Never, in the history of British Jewry, has so much Talmud been studied by so many people with such enthusiasm. It is studied in the yeshivot, it is studied in the universities, it is studied on buses and trains. I once got in a lift in a hotel in Warsaw and by the time I reached the first floor, a brief glance revealed that the man standing next to me had his eyes glued on the daf yomi, the daily page (available online, with commentary) for those who read Talmud on a roughly seven-year cycle; a friendly greeting, and I picked up his Mancunian accent.
Is this just a ritual, or do people understand what they’re doing? No one will claim Talmud is an easy read, and I have been astonished by some of the brilliant expositions I have heard at shiurim in the Orthodox synagogues of north west London (no doubt Manchester can match them). I have been equally amazed by some of the extraordinary expositions I have heard at university seminars. The trouble is, it was difficult to recognise that the same book was being read in both places.
In the synagogue (as in the yeshivah) I was introduced to a self-contained world in which the words of the rabbis articulated a holy tradition from Moses at Sinai were free from error, and were entirely consistent; disagreements there were, but “elu va-elu”, both were the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b). The rabbis themselves, in the Land of Israel or in Babylonia, controlled a devout and harmonious Jewish world cocooned, spiritually and intellectually, from the evil and contamination of the surrounding civilisation. All knowledge — at least, all that mattered — was to be found in Torah tradition.
At the university I found a different world, the world of “late Antiquity”, of “Greco-Roman” and Sasanian (Middle Iranian) civilisation, within which rabbis were actively creating an essentially new form of Jewish expression, one of many models of Judaism at that time. Far from being intellectually or socially isolated, they were part and parcel of that civilisation; they spoke the same languages, lived in the same towns, obeyed the same rulers, faced the same economic and political problems and were influenced by the same currents of thought.
I found, for instance, that the 19-year luni-solar calendar endorsed by the rabbis — contrary to the practice of other Jewish groups — was not based, as they seemed to claim, on some special secret astronomical knowledge passed down from Moses, but had been developed by the Sumerians a thousand years before Moses and was calculated in detail by Meton of Athens before the time of Plato.
I found that the halachic terminology of the rabbis included, in addition to the biblical vocabulary, numerous Greek terms and concepts of Greek and Roman law — think of words like apotropos (guardian) and hupotheke (deposit) well-known to talmudists, and even Sanhedrin, a form of the Greek sunedrion. More disturbing, I became aware of numerous errors of scientific and historical fact, ranging from acceptance of what was then the common belief in spontaneous generation to confusion about the length of time the Second Temple stood (180 years are missing in the rabbinic account).
How much does this matter? Rather a lot, it seems to me. If we want to understand what the Talmud says, rather than what subsequent generations would have liked it to say, we must start by asking who the rabbis of the Talmud were, what they were trying to achieve, what sort of world they lived in and how they perceived it. We must see them as human beings.
The Talmud did not descend in perfect form from the sky, but came into being in this world among real people, with all the worries, confusions and imperfections that implies.
Traditional Talmud study can generate great ingenuity in balancing and interpreting halachic statements and weaving them into the complex fabric of later halachic development; it also affords a rich source for homiletics. However, if it remains closed to the findings of history, archaeology and science, it easily degenerates into a self-sealing system cut off from social reality. The Talmud is too important a part of the Jewish heritage to be left to the yeshivot; it must be reclaimed for the people, and this can only be done when we appreciate how it reflects the life of real Jews in the Roman and Iranian empires at one of the most crucial periods in our history.