Shamma Friedman and the Talmudic Assembly Line

Take a close look at your car. Now write a book mainly about the assembly line that produced that car. You may say a few random and simple things about the car itself. But mostly in your book you must speculate about the people who put it together, and guess how it came into being.

That's similar to what some scholars of the Talmud do with that composite document. It's a wonderful way to free associate a wealth of learning, to wax creative without the possibility that anyone could prove you wrong. You spell out a hypothetical theory about an imaginary assembly line that spanned centuries and produced the Talmud.

Most of all, secular Israeli authorities welcome what you do. There's nothing remotely political or threatening about a Talmud disassembled in pieces on the factory floor of history. And the bearded scholars in the Yeshivas will wonder about the value of that kind of "academic Talmud study" which leaves the compilation in a junkyard heap of nuts and bolts.

Yehuda Mirsky celebrates the work of academic Talmud scholar Shamma Friedman in his article, Talmud: The Back Story. After glowing accolades, he finally in apparent if unrealized exasperation asks about all this busy work of taking apart the engine of the Talmud, "...can we somehow put the pieces back together into a coherent and compelling story? And will that story reflect not only the work of the rabbinic interpreters but also the original texts and traditions, by now lost to us, that they were trying, through their editing, to maintain?" We aren't clear on the substance of Mirsky's questions, but we do share his ultimate sense of frustration.

No comments: