The Talmud Goes to College

Ancient Jewish law and legend embraced by the academy.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from the Jewish Star.

People who feel little discomfort at the idea of the Bible being studied in secular universities nevertheless display a certain surprise and uneasiness at the notion of extending this academic recognition to the Talmud.

The Bible is after all a recognized pillar of all of Western Civilization, while the Talmud has always been the exclusive and esoteric possession of the Jews. Its notorious hairsplitting dialectic and frequently trivial-sounding subject matter also tend to produce some embarrassment and a certain disbelief that anyone on the outside could find the Talmud of interest.

talmud at universityYet the Christian world has long expressed an interest in the study of rabbinic literature, initially limited to those aspects which would help illuminate their own scriptures (and indeed, the Jewish context of Jesus' biography is so strong that a Jew reading the Christian Bible is likely to doubt the possibility of a non-Jew's ability to understand much of his own scriptures).

When Jews began to apply critical methodology to the study of the Talmud it was also with various ulterior motives.

Thus, the ideologists of the German Reform Movement in the 19th century sought talmudic precedents for their claims regarding the flexibility and universalism of Judaism. No less a figure than Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Lithuanian Musar [moralistic] movement, believed that the introduction of talmudic study into the curriculum of the German universities would be of value not only to Jews (as a defense against the misrepresentations of the Talmud), but also to the Gentiles, who would benefit from familiarity with rabbinic logic and reasoning.

The situation has progressed considerably until today, when there is a general realization that the study of Judaism is not only as legitimate as that of any other culture or civilization, but also that it holds a special place of interest because of its centrality to Western culture.

At the University

Rabbinic thought and literature are naturally recognized to be preeminent expressions of Judaism. Gone are the days when Judaism was only regarded as a prelude to Christianity. This recognition depends of course on the resources and scope of the particular program. Talmud may be squeezed into a half-hour lecture in a survey course on "World Religions" or it may merit its own department, as is the case in the major Rabbinical seminaries (which function on the whole as full-fledged university-level academic institutions) or the larger Israeli universities.

At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, in addition to a Department of Talmud, which specializes in close textual and philological examination of rabbinic literature, Talmud can be studied from different perspectives in such departments as Hebrew Language or Literature, Jewish History, Law, Jewish Thought and more. In North American universities, the context for Talmud study could range from a "Religious Studies" or "Near Eastern Studies" department to a specialized department or program in Jewish Studies.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.