The Talmud: A Biography
This is the story of a book. Most books don’t have their own story, at best they have a narrative about their publishing history and subsequent reception by the public. But the Talmud has more than just a story, it has a turbulent history. One which, in many ways, parallels the history of the Jewish people.
The Talmud was composed as a record of discussions amongst scholars and sages in the ancient Jewish diaspora, in towns and villages close to Baghdad. As the Jews dispersed across the world, the Talmud went with them, travelling along trade and migratory routes into the Maghreb, Europe, Arabia and the East. It became the foundation of the Jewish legal system, the bedrock of the Jewish faith. It became more important to the Jews than the Bible itself.
They exchanged perspectives and ideas with their neighbours. Early contacts between Judaism and Islam produced an intense, intellectual cross-fertilization, the effects of which can still be discerned in Talmudic and Islamic law. The medieval encounter between the Jews and Christianity was less benign, the Church regarded the Talmud as the obstacle which prevented them from converting the Jews. Their response was to challenge, burn, ban and censor it.
Title Page, Talmud Sanhedrin, Lemburg, 1864. (Library of Jewish Community in Bielsko-Biala, Poland)
Later generations, particularly in Protestant Europe, although just as intent on converting the Jews nevertheless explored the Talmud for ideas. We find philosophers and poets, republicans and kings, priests and professors all probing the Talmud, seeking inspiration, support or validation for their particular points of view.
The most intractable of the Talmud’s challenges came from the Jews themselves. Rejectionists, messianic pretenders and savants vilified it, seeking to delegitimize or at the very least to minimize its influence. But like the Jews themselves, the Talmud’s capacity for survival is boundless. Today it is studied by more people than at any time in its history.
The Talmud is a classic of world literature. It’s a massive, ancient and seemingly impenetrable work. People devote their lives to studying it. But you are not reading a book about what is in the Talmud. This is the story of what happened to the Talmud, and the role it has played in world history, religion and culture. It’s not a book for experts, or for specialists. It’s a book for anyone who wants to know the story of one of the great classics of ancient literature, albeit one which is far less heavily thumbed, outside of Jewish circles, than Homer, Chaucer or Ovid. The content of the Talmud may be esoteric. But its history belongs to us all. For there is scarcely a square inch of the world’s surface upon which its story was not, at some time, acted out.