The "Talmud"

A Biography

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Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
Lives of the Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , April
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Treating “a life of a great religious book” as a biography is not an obvious move. After all, biographies imply a person as their subject, and books are not always people. The Talmud is perhaps the least obvious subject for a biography, for there is neither a single author behind it, nor, unlike other religious books, has the Talmud ever been seriously interpreted as a person. Yet, as Barry S. Wimpfheimer’s choice of the genre suggests, the Talmud is perhaps among the most deserving subjects for a biography; and one can better understand why, if one reads his book more than once. 

On the first read, the book moves from the inception and formation of—as the biographer has it—the “essential” Talmud, ending by 8th century CE; to the emergence of the “enhanced” Talmud, that is, the Talmud how it was received and interpreted by its adepts from middle ages till today; to the “emblematic” or “symbolic” Talmud, or the Talmud as charged with meaning from vista points outside of rabbinic quarters. For this reason alone, approaching the Talmud as a subject of biography provides a long past-due overarching account of the multiple lines of its inception and reception through the centuries.

On the second read, however, the book becomes even more interesting and much more thought provoking: the seemingly simple progression from “essential” to “enhanced” to “symbolic” Talmuds shows edges, inviting, as they do, further thinking. 

The first edge is that, in order to arrive at the “essential” late-ancient Talmud, the author had to disentangle it from the “enhanced” lines of its reception, let alone from any “symbolic” or “emblematic” interpretations. To do so, he treats the Talmud as a “literary” composition, as opposed to a source of law on the one hand and repository of homilies on the other, which it became from the middle ages onward. That resembles a post-Spinozian treatment of the Bible as “literature in reducing “literature” to a mere label for historical contextualization of the Talmud’s production. Yet, Wimpfheimer also moves beyond such Spinozist treatment of Talmud as “merely” literature. Rather, he asks directly about literary qualities of the Talmudic composition per se: its relation to rhetoric as the main late-ancient framework of education and knowledge production (and not in a dismissive sense of a decorative speech). The question therefore becomes how exactly such literary and historical analysis is arriving to the “essential” Talmud rather than to the new “enhanced” understanding of it. The answer to this question is in the author’s complex and carefully calibrated framing of the book as “biography”—a framing that the balance of this review explicates. 

The second edge is that, in the entire biography, there is only one, albeit—as it will become clear—crucial, point at which Wimpfheimer shows two competing perspectives on  the same composition in the Talmud: the literary-historical perspective versus the traditional or “enhanced” one. By the laws of the genre, he also tries to make them parts of  the same biography and/or genealogy, rather than two incompatible lines of the Talmud’s reception. (Notably, unlike James Kugel who, in his How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2008), insists on the irreconcilability of historical-critical and traditional-devoted reading of the Bible, Wimpfheimer, by the very nature of the genre of “biography,” makes combining these two competing perspectives in one genealogy of the Talmud his main point.) The double but reconciled view becomes the point where the subject, indeed the hero of the biography, comes on stage. The hero or heroes are the anonymous editors of the initially oral publication (by at the latest the 8th century CE) of a composition later given an “enhanced” name, “the Talmud.” The editors, the biography’s true heroes, live in the Babylonian rabbinic schools of rhetoric and programmatically hide their name and mask their authority—for “theological” reasons, the biography explicates. 

These reasons—indeed this raison d'être of the anonymous editors—is the core of the biography, from start to finish. It advances as a series of displacements, leading to and, in turn displacing, its main heroes. Deciphering these displacements is perhaps the most important contribution of the book. It therefore deserves the most attention. 

First is the displacement of a text, of a ritual, and even of G-d. Torah as Truth-to-strive-for initially displaces not only Torah as either scripture or as an orally published code of law (Mishnah) but also removes prayer, ritual, and even G-d from the centerof a religious act. Instead, the religious act becomes the never-ending pursuit or “learning” of the Torah. Such pursuit functions in the same way as  Stoicism does in the pursuit of the Truth. Similar to Stoicism, too, this pursuit becomes the core element of a new ars vitae. However, the master of the new art of life is no longer a Stoic philosopher who, as the title “philosopher” demands, only seeks wisdom, but rather a student of a wise person, of a sage, a student of someone who purportedly already has the wisdom in hand. That creates a new key character of the Torah—someone who wants to learn from the sage, the talmid hakham.It is the student of the sage or, in plural, talmidei hakhamim, the students of the sages, who themselves are not the sages but are supposed to live up to the task to learn from the sage—no more, but also no less. This new figure of talmid hakham takes center stage in rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity. 

However, this displacement of text, ritual, or G-d (but also of love, hope, or faith) is only a prelude to the most important displacement the biographer lets readers see: the talmid hakham gives way or perhaps even culminates in the figure of anonymous rabbis who both on the stage (as anonymously speaking characters in the Talmud) and behind the stage (as editors or producers of the entire composition) emerge as the true heroes of the biography. The biography of the Talmud is therefore ultimately the biography of its hidden producers. 

Of course, there is an after-life, a new displacement of the editors from the stage, when the biography arrives to the “enhanced” and “emblematic.” Perhaps this new displacement is even prepared by the biography’s main heroes, the anonymous characters and the anonymous editors of the Talmud. However, the “enhanced” and the “emblematic/symbolic” Talmud occludes not only their names and authority, as they might have wanted, but also their rhetorical and/or almost Stoic agendas, as they might not. Instead of the highest figure of a nameless, indeed anonymous, dedication to Torah as Truth these editors as talmidei hakhamim might have had, their work reverts to an object, a text -- a move this biography is both putting on display and undoing. In this last displacement, the religious act comes back again to becoming a reified text. This last displacement is therefore constantly calling to be undone—a call that Wimpfheimer as the biographer of the Talmud makes clearly heard. 

Centering the biography of the Talmud on its only true personae—the anonymized talmidei hakhamim, or the anonymous editors—justifies the choice of the genre. It however remains open to question whether and why writing such a biography of the “essential” Talmud does not produce a new version of the “enhanced” one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sergey Dolgopolski is Associate Professor and Gordon and Gretchen Gross Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Jewish Thought and Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at SUNY, Buffalo.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.


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