Strange worship

It has become a tradition: every seven and a half years, the MetLife stadium in New Jersey is filled not with football fans, but with a crowd of about 80,000 religious Jews, almost all male, black-hatted and Haredi. The occasion is the conclusion of the Daf Yomi (“daily page”) study cycle of the Babylonian Talmud. In August 2012 this incongruous gathering caught the eye of Adam Kirsch, a literary critic and “avowedly secular Jew”. He decided that, next time around, he wanted to be a part of it. And 2,711 double-sided Talmud pages later, in January 2020, he was.

Daf Yomi was initiated in 1923 by a Polish Hasidic rabbi who hoped to bring world Jewry together by creating a shared rhythm of study for the core text of rabbinic Judaism. In recent times, the programme’s popularity has surged. The Talmud is now readily available in full English translation, both in print and online, and Daf Yomi participants can supplement their readings with an abundance of study groups, commentaries, video lectures and podcasts.

The contrast between this boom and the role of the text in sixth-century Babylonia, where it took shape, is extraordinary. The Talmud, David Kraemer notes in his excellent History of the Talmud (2019), was originally aimed at “the elite of the elite”. Following its eclectic debates was extremely hard, and that was exactly the point. The discussions between rabbinic sages that it recounts are often meandering, highly technical and inconclusive. For the students of the early medieval Babylonian academies, or of modern Ashkenazic yeshivas – from pre-Holocaust Poland and Lithuania to contemporary Jerusalem and Brooklyn – grappling with this challenge is an exceptionally demanding act of religious devotion. The pious scholar immerses himself in the boundless complexity of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, and of living one’s life in accordance with divinely sanctioned halakha (Jewish law).

What might grappling with the Talmud mean, though, for those of us who do not share that religious outlook? Kirsch doesn’t go deeply into his own motivations. He wanted to fill, he tells us, the “Talmud-sized gap” in his Jewish understanding, and his readily digestible essays on the forty Talmudic tractates of the Daf Yomi cycle in Come and Hear efficacy offer this service to his readers. At first sight he seems like a latter-day Leopold Zunz: the early-nineteenth-century pioneer of secular Jewish studies, who was the first to argue that rabbinic texts should be read and cherished as literature. Zunz broadly agreed, though, with the criticisms of the Talmud levelled by the early German Reform rabbis of his day. The convoluted obscurantism of the Babylonian sages, they argued, did not provide the moral edification that modern Jews needed from their religion. Talmudic Judaism, Zunz believed, would soon fade away; the scholarly task of the moment, his associate Moritz Steinschneider commented, was to give it a “decent burial”. Two centuries later the Talmud is hugely popular and easily accessible, entirely thanks to the growth and vigour of the Orthodox and especially the Haredi world.

Large chunks of the Talmud were never of practical relevance. One of its books is devoted to the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem and the ritual animal sacrifices offered by priests there – until the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, approximately five centuries before the Talmud was written. Another book, focused on civil and criminal law, is eminently practical in its concerns, but not always in its verdicts. This book has plenty to say about problems that keep today’s neighbor WhatsApp groups buzzing, such as disputed property lines and noisy neighbors. But, while many rulings seem sensible, if unsurprising, others are unhelpful to the point of silliness. If a two-storey building is suffering from subsidence, the downstairs owner cannot require the upstairs owner to co-operate in doing anything about it until the second-storey floor has sunk to “ten handbreadths” above the ground – the Talmud’s calculation of the height of a property domain. By this point, Kirsch points out, the lower storey will have long been uninhabitable.

In legal disputes between Jews and non-Jews, the Talmud encourages collective Jewish solidarity. We even read of a sage who chopped off the head of another Jew to prevent him from denouncing a third Jew to the non-Jewish authorities. The tractate Avodah Zarah (“strange worship”) is particularly replete with hostility to Gentiles, and for this reason has, since the sixteenth century, frequently been subject to both Christian and Jewish censorship. Jews shouldn’t employ Gentile nursemaids because they might try to kill their children, and certainly not a Gentile circumciser, who might chop off their son’s penis. They mustn’t eat even kosher food prepared by Gentiles, or drink their wine, because it might have been used in idolatrous rituals. (The Talmud gives further reasons: Gentile hygiene can’t be trusted, and communal drinking might lead to friendships and then to intermarriage.) Kirsch mostly offers a straightforward summary of these rulings, which he washes down with reassuring explanations. These were the attitudes, he asserts, of “a powerless and persecuted people” who lived “in profound fear of their gentile neighbors and rulers”. Really? We don’t know all that much about sixth-century life under the Persian Sassanian dynasty, but relations between Jews and their Zoroastrian and Christian neighbors seem to have been largely harmonious. As for the insularity of the most stringently observant Jewish communities today, though these attitudes are reinforced by such Talmudic injunctions, they are the product of more recent historical experiences.

The Talmud is also rather hair-raising on sex. It prohibits men from touching their penises in any circumstances: anything that might lead to the “evil inclination” must be rigorously avoided. There is no equivalent concern for women because they, the sages declare, cannot arouse themselves through touch. In fact, the examination of women’s genitals is a prominent Talmudic theme: the final tractate of Daf Yomi, Nidda, covers the requirement of the sexual separation between a husband and his menstruating wife, for which it is vital to determine precisely when menstruation begins. A wife of suspected adultery, according to the biblical book of Numbers, must face a trial by magic potion: the drink will not harm her if she is innocent, but will inflict an agonizing death if she is guilty. A full Talmudic tractate is devoted to discussing this ritual. Kirsch strains to portray the sages here as proto-liberals, “squirming”, much as we do today, in response to the biblical requirement and doing what they can to find clever ways to nullify it. But this wilful interpretation goes against the grain of Kirsch’s own description of it. The twists and turns of the sages’ arguments seem to be shaped by all sorts of theological and analytical interests, but not by any particular concern for women’s welfare.

Kirsch tells us a great deal about the Talmud, but he doesn’t give much of a sense of what it is like to spend so much time in its company. Unlike Ilana Kurshan, whose recent account of her Daf Yomi experience, If All the Seas Were Ink (2017), is as much about her as the Talmud, Kirsch is a reticent authorial presence. He does observe, though, that while Daf Yomi didn’t make him “a better Jew”, it did give him a sense of greater Jewish connectedness and understanding, particularly of contemporary Orthodox Jews. But does a secular reading of a religious text really bring one closer to a believer’s experience of it? One strand of the Talmud that flickers only occasionally in Kirsch’s reading, for example, is messianism. For the leading Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner, by contrast, the central thrust of the work is to bring Jewish conduct into more perfect harmony with God’s will in order to hasten the arrival of the Messiah. This messianic expectancy will have suffused the Talmudic study of many of the celebrants who surrounded Kirsch at the MetLife stadium.

The Talmud is an inexhaustibly fascinating window on a distant Jewish world, with an equally fascinating fifteen-century afterlife. It is also an unsettling text, and its impact on Jewish history and practice has certainly not been entirely benign. Why read it every day for seven and a half years? For Kirsch and many others, this commitment provides intellectual challenge, life-structuring discipline and a seductive sense of connection to the thousands of simultaneous readers, and millions of past readers, of each page. But, as Zunz argued 200 years ago, a truly illuminating secular reading of rabbinic texts needs to be historical, unsentimental and critical.

Adam Sutcliffe is Professor of European History at King’s College London. His latest book is What Are Jews For?: History, peoplehood, and purpose2020

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