously reading, bookish parent knows, even prior the advent of the mobile device, texts of all types – magazines, newspapers, books, and really anything fit to print – fought for attention with the loving flesh and blood beings who make life worthwhile. In some ways, media saturation has simply made this bad habit a more common ill.
In traditional Jewish society, a scholar who carries around a small volume of Talmud to peek at during spare moments is actually not deemed rude or distant, but industrious. He is really just an evolved form of the Jewish walking book – the “reciter” of the Geonic academy. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, due to certain technological and religious developments, highly portable talmudic tractates perfect for reviewing studied texts began to appear on the European continent. These quaint little books encapsulated a rabbinic ideology that hearkens back to Deuteronomy 6 and its exhortation to speak the Divine commandments “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Until recently, the modern version of these slim volumes were commonplace on New York city trains, Jerusalem buses, and London cues. Now, they are increasingly replaced by mobile devices that house unadorned digital Torah libraries.
Digital mobility has now freed the Talmud from the study-hall; digital connectivity, from the sometimes isolation of Talmud study; and the hypertextual architecture of the web from the linearity of the traditional printed book. If only someone would design an app that could realize the explosive potential residing in the Talmud. Now that, would be ‘cool‘.
When I go abroad, I like to see art. Usually, something with presence and gravitas, as you might find at Washington’s National Gallery – a museum in which I once spent a precious 3.7 minutes with children before being asked by a guard, firmly but not unkindly, to leave. He was right. We were disrupting the quiet, spiritual serenity of taking in Great Art. A museum like that is a temple. The emotions swell, and sometimes, tears threaten.
Subtle, well thought-out modern art has a different set of effects. Even for an uneducated amateur like me, it can hit you deep in the gut and keep your thoughts back in the gallery long after your eyes have readjusted to the glare outside. Last week I found myself in the contemporary section of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle to see an exquisite exhibit entitled “Lost Places”. It was, really, a psychological thriller.
A lot of contemporary art uses what might be described as explicit, closed expressions of intertextuality to get the mind’s wheels turning. One type includes works that are sub-divided into different components and then given to develop certain, suggestive connections between the various parts. A work that has stayed with me from “Lost Places” is a video installation by Israeli artist, Omer Fast. Like some of his other pieces, Nostalgia I-III (2009) performs this sort of intertextuality remarkably well. The three sections of the installation had videos going simultaneously with surprising and unexpected connections. Here is the way the museum’s curator describes the piece, followed by a clip (until 3:00) that because of the limitations of the medium cannot do much justice:
Omer Fast (*1972, Jerusalem / Israel) explores the shifting meanings of places and the resultant unravelling of apparent certainties. A key stylistic device in his films and video works is the interview, which – as a seemingly realistic format – holds the promise of authenticity, but is invariably staged with actors. The three-parts of Fast’s video installation Nostalgia I-III (2009) are linked by the motif of a trap: in Nostalgia I (first room) we see a gamekeeper attempting to construct a trap using bent branches. Nostalgia II (second room, 2 monitors) shows a conversation between two actors in an office of the immigration authorities, whereby the issue of building a trap also becomes the pivotal point of the narrative. Nostalgia III (cinematic projection) is a 30-minute feature film in which the current geopolitical constellation has been inverted: in this scenario, Africa is the only safe place left in the world. Europeans try to enter an unnamed African country through a system of tunnels and repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are trapped and subject to the arbitrary practices of the police and other authorities. The multiple narrative levels of Fast’s Nostalgia deconstruct the apparent objectivity of history, nationality, justice and injustice.
For many, ‘explicit intertextuality’ is really no intertextuality at all, since intertextuality is a framework for understanding the complex and non-explicit relationship between widely disparate ‘texts’ realized synchronically. As Daniel Boyarin noted in Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, ‘sources and traditions’ approaches cannot really be understood as employing a method of intertextuality. There are also problems with thinking about intertextuality when its realization is confined to a limited canon, like rabbinic literature, or especially to a single work of art. Instead, in works like Fast’s installation, the effect of the interconnections must be to remind viewers that the carefully curated intertextuality of the piece simply reflects the intertextuality of the everyday – or if you are religious, God’s intertextuality.
Regardless of what we’ll call them, theoretical methods that seriously probe the intersections between various parts of rabbinic literature on an intertextual axis can be nicely related to some of these expressions of contemporary art. Last year, I mused about how the redaction of the Bavli and its relationship to the culture that produced it can be illuminated by YouTube’s Life in a Day. Now, it occurs to me that Life in a Day‘s canvass is far too wide and overpopulated. Maybe its worth thinking about the redaction of the Bavli and its suggestive juxtapositions along the lines of a contemporary video installation like Fast’s, which take place within a single space. Within the confines of a tractate or pereq, the Talmud has multiple screens going, which you view when you walk into different ‘rooms’ or see things from different angles. The videos on the screens frequently intersect despite apparently broadcasting separate films. If you’ve joined daf yomi and have followed the tides of some of the early aggadot in the first chapter of Berakhot, you can see this with certain reocurrences, like the tangible presence of night and its various articulations. Reoccurrence however, is not merely restatement, and when one text is read in light of the other, sparks fly. The flip-side, of course, is that maybe like in Fast’s Nostalgia, the illuminations are little more than a trap. But that too is an illumination.
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.