Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In a new Scroll series, Wolpe will examine a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
Asking who wrote the Bible is a popular question, charged and consequential. Fewer people, however, have preoccupied themselves with an equally perplexing and fascinating question: who wrote the Talmud?
The Talmud consists of the Mishnah and Gemara. The conventional answer is that the Gemara was written by the Amoraim, the rabbis who followed the rabbis of the Mishnah (known as the Tannaim). After the Mishneh was completed in 200 CE, the characteristic give-and-take of the Gemara was the product of these Amoraim, who took snippets of Mishneh and came to conclusions about life and law, told stories, and speculated about the world. The Amoraim concluded their mammoth dialogues at the beginning of the sixth century CE. Ravina and Rav Ashi were the editors of the text, subject to some minor, later emendations.
One of the most exhilarating intellectual experiences of my life was to study with a man who questioned this chronology. While in rabbinical school I heard about David Weiss Halivni’s evening Talmud seminar at Columbia for his PhD students. I asked if I could join, and he responded with a kindly smile: “Yes, if you can keep up.”
Keeping up was no easy feat. The class had some students who would go on to become renowned scholars themselves. Among them was Jeffrey Rubenstein, who has given us a lucid, helpful and altogether gripping translation and condensation of Halivni’s multi-volume Hebrew work, The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud. Rubenstein’s introduction alone makes clear how his teacher changed the face of Talmud study.
Halivni, a child prodigy who survived the concentration camps, noticed early on that the discontinuities in Talmudic argument suggested that the Amoraim were not in fact answering their own questions. Halivni’s method is what the Germans call “finger feel”—he does not have a systematic methodology, but is rather a sort of analytic artist. With his comprehensive knowledge of the text and his sensitivity to it, Halivni realized that the answers given sometimes seemed to predate the questions, which were crafted to fit the fragment of response. In other words, someone was making the dialectic of the Talmud look like the work of the Amoraim, when it wasn’t.
Halivni concluded that what we think of as the Gemara’s unique style was the product of the Stammaim, anonymous rabbis who followed the Amoraim. They were not identified because of the assumption that Ravina and Rav Ashi (that is, the last of the Amoraim) marked the end of Talmudic composition. Yet Halivni has arrived at the view that from the middle of the sixth century to the middle of the eighth the Stammaim in fact created the massive work studied by Jews all over the world. (With slight supplementary changes by yet another, later group, the Saboraim.)
For the average reader, the excitement will be less in the theory itself than in following Halivni’s analysis, preternaturally alive to discontinuities and contradictions. The Stammaim inherited from the Amoraim apodictic statements, that is, declarative, unexplained laws and pronouncements. The Stammaim made the Gemara casuistic, filling it with reasons, speculations and wild surmises. Tracing differences in language, reasoning and assumptions, Halivni draws a portrait of the Stammaim, that argues they, although unnamed, may have the greatest collective influence in our tradition.
Editor Jeffrey Rubenstein is a master explainer, and as with his own important and crystalline books on the Talmud, ensures Halivni’s thought is clear and well footnoted. This is not a breezy read. It is better, a challenging one. Want to explore how our most important work after the Bible was created? Do what Jews are supposed to do: join the argument.
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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe