Talmud: An Explanation

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Though much of the work by Friedman and his students is perforce technical, its significance extends beyond academic confines and has already begun to reshape historical understandings. (Thus, Jeffrey Rubenstein has shown that Friedman and Halivni's efforts yield a more coherent picture of the evolution of the great Babylonian yeshivas.) Friedman's work has also come to be a reference point for numerous other studies of the talmudic text itself, and modified versions of it have been adopted for Talmud studies in Israeli schools.

Steering a middle course between Orthodox stances that place the Talmud outside of history and a postmodern skepticism that argues against the ability to say anything about its history at all, Friedman's massive scholarship yields a complex picture: a picture of hosts of talmudic sages consciously and ceaselessly reinterpreting earlier traditions in order to achieve coherent teachings to guide them in the present.

This portrait of rabbinic culture begets, in turn, a powerful challenge. Modern intellectual integrity having yielded a restless scenario of fragmentary ancient texts being worked and reworked into the sources we have today, can we somehow put the pieces back together into a coherent and compelling story? And will that story reflect not only the work of the rabbinic interpreters but also the original texts and traditions, by now lost to us, that they were trying, through their editing, to maintain?

The answer is yes, but it will be a different story, in ways both stranger and more familiar: a story of internal ferment and spiritual survival in the face of profound uncertainty.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.