Ben Rothke

Book review – Talmud Reclaimed: An Ancient Text in the Modern Era

While the Jewish Bible is the most acclaimed book ever written, its companion text, The Talmud, is perhaps one of the most maligned religious texts ever. From after it was canonized until today, countless lies and conspiracy theories have been spread against this sacred work.

At the Disputation of Barcelona in 1263, Ramban had to defend the Talmud against the libelous attacks from the apostate Pablo Christiani. King James promised Ramban that he could speak the truth without compunction. At the end of the disputation, the King gave Ramban a prize of 300 gold coins and declared that never before had he heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended.”

So what is this thing called The Talmud? There are countless introductory texts for those who want to try to understand it. Two popular guides are the Reference Guide to the Talmud by the late Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and Introduction to the Talmud: History, Personalities and Background by Rabbis Yehezkel Danziger and Avroham Biderman. Yet, as good as they are, they still don’t give the reader a deep understanding of the Talmud.

But even if someone read all those, and even if they completed the entire Talmud, they would still be left with fundamental questions about the text itself. Some of the countless questions include:

  • What makes the Babylonian Talmud legally binding?
  • Which parts of the Talmud were taught directly at Sinai?
  • How and when can Talmudic Law be amended?
  • How should we approach Talmudic laws that appear outdated?
  • How should a traditional student of the Talmud view academic Talmud scholarship?
  • Evolution and revolution in approaches to Talmudic analysis
  • Fundamental methodological differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Talmudic traditions

Rabbi Shmuel Phillips answers those questions and more in the fascinating new book Talmud Reclaimed: An Ancient Text in the Modern Era (Mosaica Press). The book is aimed at helping those who are intimidated by the apparent chaos of the Talmudic texts, offended by seeming outmoded social values, and antiquated and inapplicable laws.

Rabbi Menachem Genack writes that to Rav Soloveitchik, Rabbi Akiva, Abaye, Rava, and Rambam were not ancient figures, but viral and alive. The Rav would say that until various Haskala groups celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s death, he never thought of the Rambam as anything but a contemporary figure, teacher, and friend.

The Rav would also likely feel that the Talmud is not something that needs to be reclaimed, as it is not something that has been lost. But for many others, even those who have spent decades immersed in Talmudic studies, the topical questions Phillips asks are often more difficult to answer than the Talmudic difficulties themselves.

As to the Rambam, the book explores the various components and dynamics of the Talmud based on the Rambam’s framework for understanding the Oral Tradition. People who don’t understand how the Talmud works see it as a constant stream of doubts and disputes.

Rambam echoed that concern that if the vast collections of these doubts and disputes, which span the entire Talmud, were to be attributed to forgetfulness and neglect, this would impugn the credibility of any law or teaching that we believe in having been transmitted to us. Instead, he clarified that in the Talmudic model, dispute is not to be viewed as an unfortunate consequence of neglect and persecution. Instead, it is an intended feature of the Torah.

In his review of Pathways to Their Hearts: Torah Perspectives on the Individual Schwartz, Rami Schwartz writes that HaRav Nachum Rabinovitch, who was the Rosh Yeshiva of hesder yeshiva Birkat Moshe in Ma’ale Adumim from 1982 until his death was among the most prominent rabbinic figures in the Religious Zionist movement in Israel. But despite his stature in Israel and vast literary output, Rav Rabinovitch was not particularly well-known or influential in the Orthodox world abroad.

It’s not just the Talmud that is reclaimed here, but the book’s multiple references to Rav Rabinovitch bring his brilliant and novel insights to a much wider audience.  Phillips shows how the Talmud is a highly sophisticated text. One of the many examples is when he references Rav Rabinovitch’s dissertation Probability and Statistical Inference in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Literature. There, Rav Rabinovitch shows how the rabbis of the Talmud had a most sophisticated methodology related to probability and logic. All of which were perfectly integrated into other areas of Talmudic law.

And rather than the Talmud being a chaotic treatise, the Talmud and its law are a single interrelated organic body with the same underlying conceptual principles. And the book is a fantastic overview of understanding and how those underlying conceptual principles work.

When approaching the Talmud in a modern setting, one of the more contentious issues is how a traditional student of the Talmud should view academic Talmud scholarship. On the one hand, a wealth of knowledge and insights from academic Talmud research can only add to a person’s insights into learning a Talmudic text.

Conversely, one can easily use academic Talmud to almost wash away centuries of Talmudic learning. The academic Talmud approach can also send a person down numerous, often contradictory rabbit holes where the reader won’t necessarily emerge the better for it.

Perhaps the best answer to how to approach and use academic Talmud study comes from the late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who astutely observed that while scholarly expertise “probably deserves more attention than the Torah world currently assigns it. It hardly deserves center court”.

The Talmud is a text that may seem to be quite chaotic but is, in fact, quite systematic. Talmud Reclaimed is a remarkable book that shows the brilliance and majesty of the Talmud and removes the defamatory notion that the Talmud is anything but ordered. For those who want a better understanding of the Talmud, this is an incredibly good resource.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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