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Greenblatt and the Blatt: New Perspectives on the Nature and Reception of the Bavli

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 259-270 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“What’s the Talmud? Is it your Gospel?”

“The Talmud is like a soup, with all things a man can eat in it. But there’s wheat and chaff, fruit and pits, and meat and bones. It isn’t very good, but it’s nourishing. It’s full of mistakes and contradictions, but for that very reason it teaches you how to use your mind.”

Primo Levi1

We read books from beginning to end. Not so the Bavli. My own rather typical experience with the Babylonian Talmud began, as an elementary school student, with the first tractate, Berakhot, but with the fourth chapter, not the first. From there I ventured into isolated chapters from the fourth order, thence to parts of the second and third orders, and much later, to the forbidding tractates of the final two orders. But change is afoot. I write these words a few days after the internationally heralded end of a cycle of daf yomi, the practice of studying one folio page (daf, or in Yiddish, blatt) of the Talmud each day (yom). Daf yomi, insofar as it progresses through the Bavli from cover to cover, reframes the Bavli as a book. The deep if implicit textualism of daf yomi manifests itself, indeed, in the very demarcation of the page as the basic unit of study. The meaning- bearing unit of the Bavli is not the page but the sugya, which inevitably stops short of the bottom of the page, or continues on to the next. Daf yomi thus represents the elevation of the page, a printer’s innovation, over the sugya. Daf yomi innovates in a third, related way by flattening the Bavli’s content. Readers of the Bavli have traditionally privileged its legal dialectics over its nonlegal material, or halakhah over aggadah. In the terms supplied by Primo Levi’s metaphor of the talmudic soup (a deflationary echo of the sublime “sea of Talmud”), the halakhic meat must be picked off the aggadic bones. The preeminence of halakhah is nowhere so staunchly presumed than in the very rightward-leaning circles that have fueled daf yomi, even though this practice by its nature effaces distinctions between parts of the Bavli.

The continuing and arguably unprecedented prominence of the Bavli in contemporary Judaism compels us to reflect critically, and with historical awareness, on this most canonical of Jewish texts. Is there a better or worse way to read the Bavli? How did such a curious text come about, and how did it achieve the authority that it enjoys? Are the innovations in reading practice effected by daf yomi changes in degree or kind, and what might they portend for the future of the Bavli, and of those who look to it for guidance? Two important new books by Barry Wimpfheimer and Talya Fishman offer some answers to these questions and shed light especially on the issues of textualism and the law/narrative divide that I have highlighted above.

Wimpfheimer’s book offers a poetics of the Bavli’s “legal stories,” in which he finds a density of meaning that complicates dichotomies and ultimately reveals the law’s true character. Law is not (only) code, but cultural discourse, a semiotic matrix that converses and competes with other matrices, like psychology and sociology. Wimpfheimer frames his book as a “deconstructive act” (p. 4) that challenges the dominant Jewish tendency to identify law, as halakhah, with practice, and to set it off against aggadah, imagined as the exclusive locus of meaning. The book thus speaks not only to scholars of rabbinic literature but also, and more urgently, and even sometimes explicitly, to contemporary Jews, who are invited to consider, in its light, “ways in which contemporary halakhic thinkers could reimagine the relationship between Halakhah and evolving contemporary mores” (p. 4).

The first two chapters unpack the theoretical significance of the Bavli’s legal stories. To explicate the cultural conception of law that the legal story canonizes, Wimpfheimer introduces the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Robert Cover. Whether in contrast with the poem (Bakhtin) or the statute (Cover), the story emerges in their thinking as a dialogical site that embraces rather than resists the messiness of “lived...

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