Some may have wondered if I was going to miss the Brief Blog Review this month. Down to the wire.
It’s a somewhat technical blog this time, The Talmud Blog, and it's a somewhat paradoxical blog at that, since no blog can possibly approximate the experience of studying Talmud. I have no formal experience of such study, and only such informal study as my observant Jewish friends undertook with me; but that study is very different from any research I've done by myself. It is one thing to read Jacob Neusner or David Halivni or other scholars, or even primary texts, whether on your own or in a university setting. It is another to study Talmud. When I did this (to the degree that my experience may be called "studying"), I sat with one or a couple of fellow-students, all of whom were absurdly more advanced than I; we would read aloud a portion of a tractate, first the Mishnah and then the Gemara, but usually before we had got even that far, someone would have raised a question -- what does it mean that it says this? Why is such-&-such a scriptural reference deemed relevant? And so on. The conversation goes on from there, everyone teaching everyone else.
It soon becomes apparent that the conversation in the room is echoing a conversation in the pages of the Talmud, much of which reads like stenographer’s notes on an ancient symposium on Jewish law. You get the school of Hillel responding to the school of Shammai, and vice-versa; you get later students offering their various rationales for a given ruling; you get objections and rejoinders and “but if that’s the case, then -–,” and minority opinions that are preserved even if no one else agrees. Crucially, these minority positions can still, like dissenting opinions in American jurisprudence, wind up impacting practical cases much later.
The Talmud Blog is devoted to these ancient documents, compiled (like the Bible itself) over many, many centuries, layers and layers deep, commentaries swathing commentaries, in the living tradition that gave rise to them and still returns to them. It belies the prejudice that texts are inherently unrevisable, that they enshrine and encourage an incorrigible fundamentalism. The Talmud is a concrete illustration of the Latourian claim that a religious tradition is constituted by continually changing its form.
In studying Talmud you can move very rapidly between a practical question like how to compensate your neighbor whose animal has been hurt after wandering onto your land, to abstruse matters of grammar or exegesis, and even spiritual devotion. “What do we learn from this?” and “How do we know this?” are two questions that recur over and over. What emerges from enough of this is not just a competence in Talmudic disquisition, but a sense of what it is like to engage with an open text on multiple and interpenetrating levels. It is not an exaggeration to say that it can change what it means to read.
There is no slavish obeisance to the text in such a setting. My own experience was doubtless unusual in some respects, not least because I was there as a graciously welcomed goy; probably my remedial status slowed things down for everyone. But one thing that was very clear was that the dialogism of the setting came perfectly naturally. The Talmudic term for this is shaqla vetarya, “give and take.” In reminded me, oddly, of what the Platonic academy must have been like.
This experience is impossible to enter into without some personal contacts, and while web-based Talmud-study resources have many laudable features, real-time dialogue is almost never one of them. The Talmud Blog can’t substitute for that, but it can provide an introduction (albeit very asystematic) into the issues and terms a scholarly engagement with the Talmud will involve. If you are an outsider, this introduction leaves a lot to reader’s initiative. You have to be prepared to look up terms like, well, shaqla vetarya, if their meaning doesn't become clear by the third occurrence; you need to read with an awareness that there is a broad context in which the issues addressed are meaningful. If you do this with antennae tuned for these matters, and without pre-judging them, you’ll find that this “broad context” becomes more real and more complex to you.