Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

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.