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Whose Talmud Is Better?

The differences between study in a yeshiva or university are smaller than the common universe of discourse they share

Daniel Boyarin
January 12, 2022
Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Once, at a Shabbos retreat of Talmud students, one of them asked professor Saul Lieberman נ"ע what the difference was between the study of Talmud in the yeshivos and the study of Talmud in the departments of Talmud of the universities or Jewish seminaries. His answer came quickly: None! This answer is, in my humble opinion, very profound and requires thought and interpretation. עיון ודרוש, for surely at first glance and maybe second or even third, there is, indeed, much difference between the study of Talmud in the yeshivos and that of the universities, including Bar Ilan, where the question had been asked and answered so definitively. The answer lies in the specific mode of Talmudic scholarship that was the province of both professors Lieberman and Chaim Zalman Dimitrovsky, whom I’ve introduced to readers in previous columns as my teachers, may the memory of these righteous be a blessing.

So: “None.”

Let me start with the obvious differences: In the Talmud study in the universities, there is much more emphasis placed on comparative study of the different parallel sources within all of rabbinic literature (the term “rabbinic literature” refers to the classic works of late antiquity, the midrashim, and Palestinian Talmud from the Land of Israel and the Bavli from—you guessed it—Babylonia). I do not claim, of course, that such comparative study is not carried out in higher learning in yeshivos, but in the universities, it is the bread and butter of learning, almost the first thing a scholar or advanced student does. Of course, both traditions of contemporary learning essentially go back to the same medieval modes of interpretation and ideally share the same goal: to understand the words and thoughts of the sages! It is this sharing of the same goal that makes it so that there is “no difference,” but even if the ways of achieving that goal certainly overlap, but the different emphases lead to different sorts of insights.

Even within the ranks of the universities and the Jewish seminaries, moreover, there are significant differences. In the school of Lieberman and Dimitrovsky, aiming for the best interpretation of the sugya on the page was indeed the goal. Some of the other teachers I have known followed a very different path, one that sought more to understand the sources and less the sugya, namely the use the Talmud had made of them. The point of the learning in Lieberman’s House of Study was, indeed, to understand the Talmud, the final text, with the greatest depth and accuracy, not to reconstruct some prior text, from which the Bavli had allegedly devolved. The purpose of the comparative work was to see how much we can discover about the Bavli’s thought by seeing how it used sources (especially tannaitic ones), how it worked them into the sugya, and what the point was that the Talmud—that is, the anonymous final authors of the Talmud, the Stam—was trying to make by their use of the earlier sources and placement of them into new contexts.

Everyone who studies Talmud seriously knows this, since otherwise there could hardly have been discussions between Rabbi Yohanan in Eretz Yisrael and Shmuel in Bavel or Shmuel in the third century and Rava in the fourth! Another way to say this would be to emphasize that the approach and the goal are to see the choices made by the Stam and to seek always to understand that authoritative voice, not to cull alleged missteps made by them and “fix” the Torah, as if there were a Torah somewhere lurking behind the one we have in the Talmud.

There is another sense in which Lieberman’s “no difference” can be understood. In his and professor Dimitrovsky’s tutelage (not only them, of course), all rishonim (commentators before the Talmud was printed) and many aharonim (commentators on the printed Talmud) were all incorporated into the investigation of the sugya and its ultimate scholarly interpretation, just as these resources would have been incorporated into a habbura or a shiur kelali (advanced lesson prepared by one of the senior students or lesson given by the head of the yeshiva for all of the students) in a yeshiva. The greatest difference might have been in the choice of aharonim, although even there the gap was not so wide. Professor Lieberman, for instance, concentrated particularly on the Natziv and Noam Yerushalmi, among others, while professor Dimitrovsky paid much attention to such writers as the Pney Yehoshua and the Maharam Schiff. Inter alia, this study of aharonim provides a common language, a common universe of discourse between such senior students and advanced university scholars in Talmud.

We are speaking the same language and aiming at the same goal: full understanding of the voice of the Stam, Ba’al haGemara. The difference, perhaps, is only this: In the yeshiva one assumes a synchronic situation in which nothing has ever—or not much—changed over the centuries of rabbinic learning activity, while in the university we look for the points of change to learn what the unfolding of Talmudic ideas teaches us. In more general terms, I would characterize the version of Talmudic literary criticism employed by the school of my great teachers and their disciples as “redaction criticism,” as opposed to the “source criticism” employed by some other schools of research. My teacher professor Dimitrovsky ז"ל said more than once that the methods we apply were already used by the Tosfos back in the 13th century; the difference is that they used them to solve problems, and we to approach an understanding of each and every sugya. This is, then, a model of Talmudic research of which it could be said that it is indeed the “same thing” (or near enough so) as high-level Talmudic study in the great yeshivos.

Recently, younger scholars have been developing lines of thought about the Talmud that are, perhaps, moving beyond the philological and literary approaches that have been current until now. There are various examples that could be discussed here, but I’d like to introduce for the nonce one particular scholar who has been developing a different theoretical stance and discuss just one of the things I’ve learned from him.

In the group of up-and-coming scholars, James Redfield, for example, is critical of the idea of a final redaction, or even of the sugya as a literary unit to be studied as such, arguing that, “In many cases [of the older scholarship], we are left to imagine [i.e., it’s not worked out in the text of the scholars] how the ‘final’ text, even after it was shaped from earlier sources, continued to circulate under the tectonic pressure of other texts in the canon: both earlier and later, of both Palestinian and Babylonian origin, both in the Bavli and in other midrashic corpora. Attention to the literary unit or sugya—the usual frame of inquiry in all three methods [poetics, source criticism, redaction criticism], but one with under-specified literary and conceptual borders—thus tends to yield a new hermeneutic closure. The text is no longer isolated from contexts or intertexts, but it remains the text: the vehicle of one intentional message, at least at the privileged stage that it comes together as a redacted whole” (Redfield 120). Indeed that is the case, except of course that redaction critics understand that no text is the vehicle of one intentional message, and indeed that every reading produces others. There is a text in our class. Just as in the interpretation of lyric poetry, we’ve learned that separating the text from its context, its site in living, and its interaction with other texts was a serious mistake so much for the Talmud as well.

The fact of looking for meaning in the sugya does not preclude recognition of the possibilities of ambiguity and multiple meaning in that very sugya as well (see the extended controversies on how to read Wordsworth’s “Yew Trees”). Redfield’s extended discussion of apocalyptic narratives in Baba Bathra (74) is utterly fascinating, reconstructing, as he does—quite successfully if not ineluctably—extended and multiple processes of redactional activity.

A version of the Talmud made by its generations of readers owes much to the work of Zvi Septimus cited and discussed by Redfield as well. What Septimus proposes is a Bavli, read and reread, glossed and changed by its rereaders, such that echoes of one text in another abound and can be specifically identified by what Septimus calls “trigger words” and Redfield “key words.” That is to say, words that indicate that two different passages within the Talmud, widely separated one from the other should be read together. This move parallels the move from the poem as verbal icon to the poem as nexus of intertextual co-referentiality in literary criticism.

While I fail to understand the necessity to abandon the sugya as a literary unit, any more than we abandon the lyric poem as a literary unit, the approach of Redfield and Septimus enables us to ask certain old questions in a new fashion.

I’m going to finish this essay with a discussion of two sugyos that seem, at first glance (and many such further glances) to be parallels, two versions of the same thing, but turn out on further investigation to be saying two very different things—but, are they?

Rav Asi asked Rabbi Yohanan, “If two have said the same law from two verses, what is the law?” He said, “They are not counted as more than one.” From where is this principle? Abayye said, “For the verse says, One spoke God, these two have I heard. ‘One verse gives rise to several laws [meanings], but one law does not come out of several verses.’ He of the house of R. Ishmael teaches it, ‘Like a hammer which shatters a rock, just as the hammer is divided into several sparks, so a single verse gives rise to several laws’” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a).

The Talmudic text begins by articulating a rather surprising principle in rabbinic legal hermeneutics: On the one hand, it is excluded that the Torah ever repeats the same law in two places; on the other, any given verse can have multiple meanings. Here, indeed, we find articulated and theorized for the first time the theological principle that will motivate so much of rabbinic thinking thereafter, that the divine language produces manifold and different meanings. Now we go back and read the midrashic practice, not merely as one of editorial tact but as a textual representation of this special theology of the divine word. This principle that any verse can have multiple meanings demonstrates how thoroughly different this rabbinic conception of language is from that which for “us” is so commonplace that we can hardly think our way out of it long enough to understand another culture. Another version of almost the same text teaches us something quite different. In Shabbat 88b we read:

Rabbi Yohanan said: What is written, “H’ gives a word; great is the company of those who announce it [Psalm 68:12]”? Each and every word that came out of the mouth of the Power was divided into seventy languages. The one of the House of Rabbi Ishmael teaches: “And like a hammer smashes a rock,” just as this hammer gives rise to many sparks, so each and every word that went out from the mouth of the Holy Blessed One was divided into seventy languages.

As Azzan Yadin has recently pointed out, the Shabbat text, seemingly an almost exact parallel to the Sanhedrin passage, has, in fact, nothing whatever to do with multiple meanings. Yadin compellingly argues, by citing well-known (but previously misunderstood) and recently discovered texts, that the “seventy languages” of the Shabbat text has to be interpreted as 70 different human tongues, and not 70 different meanings, as one would perhaps predict from the Sanhedrin text. This point is of some importance, for as Yadin has demonstrated, within the tannaitic corpora, Rabbi Ishmael and his school stand for anything but midrashic indeterminacy. Not for the school of Rabbi Ishmael does one text give rise to many and contradictory meanings. For Rabbi Ishmael, indeed, the meaning is fixed and can, therefore, be completely expressed in any of the languages of the world’s humans [“The Torah speaks in the language of humans,” says Rabbi Ishmael]. Moreover, the idea of the Torah being given in many languages is to be found in other tannaitic texts, as well, such as Mishna Sota 7:5, where it is a gloss on “fully explicated” (Deut. 27:8).

Comparing our Bavli version of the passage with its Palestinian Talmudic parallel will prove suggestive for this point. In that Talmud we can read:

“Remember” and “Keep” were said in one utterance, something which is impossible for the mouth to say and for the ears to hear. ... And so also it says “One spoke God” in speech, “these two I have heard,” and it is written, “And as a hammer smashes a rock.” (PT Nedarim 3:2, 37d)

In this text, the midrash “as a hammer shatters a rock,” at first seemingly the same as in the Babylonian Talmud, performs an entirely different function. It explains away obvious contradictions within the biblical text. In one version of the Ten Commandments, the Jews are enjoined to “remember the Sabbath Day” (Exod. 20:7), while in the other, they are enjoined to “keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:11). But the two versions of the Ten Commandments refer, of course, to only one speech event on the part of God. The Palestinian Talmud and its midrashic parallels cite in this context several laws whose versions in Deuteronomy and in the earlier parts of the Pentateuch seem to be contradictory, and in every case they conclude that God made only one statement, which was heard as two, that is, that God said the two things at the same time, and it is up to humans to reconcile the apparent contradiction. The hammer striking the rock here thus refers to the mysterious nature of the divine speech: It can make two statements at the same moment, which are then heard as if they were two statements but need to be reconciled hermeneutically, as the midrash does here, articulating a way in which the Sabbath is both remembered and kept. In the Sanhedrin form of the saying, the image of God’s word as a hammer striking sparks off an anvil made of rock is made to be a striking representation of the inherent multiplicity of meaning in the language of the Torah.

In a much earlier version of this discussion, I cheerfully reached a kind of hermeneutic closure and concluded that this striking representation was what that sugya “meant” and this indicated that it was late and Babylonian—even post Amoraic—in provenance, while the version in Shabbat was earlier and more connected to Palestinian ideas. What I suppressed then (not literally—I mentioned and dismissed its importance) was the fact that different manuscripts in each of those tractates actually had the reading that I was ascribing to the other tractate’s version. Perhaps, now a much more shimmering, iridescent possibility shines before us. Instead of a comfortable linear historical portrayal of the development of an idea from one “earlier” sugya to a later one with each having a fixed intentional meaning, we can perceive the text itself enacting its meaning of multiple meanings by the two versions echoing each other, modifying each other both through their making and through their centuries of rereading. One spoke the Talmud: Two I have heard!

According to the Talmud itself, the aim of Torah study is to magnify the Torah and glorify her. I believe that all the methods of study from pilpul to archaeology and all between, if they are marshaled to magnify and glorify, fulfill that purpose (or even that mitzvah). In future iterations of this series, I hope to introduce some more of these methods, mersesem (G-d willing).

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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