Are Jews the People of the Talmud?

A broad romantic version of a slice of Jewish religious history from an author who thinks that Jews are the people of the Talmud, "Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures," by Talya Fishman, reviewed by Lawrence Grossman, "How Jews Became the People of the Talmud: Thinkers Have Long Puzzled Over Oral and Written Traditions." We don't know what Fishman means. Even great Talmudists do not deem themselves people of the Talmud. Grossman reviews:
...As the medium transforms the message, two key substantive changes in Judaism wrought by textualization are discussed in “Becoming the People of the Talmud.” Clearly, the newly constituted “text” is more rigid than oral tradition, reducing the flexibility of the religious authority to reinterpret past wisdom in light of new reality in a way that does not disrupt the consciousness of a seamless tradition. Thus, Fishman notes, the Tosafists were often perplexed when they saw that customary religious practices that had evolved naturally differed from those prescribed in the talmudic texts, and so they exerted remarkable casuistic energy in attempts to reconcile them. But at the same time, the very availability of an authoritative book — especially with Rashi’s commentary appended — could make the presence of a live teacher unnecessary, and hence served to democratize Jewish scholarship.

What Fishman chronicles is, of course, just one example of how shifts in the way that Jewish knowledge is transmitted affect the nature of Judaism itself. Having superseded customary practice and challenged rabbinic authority, the textualized Talmud today faces competition from new modes of communication. Increasingly, Jews get their Jewish knowledge (whether accurate or not) with minimal effort via email, blogs and Twitter, and anyone who insists on a book can download a virtual one. The oral Torah’s transfer to cyberspace is, like its textualization 1,000 years ago, likely to transform Jewish life in unpredictable ways.

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