A Cathedral of Knowledge

By Goodheart, Eugene | Moment, November-December 2014 | Go to article overview

A Cathedral of Knowledge


Goodheart, Eugene, Moment


Full disclosure: I am not a biblical or Talmudic scholar. As a professor of literature, I have taught selections from the Bible in humanities courses. I think of myself as a secular humanist and an agnostic interested in understanding the role of religion in the lives of millions of people. I deplore the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and his ilk, and their view of religion as an abomination.

Freedman's book is addressed to believers and non-believers alike. Indeed, close to the end of his short book on this immense subject (millions of words in 37 volumes), he informs us that "the Talmud is no longer the exclusive property of the religious ... It helps, of course, to be familiar with the Bible and religious concepts, but the Talmud is fundamentally an exercise in interpretation and logic. It assumes, but does not demand belief."

Perhaps the most astonishing confirmation of this claim is the fact delivered on the next-to-last page of the book The Talmud has been adopted as a primary school text in, of all places, South Korea.

I'll begin with a serious reservation about Freedman's "biography," really a potted history of the role of the Talmud in history. The book is not about what is in the Talmud, but rather about what happened to the Talmud. Freedman provides an abundance of welcome historical information and anecdotes about the actors in Talmudic history, but he can also frustrate the reader by failing to develop a theme, abruptly moving on to the next topic. He tells us that "Mai-monides's Commentary on the Mishnah is probably best blown for his formulation of what have become known as the Thirteen Principles of Faith: the nearest thing that classical Judaism has to an 'official' dogma, and the subject of considerable controversy and scholarly discussion." We are then told that Maimonides sojourned in Fez. Not a word about a single Principle of Faith or of the ensuing controversy. This is consistent with his unfortunate decision to avoid telling us what is in the Talmud. The failure to do so turns Maimonides's achievement into a blank; Rashi, the other great dominating figure in the story of the Talmud, suffers the same fate.

What, then, is the Talmud? Based on the sacred texts of the Jewish people, in particular the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, it is an immense work that has evolved over time, to codify the laws, customs and rituals of a people. How did it come about? Freedman traces its origin to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans--the great traumatic event in the history of ancient Israel. Here is Freedman's succinct summary of the consequences: "It was far more than the destruction of a building. It was more even than the razing of a city and the destruction of its population, horrendous as that was. The Temple was not only the centre of the Israelite religion, it housed the legislature and the judiciary. It was the commercial centre. The destruction of the Temple threatened to herald the end, not just of the religion, but even of the last vestiges of Israelite autonomy. Like so many before them, the Israelite nation was threatened with extinction."

The Bible, in particular the Torah, replaces the iconic temple as the object of worship. There are two Torahs, one oral and the other written, which become the occasion for a struggle between the Pharisees, who embraced both Torahs, and the Sadducees, the priestly elite, for whom the written Torah had exclusive authority. Unfairly notorious in New Testament accounts, the Pharisees, wanting to make the Bible more open to the people, emerged victorious and "set in place a process that would eventually result in the composition of the Talmud and two thousand years of unbroken study."

Unlike the Bible, the Talmud is not a fixed text; it is subject to the vicissitudes of history. Freedman notes "the cross fertilization" of Talmudic and Islamic scholars "in legal matters because they lived together in the same mercantile society . …

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