Menachem Mendel

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Modern Talmud Study I

The modern study of rabbinic texts has occupied many scholars since the beginning of Wissenschaft des Judentums (“The Scientific Study of Judaism”) in the 19th century. I am intentionally calling it “modern” Talmud study instead of “academic” or “critical”, because the former sounds like it is only for those in academia, and the latter suggests that it is out to criticize the Talmud. While in practice both of these may be true some, or maybe even most of the time, I have chosen the more neutral description. Where does one start in describing modern Talmud study? There are a number of important articles and books which are great resources for one who is interested in the subject. They are mostly bibliographic and/or general in nature, pointing one towards more specific and specialized studies. In writing these series of posts I have followed the direction and framework of some of them, seeing no reason to reinvent the wheel. It should also be pointed out that most of my comments will be directed towards the Babylonian Talmud, and to a lesser extent the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud. This is not to say that other disciplines of rabbinic literature, e.g. Midrash, are not important, just that I don’t feel competent enough, nor have the time, to write about them (Anyone who is interested in writing a post on a related field is invited to be in contact with me). In addition it is not my intention to survey all of modern Talmud scholarship and its history, just to attempt to give a basic overview of the field, nor is it my intention to discuss books about “how to study Talmud”. We are not going to be cited many texts, just discuss scholarly approaches and issues. So let’s get started.

For many years the predominant introductory book to Talmud study was Herman Strack’s Introduction to Talmud and Midrash. Originally written in German, it was for decades the most popular introductory book in the field. Over a decade ago Strack’s introduction was updated by Günter Stemberger, published under the same title of Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. In this book Stemberger reviews the important questions, methodologies, studies, etc., in the field of the modern study of rabbinic literature. His discussion is not limited to the Babylonian Talmud, rather as its title suggests, it also covers the Mishnah, Midrash, both Talmuds, Minor Tractates, etc. Two more specified, but older sources, are articles written respectively by David Goodblatt and Baruch Bokser. Goodblatt wrote about the Babylonian Talmud, while Bokser wrote about the Jerusalem Talmud. Both of their studies are part introductions, part bibliographical reviews. They were originally published in ANRW II, 19:2, and later reprinted in The Study of Ancient Judaism: The Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, ed. Jacob Neusner, 1981. Some of the framework and categorization in which we will write is indebted to Goodblatt. A number of years later Bokser published a chapter, “Talmudic Studies”, published in The State of Jewish Studies. In this chapter Bokser reviews much of the recent scholarship, and gives his opinion regarding new directions in the study of Talmud. Two additional resources are the two volumes of The Literature of the Sages (the first volume has entries on the Mishnah and Talmud). While important works, at least the first volumes tends to present the approach of a very limited number of scholars in the field. Also, the most recent volume of The Cambridge History of Judaism contains some important entries. Lastly is the
The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. Although I have yet to see it, from its table of contents it looks like it should be an important contribution to the field.

Update: I forgot to add Catherine Heszer’s chapter “Classical Rabbinical Literature” in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies.

One Response to “Modern Talmud Study I”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    There has been an unfortunate shift in that the academic Talmud scholars are no longer products of the yeshivos, at least not to the extent that they used to be. There is a difference in someone who spends a few years or a few decades learning a broad variety of Jewish subjects, not only Talmud, in an yeshiva. Now academic scholars cna boast of no more than “exposure” to the traditional setting of Talmud study. Most of their leraning takes place in the academia. As a consequence, they often lack to broad view that characterized previous generations. How many appreciate psak halacha in how it inter-relates with Talmudic sources. How many are theologians and understand aggadah, devitional life, and inner perpective of Tannaim and AMoraim.? How many look to them with respect as someone who ahs something to teach thempersonally? Current, recent generation of scholars are more likely to follow a scholarly cosnensus or deviate in important ways from the “feel and touch” of Judaic culture in as much as it relates to Talmud study.

    How many academic scholars can aprticipate in :talking in learning: – meeting objections, sharing positions, bringing proofs etc on a real live basis? There is adifference between looking up sources and ahving them refracted into one’s memory, essence and being.
    avakesh | Homepage | 06.14.07 – 11:29 am | #

    I thought it important to expand on this post on my blog. I, of course, corrected the typos as well.
    avakesh | Homepage | 06.14.07 – 11:41 am | #

    I think avakesh’s point is well taken in North America (and Europe). But in Israel, Talmud departments are still very much populated by people who spent significant time in yeshivot – at least hesder yeshivot. On a related point, it seems to me that –methodologically– this generation of Talmudists is far and beyond most of the academic scholars who grew out of European yeshivot. But as far as yedios and certainly living the culture – well there’s no question.
    s secunda | 06.14.07 – 12:54 pm | #

    On the same shelf where I have all of the works you mentioned (except for CHJ) I also have the two volumes edited by Neusner and written by his students “The Modern Study of the Mishnah” and “The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud.” They have been criticized by some however as being rather uneven in the scope and quality of the articles.
    andy | 06.14.07 – 8:36 pm | #

    I would add that while I have read a couple of Ms. Heszer’s articles, her books are priced beyond the reach of anyone not named Rothschild.
    andy | 06.14.07 – 8:44 pm | #


    Thanks for mentioning those two books. They are a bit uneven, but they contain some excellent chapters, especially the ones by Baruch Bokser.


    I think that there is some validity to what you say, although I don’t think that not having studied in a yeshiva necessarily excludes one from having a deep understanding of the Talmud. I have met people who have spent many years studying Talmud in a yeshivah and don’t seem to really know much about it or rabbinic literature in general.


    While many Israeli scholars of rabbinic literature do have rich yeshiva backgrounds, the potential problem with that is when they feel that academic study is just a continuation of yeshiva. This is not true for everyone, but at least some graduate students whom I have been in classes with in Israel really seem to have trouble making that switch to critical study.
    Anonymous | 06.14.07 – 11:08 pm | #

    first of all, it greatly depends on the institution. I don’t think I need to name nameson this one…
    Also, that’s exactly the point. Even some of the post-yeshiva academics never really learn to think in a fully critical mindset.
    s secunda | 06.15.07 – 1:20 am | #

    andy –

    First, it’s Dr. or Professor Heszer. Not Ms.

    Avakesh –

    I think you overestimate the value of yeshiva, and you underestimate the inner life (and soul and yiddishkeit) of folks who never went (or, dare I say it, were prohibited from going due to their anatomy). There are many roads to deep and multi-faceted appreciation of the Talmud and Talmudic culture, and none can claim to be exhaustive.
    Lia | 06.15.07 – 1:59 am | #

    Lia – It’s not “underestimating the inner life…” It is much more difficult to mold one’s mind to thing a certain way when one is older. I heard Prof Haym Soloveitchik once remark that from his experience if people don’t start learning serious talmud by 13, they will still understand it, but they almost never have a certain facility at quickly understanding how when one step in a shakla ve-tarya is attacked, it changes the rest of the arguments that follow. He mentioned that he had met only 2-3 people in his life who started talmud study later in life, and gained that facility. It is not an issue of “appreciation”.

    Avakesh – my own experience in reading a number of these scholars parallels yours. When I learned niddah I bought Fonrobert’s Menstrual Purity. Despite the book’s accolades (e.g. winning the Salo Baron prize…) I was greatly underwhelmed. She only analyzed 5-6 sugyas and many of the correct things which she pointed out as her hiddushim, were either very plain to see and needed no one to say, or were in meforshim which she had not located. I’ve had a similar sense in reading Christine Hayes and Jeffrey Rubinstein’s analyses of aggadata. Though Prof E Diamond’s book on talmudic asceticism also was a big letdown and Shaya Cohen should stop writing articles on niddah if he has nothing original to say – and both Diamond and Cohen started out in YU, so maybe even yeshiva education is no guarantee. (Also, any books published by Brill, JCBMohr Siebeck are exorbitantly priced. It’s not just Heczer’s volumes.)

    Part of the result of the lack of proficiency in talmud is that few in the US still write about halacha. They all do aggadata or literary style or historicity of talmudic passages. Who, other than halivni in the US in the past 20 yrs has written serious academic analysis of halachic sugyas in talmud???
    j | 06.15.07 – 2:40 am | #

    I just wanted to point out that I am “anonymous”. I guess that my computer forgot who I was when I posted. The point that j makes about the quantity of sugyot analyzed raises an important point-How much can one extrapolate from a number of isolated cases/sugyot? At what point do we say that we have enough examples of phenomenon X and that will now allow us to formulate some type of theory? All to often scholars gravitate towards the exceptional cases, also the possibility exists that the literature tends to preserve those exceptional cases more than “normal” cases.
    Menachem Mendel | 06.15.07 – 8:31 am | #

    Speaking of Strack, in Shapiro’s bio of R Weinberg he notes that R DZ Hoffmann spent one-on-one time with Strack, aiding him in his studies in rabbinics.
    Anonymous | 06.15.07 – 10:53 am | #

    J –
    No disrespect to Haym Soloveitchik, but that is ridiculous, and it does no one good to shut out everyone but yeshiva trained Orthodox holier than thou priviladged bochrim from a world in which lots of people can contribute different insights. For all the academics that write disappointing books, there are plenty of “ramim” and Orthodox rabbis and teachers are just as and more disappointing.
    Lia | 06.15.07 – 4:20 pm | #

    It is not ridiculous.
    Again, it is not an issue of privileging yeshiva bochurs. Let me repeat – this is not an issue of frumkeit, and not a religious issue. I am equally impressed with a number of non-Jewish German women who have made great contributions to Jewish studies in the academic world with no yeshiva training whatsover. Stop making this an issue of “shutting people out” or me denying that non-yeshiva people can make any contribution.

    Let me give you an example from a different discipline –
    If one does not master certain aspects of mathematics at a young age, one may learn to understand them at a later point, but the person will lack a certain facility that comes with imprinting one’s mind with a train of thought when young. A friend of mine was contemplating a math PhD. He was an undergrad at Harvard. He eventually decided to change to history (in which he later got his PhD). In recounting why he switched, he mentioned to me that the math departments place an unbearable workload on those who want to get doctorates to try to see who can absorb it. The depts know that a large percentage of the significant discoveries in mathematics or signs of potential to make such insights are by people in their 20s. If you are slower to the ball, you might know math, but you won’t make those types of breakthroughs, your mind can do the problems, etc. but you don’t have a certain facility which is needed to make a real contribution.

    Again, I am not knocking those who don’t learn in yeshivas.
    j | 06.15.07 – 4:55 pm | #


    What evidence do you have besides an anecdotal story of a friend that certain intellectual facilities have to be acquired by a young age, and if not, it is difficult to do so? For the majority of the population I would say that much education before high school is more cultural and social conditioning and has very little to do actually with learning anything from a knowledge standpoint. An interesting question is at what age can 99% of the population really learn Talmud? Sure a few exceptional cases are found here and there, but how many 7th graders are really capable of mastering Talmud? If anything, in the past far fewer people were studying Talmud b/c most couldn’t really understand it (and they also had to make a living), and the few exceptional cases were the ones who studied past a relatively young age. Are people who start studying Talmud at 20 years old at a disadvantage? Sure. Does it mean that they can’t be accomplished Talmudists? No. Yet I do not see their situation any different than someone who starts studying Latin, Particle Physics, etc. or any other discipline. I am not sure if there is such a thing as “molding one’s mind to think a certain way” at a young age. Time constraints are real, but I think that there are plenty of examples of scholars who were not weaned on a certain discipline and went on to make great contributions to the field.
    Menachem Mendel | 06.16.07 – 11:21 pm | #

    Menachem Mendl, you are wonderful.

    J – The one thing I’d add to MM’s point is that even though you say it’s not about shutting people out, the type of comments you are making indirectly shut people out by hurting certain people and groups and putting them down and talking to them or to others about their disadvantages and presumed inferiority. This sort of discouragemnt has subtle but deep effects on individuals and communities. (Trust me on this one.) Even if it were true (and I maintain it is not) – not everything should be said aloud (or posted on a blog).
    Lia | 06.17.07 – 1:14 am | #


    Just so you don’t think that I reject the use of anecdotal evidence all together, ma’aseh she-hayah:

    I caught the end of a panel discussion at an Association for Jewish Studies conference on trends in the study of Rabbinic literature. The final comment was by female member of the audience who claimed, with sadness, that unless you are a male who studied in yeshiva you’ll never be able to really “know” Talmud. One of the members of the panel, Albert Baumgarten of Bar-Ilan U., relayed the story of a close friend, a Jewish woman who grew up in Brooklyn, who is now one of the world’s most respected experts in Sanskrit literature. His point, it is not easy, nor can it be done by everyone, but it isn’t impossible. The chairperson of the panel ended by commenting-“I am not going to touch this topic with a ten-foot pole”, the chairperson was Christine Hayes. And while her name has been mentioned two things: 1. I happen to think that her book _Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds_ is an excellent work of scholarship. Also, I had the merit of studying medieval Biblical interpretation at Hebrew U. with Nechama Leibowitz. It was a great class, but she did not mince words if she thought that you were wrong. Never having seen a Rashi before I was 18 years old, I definitely felt at a disadvantage. Many in the class were Yeshivah high school graduates, and when she gave back the final exam she called out the grade before she gave it to the person. Most everyone, yeshiva grads included, either failed or came close to it. She then said (in Hebrew), “There is one righteous woman in Sodom”, and said loudly “100” and handed Christine Hayes her exam.

    Can everyone do it? No. Is it much harder when you are older? Definitely, maybe even too hard for most people, not necessarily because of any “way of thinking”, but probably b/c of the volume of material that sometimes must be learned. Yet it can be done by some.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 06.17.07 – 8:06 am | #




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