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Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud
by Moulie Vidas

Reviewed by Raphael Magarik


Published:

Published by Princeton University Press, 2014   |   238 pages

The Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud are the two sacred texts most central to Jewish thought. Interestingly, and influentially, it is not entirely clear how they relate to each other. The Hebrew Bible, the religion’s foundational text, dates from the first millennia BCE, some portions of it perhaps earlier. The Talmud, a vast and rambling anthology of law and narrative completed roughly fifteen hundred years ago, is on the one hand traditionally thought to record an oral revelation that accompanied the original revelation at Sinai. Indeed, such secondary exegesis is a necessary interpretive adjunct to the terse Biblical text. The Hebrew Bible contains a handful of verses vaguely mandating observance of a Sabbath; the Talmud contains a detailed, comprehensive legal mandate giving you specific, actionable instructions. Thus, the Talmud (here and throughout, unless otherwise noted, I am talking about the Babylonian Talmud, and not the less influential Jerusalem Talmud) became the binding basis for future Jewish law (halakhah).

But far from posing as the unquestioned word of God, the Talmud insists on its own historical, very human construction. It scrupulously cites predecessors and makes a point of including minority, defeated opinions. Also, the Talmud was written after the calamitous destruction of the Second Temple. The loss of both Jewish political sovereignty and the sacrificial cult based in the temple pushed the authors of these texts to innovate radically, foregrounding the historical situation of the texts. The authors of the Talmud transformed ancient Judaism into a religion focused on individual behavior and study—in the Talmud’s own words, the “four cubits of halakhah.”

Modern academic scholars of the Talmud, while they labor over philological minutia, are often implicitly telling larger stories about tradition and change. While a minority, led by the incredibly prolific Jacob Neusner, have read the Talmud as an univocal, “authored” text, expressing only the ideas and agenda of its final editors, most scholars see the editors as devoted to and negotiating a long, complex tradition. David Weiss Halivni, for example, an early scholar of the Talmud’s anonymous editors, emphasizes how they struggled to reconstruct lost or mangled traditions from earlier generations. Halivni, who is now in his eighties, was a Talmud prodigy who came to America after the Holocaust, which decimated both his own family and the larger world of learned Eastern European Jewry. Reading Halivni’s brilliant recoveries of what Talmudic dicta meant before the editors scrambled them, you encounter continuity within change—an implicit philosophy of Judaism.

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In Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, Moulie Vidas offers an alternative vision of the Talmud’s editors, rejecting Halivni’s claim that they were faithful traditionalists as well as Neusner’s that they were fully autonomous authors. In both extremes, Vidas correctly notes, “The Talmud’s creators… do not claim an identity or voice of their own, distinct from that of their traditions.” Neither, Vidas argues, does justice to the stratigraphic feel of the text, the impression it gives of being the product of both a single tradition and of multiple times and places.

For Vidas, by contrast, the Talmud’s editors fashion literary structures precisely so as to sharply differentiate their own, anonymous voices from the traditions they inherit. Though they preserve inherited material for posterity, the anonymous editors place this tradition as distinct from their own ideas. In the edited sugya (a “sugya” is a short Talmudic literary unit—generally a combination of debate and narrative), reported, cited statements are presented as terse, puzzling, and perhaps even inscrutable traditions. The anonymous, “newer” stratum, by contrast, contains analyses that are sophisticated, cogent, and clear dialectic. By comparing the Talmud to its earlier, somewhat less edited cousin, the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud (“The Yerushalmi”), Vidas shows that, at least in a few cases, the Talmud does not just add and reinterpret, but actually “takes Palestinian texts and divides them into layers,” so that the “gap” between cited Amoraic material and anonymous editing “is not the mark of a historical gap that the Talmud’s creators tried to overcome, but a literary gap that these scholars produced.”

Even as the Talmud’s editors preserve earlier sources, they consciously create a layered text that separates their ideas from those of their predecessors, whom they are transmitting, historicizing and ironizing. Rather than being another, faithful link in a chain of tradition, the anonymous editors, while very much conserving that tradition, are simultaneously self-conscious authors, sometimes ambivalent about or alienated from it. Using “pervasive literary techniques that thrive on the dialectic and distinction between the present and the past,” the anonymous editors fashion a distinctive rhetorical space for their own concerns and interpretations.

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In Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud’s second half, Vidas argues that his close readings reflect a wider religious debate. That is, having closely read several sugyot to show their redactors’ interest in formally demarcating preserved tradition from creative interpretation, Vidas grounds his formal analysis (that is, evidence drawn from unpeeling the layers of particular Talmudic texts) in the Talmud’s immediate context. Both the Talmud’s internal polemic against recitation-oriented study and broader Christian and Zoroastrian debates provides historical support that the debate between recitation and innovation really did define the Talmud’s editors’ world.

The Babylonian academy, from which the Talmud’s editors hailed, privileged creative legal dialectic over mere recitation of memorized material. While this oft-made characterization bolsters Vidas’s earlier formal arguments, he adds to previous accounts by arguing that earlier, Palestinian texts are far less hostile to reciters. Thus, the Talmud does not just reflect but also constructs the distinction between innovation and recitation. Vidas further argues that the reciters were not just rabbinic adjuncts. They offered an alternative continuation of classic rabbinic Judaism, one the Talmud’s editors were consciously excluding, enforcing potentially murky boundaries between the camps. Thus, “a determinative factor in the self-conception of [the Talmud’s editors] was not just the ability to innovate”—as is well known—“but more specifically the separation between transmission and innovation” which “was central to the formation of the layered structure” posited in the book’s first half. And Vidas also argues that the Talmud’s distinction finds parallels with roughly contemporaneous Zoroastrianism, as well as identifying the Talmud’s ideological opponents with the authors of fragments from the corpus of mystical Jewish “Hekhalot” literature.

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Throughout the book, Vidas demonstrates a remarkable philological mastery. The sheer number of new readings he presents is astounding, especially considering the passages discussed are among the most famous in the Talmud. It is regrettable, however, that Vidas has largely omitted the Hebrew and Aramaic and provided only his own translations. Given how closely he parses texts, readers need easy access to the originals. Vidas’s knowledge of a voluminous secondary literature is similarly impressive. Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud is a brilliant and audacious book.

Its very audacity, however, creates two problems. First, by examining closely the formal operation of several substantial sugyot, Vidas wants to revise a picture of editorial activity that was built, by scholars like David Weiss Halivni, on hundreds, if not thousands, of such analyses. The classical rabbinic expression for elaborate, numerous laws built on limited scriptural proof, a phrase usually rendered as “mountains hanging on a thread,” is perhaps an over-harsh but nonetheless apropos description of Vidas’s claim. The book’s first half has to be read as a scholarly program. Significant future analysis is needed.

Less obviously, Vidas relies upon literary methods for interpreting the Talmud, and applying those methods to the Talmud requires explicit theorization and defense. In fact, his argument demands we use such methods—and particularly that we focus on tone and irony. For if the editors were not traditional conservers but self-conscious artists and fashioners, we cannot completely trust “hard” philological evidence about layering, since, by the argument’s own logic, the signs we had used to identify late editorial activity may sometimes be an intentional illusion. Vidas suggests we instead, at least sometimes, read sugyot as crafted, intentional wholes and ask: what literary effects did the editors intend?

But such effects are culturally conditioned, and sometimes Vidas assumes that the irony or subversion a modern reader detects necessarily reflects authorial intention. To give one example, when Vidas asserts that punning associations between place names and problematic genealogical categories “seems in this context to be a parody of the arbitrariness of the production of genealogical stratification,” he implicitly assumes the rabbis saw homophones as arbitrary coincidences. But the rabbis, who sometimes regard language as quasi-magical, may have been completely serious about the significance of puns. Less clearly, Vidas frequently reports a sugya’s “sense of arbitrariness” as self-apparent, and his portrait of the editors’ “alienation” from the tradition depends upon such tonal evidence. Such literary details are finely noticed, but if Talmud scholars want to read like literary critics, they need both to ask historically nuanced questions about specific literary devices (how, for instance, the rabbis thought about punning) and to collect internal rabbinic reflections on literary methods (stories, for instance, in which irony or rabbinic joking occur and are explicitly discussed). This point is important because distanced, editorial irony also features in recent work by young scholars like Zvi Septimus and Barry Wimpfheimer. I suspect there is more to come.

Older, foundational scholars generally held intensive commitments to rabbinic Judaism as a living tradition, whereas today many American Talmudists pore over texts about whose values they are ambivalent or alienated. Academic training in Talmud, which is both methodologically historicist and pluralist in its objects of study, has drifted apart from traditional Jewish education. Unsurprisingly, younger scholars are newly attentive to the rabbinic editors’ distance from their source materials and how they rhetorically communicated their discomfort. As a result, scholars increasingly read the Talmud synchronically, comparing it to its Mesopotamian contemporaries, rather than diachronically, within a long sequence of classical Jewish texts. Vidas’s book exemplifies the best possibilities of contemporary Talmud scholarship—a foretaste, in just those moments when it upsets received wisdom about the Talmud, of the next step in the ancient dance of new and old.


Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for The Daily Beast, The Atlantic online, and the Forward. More of his writing can be found on his blog: http://raphaelmagarik.com/my-work/.

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