Is the new $10.88 Penguin Talmud by Norman Solomon worth the money?

Where can you get a new big book about the Talmud for $10.88? At Amazon. But is it worth the money?

Norman Solomon, a fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, has brought out a 900 page one-volume anthology of the Babylonian Talmud.

It's advertised as an intelligent selection of texts and an erudite translation. As the marketing text says,
The most important text in Judaism after the Old Testament— available for the first time in Penguin Classics

One of the most significant religious texts in the world, The Talmud is a compilation of the teachings of major Jewish scholars from the classic period of rabbinic Judaism. In a range of styles, including commentary, parables, proverbs, and anecdotes, it provides guidance on all aspects of everyday life. This selection of its most illuminating passages makes accessible to modern readers the centuries of Jewish thought contained within. Norman Solomon’s lucid translation from the Bavli (Babylonian) is accompanied by an introduction on The Talmud’s arrangement, social and historical background, reception, and authors.
And now we have a copy and we have read it.

This book has a lot of Talmud in it. It is nicely copy edited. The author demonstrates to you in this book his erudition and his wide reading of books about the Talmud and his mastery of Talmudic texts.

But is that worth $10.88 to you? If you are a friend or relative of Norman, yes. If you don't know him, but want to know about the Talmud, want to understand what the Talmud teaches, maybe...not.

A few questions came to our mind when reading this volume. What is the point of a book that calls itself, "The Talmud: A Selection"? Sure there are those who believe "Shakespeare: A Collection" is worth $10.88, even if you get not a single play, just selected scenes and acts from every one of them. Or there are those who are okay with a recorded collection called, "Classical Opera: A Selection" that serves up from the great corpus of Opera some famous, but mostly random, arias.

A lot of anti-Semites out there write nasty things about the Talmud, without any basis for them at all. We have to say that a nicely edited book full of random learning and erudition about the Talmud is a good thing, especially this book -- where it is clear that the author reveres the corpus.

On the other hand, good copy editing (which this book has) is not the same as good editing (which this book lacks). Here is one prominent paragraph at the head of the second major section of the book to illustrate what can be wrong when editors do not do their jobs -- page 94.

Two tractates (Shabbat, Eruvin) cover the Sabbath laws in meticulous detail: Betza deals with their application to festivals. Appendix I has an explanation of the Jewish Calendar with a complete list of festivals.

Two festivals lack a dedicated tractate in this Order. Shavuot (Feast of Weeks, or of First Fruits) is to some extent covered in Bikkurim, in the Order Zeraim. Hanuka, however, comes in only for incidental mention, and this omission may have been politically motivated: perhaps Judah ha-Nasi, under Roman administration, deemed it imprudent to publish a tractate on a festival celebrating resistance to an occupying power.
Fine. We have here an introduction that is in fact an anti-introduction. When we call something an introduction, we enter into an agreement with the reader to introduce what follows, to summarize, epitomize, set the context, etc.

To say that the tractate covers laws of the Sabbath in "meticulous detail" without next telling us a single overriding concept, theme or notion, is tantamount to introducing Mozart by saying his music contains "a multitude of notes." It does and it does. Or not, who is to say what meticulous or multitude means?

To introduce an item of substance by telling us what is not there, not what is there, is a clever distraction, as is the reference preceding it to "Appendix I" and its "complete list of festivals." Why is that in an appendix when it should be here in the introduction? We don't know and we aren't going to find out, but we are supposed to be impressed with the completeness and careful cross-referencing of this tome to its supporting appendix. And for that reader anxious to dive right in and consume the laws for the festival of the Shavuot festival, well hold on there pardner, there ain't no such tractate.

And then we come to the part of this short anti-introduction avec speculation. Another thing that is not there, we are told, is a tractate on Hanuka, because "perhaps" it was "imprudent" to publish that. We get it. Rabbis could endorse all Jews lighting candles for eight days in public in their doorways and that was prudent. But writing a few pages in an esoteric written rabbinic code about doing just that would be "imprudent." Okay then, we now know what a perfect anti-introduction looks like.

The subsequent individual chapter headings do try to focus back on the content that is there. But they do not succeed in focusing any light any sharper. And so without further ado, the first excerpt presented in tractate Shabbat makes reference to the festival of Hanuka.

A lot of heat in this doorway, but not a lot of light. We really wanted to like this book. But that would be imprudent.

1 comment:

rcsb said...

Quite misses the point. Norman Solomon's selection is a good introduction for anyone who has not studied any Talmud. It is very helpful in that it bridges the language(s) barrier, not least because of the excellent copy-editing that you mention. It is excellent for whetting the appetite and is sure to perform an important function in presenting the achievements of Talmud to a very wide public, including non-Jews.

As an Israeli not knowing any Aramaic, it has made more of the Talmud accessible. I am grateful for that. Finally, the tractates of the Talmud do not need comprehensive introductions. Readers are most probably looking to delve into the text itself. Norman Solomon's useful notes do their job well.