The Talmud Goes to College

Ancient Jewish law and legend embraced by the academy.

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The logic of academic study is such that a university is not merely a channel through which a given body of learning is presented to the students. In applying the methods of scientific analysis to a given topic, the scholar is making a new contribution to the scholarship. In our case as well, the university Judaica scholar is not merely reporting the results of the study in the traditional yeshiva, but providing a creative new understanding of the Talmud.

Variety of Texts

The academic approach to Talmud study has made a number of such contributions. The first of these is in defining the scope of talmudic literature.

The traditional yeshivot have generally limited themselves to the study of the Babylonian Talmud, which has for various reasons been accepted as authoritative. The universities have paid equal attention to the vast variety of literature produced by the same rabbis: including a huge library of legal and homiletical biblical exegesis, law-codes and more; as well as such areas as the Talmud Yerushalmi, produced in the Land of Israel and considered by many to be superior in its intellectual vision to its Babylonian "sister."

The Yerushalmi, as is the case with many other neglected works, had to be virtually rediscovered by means of a painstaking examination of manuscripts scattered through the libraries of the world.

Another contribution has been in the area of text criticism.

Most of the commonly used editions of talmudic texts emanate from a series of early 16th-century Italian printings. Many, like the Babylonian Talmud itself, were published by the Christian Daniel Bomberg.

Much scholarly energy has been devoted to tracing alternate textual traditions from manuscripts (the medieval burnings of Hebrew books has resulted in a relatively small number of surviving manuscripts) and citations in medieval writings. The discovery of the thousand of venerable oriental fragments preserved in the Cairo Genizah (now scattered through many libraries, mostly in Cambridge, England) has revolutionized our perceptions of the nature of the Talmudic text.

University and Yeshiva

The academic approach has also brought the application of other disciplines to Talmud study.

The Talmud has benefited from specialized knowledge of such peripheral fields as ancient languages and cultures (the hundreds of Greek, Latin and Persian words in the talmudic vocabulary are reflections of complex cultural contacts), the study of ancient history and science, etc.

A particularly promising field is the study of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, especially our appreciation of rabbinic Hebrew as a distinct dialect (and not a "corruption" of Biblical Hebrew). Much has been learned from the living traditions assembled with the ingathering of various Jewish communities, notably the Yemenites, to Israel.

Similarly, the application of methods of general literary criticism to Talmudic texts has proven most fruitful. Someone who does not appreciate the standard literary conventions of the rabbinic homily has about as much hope of appreciating a midrash as does a reader of English poetry who has never been told of the sonnet form. Such studies, generally neglected in the yeshiva curriculum, have been carried out with great success in the university setting.

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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.