Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories

Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories

Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories

Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories


In Narrating the Law Barry Scott Wimpfheimer creates a new theoretical framework for considering the relationship between law and narrative and models a new method for studying talmudic law in particular.

Works of law, including the Talmud, are animated by a desire to create clear usable precedent. This animating impulse toward clarity is generally absent in narratives, the form of which is better able to capture the subtleties of lived life. Wimpfheimer proposes to make these different forms compatible by constructing a narrative-based law that considers law as one of several "languages," along with politics, ethics, psychology, and others that together compose culture. A narrative-based law is capable of recognizing the limitations of theoretical statutes and the degree to which other cultural languages interact with legal discourse, complicating any attempts to actualize a hypothetical set of rules. This way of considering law strongly resists the divide in traditional Jewish learning between legal literature (Halakhah) and nonlegal literature (Aggadah) by suggesting the possibility of a discourse broad enough to capture both. Narrating the Law activates this mode of reading by looking at the Talmud's legal stories, a set of texts that sits uncomfortably on the divide between Halakhah and Aggadah. After noticing that such stories invite an expansive definition of law that includes other cultural voices, Narrating the Law also mines the stories for the rich descriptions of rabbinic culture that they encapsulate.


Contemporary books are familiar. A patron selecting a recently published volume in a bookstore instantly knows its kind. Bright cover colors and cheap construction indicate a beach or plane read. Footnotes and endnotes announce scholarly work. My three-year-old son identifies his books by their glossy dust jackets and large illustrations. The familiarity of contemporary books derives from one’s experience of similar ones. Today’s books classify themselves. Classification is helpful for library cataloging or gift purchasing alike; it is also important in directing readers toward particular ways of reading. One does not expect scholarly conclusions from a children’s picture book or entertainment from a dry academic tome. One knows to compare a John Grisham book to its oeuvre and not to a Toni Morrison novel. The familiarity of contemporary books often masks the importance of a reader’s assumptions in approaching a work of literature.

The Babylonian Talmud (henceforth Talmud), by contrast, is quite unfamiliar. From its composition in two ancient languages—Hebrew and Aramaic—to the way it floats from topic to topic without much justification to its equal interest in theology, ethics, magic, law, medicine, history, and biblical interpretation, the Talmud is an unusual text. Though it is a religious text, it rarely feels particularly spiritual. Often described as a commentary, the Talmud is unlike other commentaries in its easy distraction from the commentarial task. Were there not two of them—the Palestinian (or Jerusalem [Yerushalmi]) and Babylonian (Bavli)—one could say that the Talmud is sui generis. The existence of two Talmuds marks neither as familiar.

One might have expected that the Talmud—as an unusual text—would languish unread on a musty library bookshelf or have a small group of devotees. But the Talmud has been one of the best read works of all world literature. Since coming into being, the Talmud has been the proving ground of the rabbinic elite, who rigorously analyze its every word with monastic devotion. The magnetic pull of this text has remained strong enough that all contemporary denominations of Judaism expend significant resources learning and teaching it.

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