The Talmud Goes to College

Ancient Jewish law and legend embraced by the academy.

Print this page Print this page

An additional contribution of the academic approach is in "source criticism." This basically refers to a methodological distinction between the final product and the sources which were put together to make it up.

Understandably, the traditionalist tends to be somewhat uncomfortable with the widespread academic assumption that in the process of editing the various traditions the redactors of talmudic works frequently (whether intentionally or because of misunderstanding) altered their original meanings. Nonetheless, the critical talmudic scholars have shown that traditional commentators often employed such an approach, and have thereby come to a clearer understanding of the original significance of many statements by the ancient rabbis. The fact that the Talmud is manifestly a composite and human creation has made this approach somewhat more acceptable to the religious community than it would have been if applied to the Bible.

One of the most interesting phenomena associated with the critical study of the Talmud has been the degree to which it has been accepted by the traditionalists. Not only are the manuscript-based editions of talmudic texts to be found on the shelves of many yeshivot (often with the Introductions and title-pages removed, to mask their "heretical" origins), but bodies of unquestionable Orthodoxy have been in the forefront of such projects as a text-critical edition of the Babylonian Talmud (at the Rabbi Herzog Institute in Jerusalem), the publication of academic studies of the Talmud (at Jerusalem's Rav Kook Institute, or New York's Yeshiva University, for example) and more.

Though we are unlikely to see yeshivot establishing compulsory classes in Greek or Pahlavi, their students are certainly likely to make use of dictionaries that demonstrate such expertise. The fact is that most of the important academic scholars of the Talmud have had traditional religious training.

The shiddukh [match] between the university and the yeshiva is thus a complex one, but one that promises to prove valuable for both sides.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.