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A Way of Reading: The Genius

In the first installment of his new monthly Talmud column for Tablet, the religion historian Daniel Boyarin looks at the unique method of his teacher—the great scholar Saul Lieberman

Daniel Boyarin
March 24, 2021

Nearly 55 years ago, I walked into the preparatory class in Talmud at the Hebrew University and, within moments, was charmed to the depths of my being. I had no idea at all what the Talmud was before that day. Knowing, however, that we would be studying a tractate called “Fasts,” I was sure that I was in for a deep spiritual experience, a profound account of the virtues of fasting, the mystical experiences to seek, the ethical improvements, perhaps an exploration of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av (the only two fasts I’d ever heard of till then). I was floored to hear instead: “From whence do we make mention of the powers of the rains?” followed by a discussion of the weather in Eretz Yisroel and how we pray for it to be good. So excited, moved, and charmed by this strangeness was I, this sense that I was touching something uniquely Jewish, ancient, Eastern, not “bourgeois,” that before the hour was up, I’d decided to become a scholar of Talmud. Folks tried to dissuade me. “Only someone who has begun studying as a child can ever master the Talmud,” they said, and that only hardened my resolve.

A year later, I began my studies at Jewish Theological Seminary with the most wonderful of teachers, professor Israel Francus, and a year or so beyond that, with professor Saul Lieberman and Chaim Zalman Dimitrovsky (may the memory of these righteous ones be for a blessing). Scholarship of the Talmud became the focus of my life. In this series of columns on the living Talmud, I hope to honor the memory of my teachers and explore what their teachings—together with those of others, of course—have wrought. By “living Talmud,” I mean the ways in which the Talmud is learned and practiced in the present among Jews (and some others also) in the world today, and even its role in constituting a Jewish nation (a point I will discuss more later in this series).

This first essay is dedicated to professor Saul Lieberman (whom we called the Gras”sh, the Genius, Rabbi Shaul). That giant of a scholar and a teacher taught many lessons. Perhaps one of the most fruitful for me throughout my years of writing about the Talmud has been the following:

The vast field of Talmudic literature fared ill at the hands of the historians. The historians were no Talmudists; the Talmudists were no historians. The former either entirely ignored the Rabbinic sources or misused them. Every single passage of Talmudic literature must be investigated both in the light of its whole context and as a separate unit in regard to its correct reading, meaning, time and place. Thanks to the modern methods of investigation, which have begun exerting their influence on the work of the very small circle of Talmudic scholars, their research often results in quite exact conclusions in the domain of history. The simple rule should be followed that the Talmud may serve as a good historical document when it deals in contemporary matters within its own locality. The legendary portions of the Talmud can hardly be utilized for this purpose. The Palestinian Talmud (and some of the early Midrashim) whose material was produced in the third and fourth centuries contents valuable information regarding Palestine during that period. It embodies many elements similar to those contended in the so-called documentary papyri. The evidence is all the more trustworthy since the facts are often recorded incidentally and casually. The Rabbinic literature has much in common with the non-literary papyri and the inscriptions. Although the following paper cannot serve as a classical example of the above statement, since the nature of the subject-matter has sometimes compelled the author to resort to a probable conjecture, the reader can nonetheless learn that Talmudic literature is a valuable source for the events of its own time.

This article, published in 1944, was a remarkable statement for its time. Before it and for many years after, historians of the period did not so much ignore the Talmud as make use precisely of its legendary material, frequently critically, to be sure, failing to understand that the events narrated in such legends simply cannot be reproduced as facts of narrative history and frequently enough cannot even be deemed to contain “kernels of history.” What professor Lieberman clearly intended was something else entirely.

In his allusion to the nonliterary papyri and inscriptions, he indicated that we could learn not the facts of political history nor the biographies of “great men,” but the matters of everyday life and manners of the Jews (and others) in the places and times of the rabbis, how they conducted their business and sex lives, how they cooked and ate, and much of what was thought by them and those around them. I will come back later to this early essay, “The Martyrs of Caesarea,” written during World War II and published very soon thereafter.

The title of my little memorial draws on a tribute paid to our teacher, written decades ago by one much more worthy to have written such a tribute than I am. I refer, of course, to the also long gone professor Eliezer Shimson Rosenthal, of blessed memory. It is hard for me to believe that it is 30 years that my teacher, the Gaon Saul Lieberman, is gone. Frequently when we meet, still, we his former students tell each other stories about the Moreh, things he taught us in the many ways that he did, not only explicitly but also in passing, in joking and always (at least by the time I knew him; I was among the last of his students) with great gentleness and patience.

An undated photo of Saul Lieberman
An undated photo of Saul LiebermanWikipedia

I can remember the number of times that I left his classroom singing Hallel under my breath, feeling as if no one had understood the aggada, especially the aggada, that he had taught us that morning, perhaps, since the first time it had been taught. I imagine that this was, at least in part, the near worship of the great teacher by the adoring student, but also, even now, I think that I was not always so far off the mark. In Berakhos 3a, there is a strange saying. The rabbis have come to David Hamelekh to inform him that the people have no parnoso. He says to them, “Let them support each other,” to which the reply comes: אין הבור מתמלאת מחוליתו ואין הקומץ משביע לארי. This is a very strange proverb. First of all, it doesn’t rhyme, nor is the rhythm quite right for a proverb. Secondly, it seems to mean that a hole is not filled up with its sand and a handful of grain doesn’t satisfy a lion. The first part makes sense: What you take out of a hole is never enough to fill it back up, so they certainly cannot support each other without outside input into their economy. The second half made no sense until the teacher taught it to us; after all, lions don’t eat flour at all!

The Gra”sh solved the problem with a stroke of genius. He said the proverb was originally in Aramaic: לית בירא מתמליא מחוליתה ולית גומצא משבע לארייתא: The hole is not filled by its sand, and a fly does not satisfy a lion! Scribes translating it into Hebrew didn’t catch the word gumtsa (the fly) and thought it was qumtsa (the handful of flour.) In Aramaic, it has all of the characteristics of a proverb: rhyme, rhythm, and reason.

The hallmark of his teaching was its utter simplicity. We would go into the classroom and he would interpret the text; he wouldn’t raise difficulties and answer them, but would only interpret the text. Those who had not prepared, or not prepared seriously, would hear a simple explanation of the sugya; those who could understand the genius of what he said to us, how he took into consideration the difficulty raised by the Ramban, answered it partly following the Rashba and partly the Ritba, until the text sang with a clear voice that could now just be echoed by the teacher himself.

It was finally the clarity of his method that provided the most important lessons for the scholar in embryo. An interpretation that was too complicated was no solution; the final answer had to shine forth with clarity and simplicity. Occasionally, when a thesis was offered by the student, the teacher would touch his nose to indicate that that answer didn’t quite “smell” right. On the other hand, when the student did offer a convincing thesis in interpreting a very difficult passage, praise was fast and warm.

Once, early in my scholarly career, I spent months trying to prove that the Aramaic word צוציתא meant the tail of a mouse (like Rashi) and not its whiskers (like Rabbenu Hananel). I proudly showed the results of my work, full of erudition and Syriac, to Lieberman, and the Gra”sh remarked: “But of course it is the tail! Rav Ashi told his talmid to take the mouse by its צוציתא and remove it from the Beis Hamidrash. “You can’t pick up a mouse by its whiskers: It will bite you!” It wasn’t somehow that the months of philological work had been wasted but I learned a lesson in what he himself called sekhel, as in the “eleventh commandment”: Thou shalt have sekhel!

Another teaching: “Every scribal error produces a lectio difficilior.” This is the maxim, often offered as a truism, that if there are several different readings of a given text, the one that is most difficult is likely to be the original one, as scribes will change a difficult reading to an easier one, but rarely the opposite. With the teacher’s reminder that difficult texts can arise by mishap as well, he taught us never to rely complacently on a philological rule to establish the correct reading and the interpretation of the text. One had to learn and learn and learn and learn to finally discern with the nose what might or might not be a good reading, a good interpretation.

And another teaching: If the text is secure and well-attested and you don’t understand it, refrain from emending against all witnesses. Study and study (for seven nights and days if necessary) until you can make sense of it.

‘Only someone who has begun studying as a child can ever master the Talmud,’ they said, and that only hardened my resolve.

We think of the great Saul Lieberman as one scholar, but in fact he was several. Much of his teaching and writing (especially in Tosefta Kipshuta) was inspired directly by the great Litvak adherents of Peshat, the Noam Yerushalmi, the Keren Orah, the Netziv, and others. Once, the teacher was asked at a Bar-Ilan Talmud department retreat for the difference between learning in a yeshiva and learning in a university, and he answered: “None, none whatsoever.” And it was true, true enough, but for the Tosefta Kipshuta (some might say, all too true). On the other hand, there weren’t many, even within the best of the Litvak Roshei Yeshivos, who could say to a student: “Read Lucian, Lucian has the keys!” That maxim from the teacher provided the intellectual inspiration for one of my own books. (Of course, I cannot say that the teacher, of blessed memory, would have been pleased with the results.) His extensive knowledge of the classical world, its high, and especially its middling and lower cultural products, enabled a kind of historiographical writing that had not been seen in the scholarship of Judaism before his time. A classicist has written that Lieberman recovered from the rabbinic texts more than a thousand Greek and Latin words that had been previously unknown. In a sense, Lieberman was not unique; his method was drawn directly from the Vilna Gaon, who clearly thought no “secular” science unworthy if it helped to understand the Torah. Lieberman stood in that tradition.

Although I hadn’t understood why one should read Lucian at the time, 25 years later, when I was trying to understand the reasons that the Bavli incorporates wild and even discreditable legends about its great heroes, the words of my teacher rang in my head, and it was to Lucian, the great Syro-Greek satirical writer, I went. I learned that he had developed a form of satire that both queried the search for philosophical truth and asserted it at once. Indeed, to me, this seemed to be “the key,” the key to a more profound understanding of the Bavli as a text that both criticizes the rabbinic claim to be the holders of the Torah’s truth, while also asserting that very claim at the same time.

It would be fair to say that the teacher’s work in “The Martyrs of Caesarea” and much of the work that followed led also (not, of course, as the sole cause or inspiration) to the revolution in the current evaluation of the interactions between nascent Christianity and the rabbis in late antiquity as well, for reasons that I hope will become clear in the next few paragraphs. I will finish this memorial with a brief account of what I take to be one of the most significant scholarly encounters for Jewish learning in our time.

Eusebius, the bishop of fourth-century Caesarea, describes the trial of the Christians in a certain Palestinian town which Lieberman identifies as Lydda, near present-day Tel Aviv: “[The Jews] watched that amazing contest and surrounded the court of justice on all sides … they were the more agitated and rent in their hearts when they heard the heralds of the governor crying out and calling the Egyptians by Hebrew names.” As Lieberman writes, “Their feelings can be very easily understood. The Gentiles refused to sacrifice to the idols and suffered terrible tortures because of their refusal.” As he goes on to show, there were halachic views that considered gentiles obligated to be martyred rather than sacrifice to idols, just as Jews are, while others let gentiles off the hook, so to speak, but nevertheless, “pious Gentiles who suffered martyrdom for their refusal to offer sacrifices to idols were deemed deserving of one of the noblest ranks in the future world.”

At that point, in a move the likes of which has earned Lieberman his enduring name as the greatest Talmudic scholar of the 20th century, he proved that the correct reading of a fourth-century Palestinian midrash is:

Rabbi Aha longed to see the face of Rabbi Alexandri. He appeared to him in his dream and showed him three things: There is no compartment [in heaven] beyond that of the martyrs of Lydda; blessed be he who removed the shame of Lulianus and happy is he who came to the next world equipped with Torah.

According to Lieberman’s brilliant interpretation, the “martyrs of Lydda” here refers to the same Christian martyrs discussed by Eusebius and the same incident in which the Jews wept to see their gentile allies being tortured and killed to sanctify heaven. Moreover, Lieberman says that the shame of Lulianus here needs to be slightly rephrased as the shame of Julianus, referring to the fact that the Jews had shamefully supported Julian the Apostate, he who sought to restore paganism and destroy Christianity, simply because he had also supported the rebuilding of the Temple. The shame was for the way that the Jews had mixed up enemies for friends and potential allies for enemies, and the text suggests strongly, therefore, that it was the Jewish compassion for the martyrs of Lydda, as reported (almost against his will) by Eusebius that removed the shame of having supported Julian the Apostate. The Christian martyrs of both Lydda and Caesarea were not seen by all rabbis as competitors for the name of true worshippers of God but, by some, at least, as fellow “fearers of heaven” against the violent, oppressive common Roman enemy.

There is a story beyond this wonderful insight, one that has never been told I think, that can be teased out from between the lines of title pages. “The Martyrs of Caesarea” has what appears to be at first glance a strange title page. It was published in the Annuaire de l’institut de philologie et d’histoire orientales et slaves VII (1939-44). For 20 years or so, working with a separate print of the article, I felt that this reference was strange. What kind of dates are 1939-1944 for a journal? How did Lieberman come to be publishing altogether in a European journal right after the defeat of the Nazis? How did he come to know the Belgian Jesuit scholar Henri Grégoire, who is both the editor of the journal and the dedicatee of Lieberman’s article?

Then, on a sabbatical, I was far from my books, and instead of consulting my offprint, I took the volume itself out from the library of the Hebrew University and all became clear. The Belgian annual for 1939-1944 was published in New York, on Riverside Drive in fact. The editor, Henri Grégoire (not to be confused with the French Roman Catholic priest Henri Grégoire, often referred to as Abbé Grégoire), as I made it my business to find out, had fled Belgium at the time of the Nazi occupation in order to escape any complicity with those persecutors and murderers and lived on Riverside Drive throughout the war. Lieberman, a refugee from oppression in Europe, also lived on Riverside Drive and the two scholars had clearly become fast friends.

The series of essays that I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to Tablet on Talmud study in our time, introducing much of the work of younger scholars, follows in one way or another on the work of the Gra”sh zt”l, his work on sexuality and daily life, and the deep implications of the cultural and linguistic contexts within which classical rabbinic literature was formed. I hope this short tribute to the zayde of our field will be a fit introduction to the series.

Daniel Boyarin is the Caroline Zelaznik Gruss and Joseph S. Gruss Visiting Professor in Talmudic Civil Law at Harvard Law School.

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