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How Shamma Friedman, Winner of This Year’s Israel Prize, Revolutionized Talmud Study

Meet the American-born JTS professor who modernized an ancient pursuit

Shai Secunda
January 21, 2014
Professor Shamma Friedman (Jewish Theological Seminary/Center for Online Jewish Studies; photo-illustration by Tablet)
Professor Shamma Friedman (Jewish Theological Seminary/Center for Online Jewish Studies; photo-illustration by Tablet)

This past Sunday, sitting amidst the curated clutter of his peaceful study near Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, the accomplished Talmud scholar Shamma Friedman wrapped up a typical afternoon of work. Suddenly, the phone rang. Friedman picked up the receiver to hear a secretary announce that the Israeli Education Minister, Shai Piron, would be on the line shortly. Then, the pensive silence of hopeful expectation. After the conversation was through, the professor eased himself into his chair and disbelievingly gazed out the window at the fading January light. Within minutes, the internet lit up with the news that Friedman would be awarded the seventh Israel Prize in Talmud at a special Independence Day ceremony. He phoned his wife Rachel, closed the door to his study, and made the short trip home to celebrate the good tidings.

Shamma Friedman, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Schechter Institute, is the most important Talmudist of his generation. That may sound like a desperately arcane perch, but marginality is of course a relative concept. Friedman’s accomplishments would appear inconsequential only to those not privy to the longest and most absorbing conversation the Jewish people have ever held—the study of the Talmud.

The Talmud itself might paradoxically be described as a marginal bedrock. It is the foundational work of normative Judaism, yet it often seems hopelessly consumed by language games and conceptual digressions. Ostensibly, the Talmud is structured as a commentary on an early third-century rabbinic legal compilation known as the Mishna; in practice, it ranges far beyond that. Everything that comes into view is ripe for analysis, and anything is fair game for extensive discussion—from weighty questions of theology to locker-room banter between obese rabbis.

Within the confines of that narrow vastness, Friedman made multiple breakthroughs—and still remains an impressively productive scholar. He wrote extensively on Rabbinic Hebrew, published studies on talmudic manuscripts, explored the composition of talmudic narratives, examined the relationship between the Mishna and related works, and produced important scholarship on towering medieval Talmudists like Maimonides. But arguably, Friedman’s greatest legacy has been to untangle the Talmud’s complicated textual web, and show how it was actually put together.

Most of the rabbis named in the Talmud lived in Mesopotamia during a time in history now known as late antiquity. Their primary activity was to learn and discuss the Mishna and other rabbinic texts which, incredibly, were at that time not yet written down. For a thousand years, early Talmud commentators and modern scholars alike had assumed that the Talmud was essentially a transcript of those original rabbinic discussions. Yet, over the course of the twentieth century, scholars began to question this view. In the 1970s, two Talmudists—David Weiss-Halivni (the recipient of the last Israel Prize) and Friedman—published groundbreaking research that focused on the question of the Talmud’s composition. By independently demonstrating that unnamed editors who lived significantly after the Talmud’s rabbis played a central role in the corpus’ creation, these Talmudists drastically changed the way scholars understood the composition of the talmudic text, and more importantly, the way it is to be studied.

Comparing Halivni and Friedman is for Talmud aficionados something like the tired Batman-Superman debate. Still, it is worth noting that while both scholars studied in the same institution with the same master and arrived at similar theses, they came from diverse backgrounds and perhaps as a result ended up producing different kinds of scholarship. Halivni was already a talmudic wunderkind in pre-war Romania. After surviving the Holocaust, he moved to New York and continued his studies with the great Talmudist, Saul Lieberman, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Employing a traditional rabbinic idiom that uses an intuitive “finger feel” approach, his life’s work has been to produce a multi-volume critical commentary that magnifies the gaps between the statements of named talmudic rabbis and the (mis)understandings of the Talmud’s later anonymous editors. Halivni’s evolution from yeshiva bochur into an accomplished Columbia University Talmud critic who still thinks in Yiddish follows a romantic path familiar since the Jewish ‘Enlightenment’ and popularized by Chaim Potok.

Friedman grew up in a house devoid of Hebrew books in decidedly “un-talmudic” Pennsylvania. Only while preparing for his Bar Mitzvah did he discover Jewish learning thanks to a group of Jewish studies scholars who attended his Conservative synagogue and taught at his summer camp. Friedman ultimately made his way to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he too sat at the feet of Lieberman. In the seventies, he immigrated to Israel and was instrumental in developing the Seminary’s Jerusalem-based Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies—where he received the phone call from the Education Ministry. It is possible that Friedman’s initial “outsider” status afforded him a unique and unencumbered relationship with rabbinic literature. Although he lacked the benefits of a traditional yeshiva education, he gained the advantage of avoiding the protracted and sometimes painful process of shedding its orthodoxies.

Working at Schechter and Bar Ilan University, Friedman spent years honing a precise method for teasing out the different layers of the Talmud and bringing scientific accuracy to its interpretation. He patiently spoke of seven steps necessary for conducting responsible scholarship, including literary analysis, source criticism, consulting manuscripts and availing oneself to all relevant traditional and critical talmudic scholarship. This methodological process became the dominant method used by Talmudists today.

In the seventies and eighties, there were serious challenges involved in practicing this method—particularly regarding access to medieval manuscripts and finding the relevant critical Talmud scholarship. Intuiting the great potential of a dawning information age, Friedman founded a research center with the goal of digitizing all extant talmudic manuscripts and creating a computer index of modern talmudic scholarship. While similar projects were underway elsewhere, these were often highly secretive collaborations. Friedman was driven by a profound—one might say American—belief in the value of knowledge democratized. Two decades later, one can gain access to all these incredible resources with a few key strokes.

Despite his impressive academic accomplishments, Friedman’s ultimate goal was expressly not limited to the ivory tower. He correctly sensed that two communities in Israel would soon be ready to engage with critical Talmud scholarship. Secular Israeli society was moving away from its monolithic focus on the Bible and expressing curiosity about other texts in the Jewish canon, including the Talmud. Some of these students ended up at the Schechter Institute and at other educational settings where they could learn from Friedman and his students. At the same time, a growing number of traditional yeshiva students gravitated to critical Talmud study, and Friedman traveled to any Orthodox yeshiva that would let him in.

In 1993, Friedman founded another society with the goal of producing a scholarly, yet accessible Modern Hebrew commentary on the entire Talmud. Through the society, Friedman and his intellectual progeny have published commentaries on a number of chapters of the Talmud. Some two decades after its inception, it is still a young project. But as more and more pages of the Talmud are illuminated by Friedman’s method, there is no doubt that the ancient yet still unfolding conversation that is Talmud study has turned a new corner.

Shai Secunda is a Martin Buber fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog. His first book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context, has just been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shai Secunda is a Martin Buber fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog. His first book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context, has just been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.