I cannot remember exactly when I initially heard about the first complete translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic, but I can remember what I felt: excitement, bewilderment, curiosity, and, I must confess, the quickening of my liberal heart. From the first reports in the Western media, it soon became clear that the translation was not just a rip-off of prior renditions, but a massive and utterly serious undertaking. Yet like a summer rain that sweeps in to ruin an otherwise joyous party, many of the articles in the newspapers included the comments of a number of Israeli Middle East experts who, to put it mildly, raised doubts about the ecumenical nature of the translation. As a certain Dr. Esther Webman ominously intoned:
“The Talmud in the Muslim world is considered to be the main source of Jewish iniquity,” she said. “They highlight aspects of it which are not so flattering and put it at the forefront of their presentation of it. Essentially, they use the Talmud as a tool to accuse Jews of certain habits and traits, so it is portrayed as the epitome of the Jewish and the Zionist mentality.
And yet, I wondered then and I still wonder now why such immense financial and intellectual resources would be poured into this translation if the intent was merely to propagate anti-Semitic ideas about the Talmud. If the whole thing was just about antisemitism, well then anyone with a modem, the requisite computer savvy to cut and paste, and proximity to Kinkos can produce an impressive neo-classical anti-Talmudic tract within a few hours. Why the official backing of the Arab League, the hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and the purple prose?
Soon after the initial announcement, the Talmud Blog got to work. An Arabic translation of the entire Talmud was big news, with all sorts of political, theological, and scholarly implications (just think of how the Talmud can now be brought back to Iraq in the local language, and less romantically, of what this could ultimately do, in a different world, for the comparative study of Geonic and Islamic law). We contacted the Amman based Middle East Studies Center which was responsible for the translation and learned of how much the Talmud set costs (a prohibitive, if understandable $750.00). We then spoke with people connected to the National Library of Israel and Harvard’s Widener library about purchasing a complete set; we found someone studying in Amman who could enquire into whether a single copy might be purchased for a lower price and brought to Israel for Passover (it could not); we had the original advertisement translated into English; with the help of another scholar we discovered a link that contained much of the introductory material online; we were contacted about a working group forming at the National Library to assess the quality of the translation; and mainly, we waited.
In the meantime, subsequent news reports moved in two different directions. On the one hand, Aryeh Tuchman, who is an expert in anti-Semitic and anti-Talmud propaganda, found that the introduction to the translation was literally littered with classic anti-Semitic and anti-Talmud tropes. At the same time, the earnestness and unprecedented scope of the project – which supposedly included Christian speakers of Neo-Aramaic – came into relief. A working group to analyze the translation at the National Library of Israel is finally taking shape, and surprises may still await. But where do things currently stand?
For one, the ADL machine is up and running. I am well aware that the threat of a major, semi-official Arabic translation of the Talmud backed by official organs of Arab countries is not just an academic occupational hazard. Presumably, the Arabic translation of the Talmud will be the window by which most scholars, Islamic jurists, and plain old curious souls in the Arab world will access this central Jewish text. Accordingly, the ADL has issued a statement that briefly outlines some of the problems of the introduciton, and has even sent a dispatch to the Jordanian government requesting that immediate action be taken. And yet, the way this whole affair went down seems so very predictable: Arabs produce a translation of the Talmud with an introduction that states its aim as an endeavor to explain why the Zionists make life for Palestinians in the territories so miserable. The ADL condemns the translation, op-eds appear in the Jewish press, and we all go home. The fact that just last week, the vice-president of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, delivered a totally confused (and, from a certain perspective, hilarious) discourse about how the Talmud encourages Israelis to flood Iran with narcotics (temporarily forgetting that Afghanistan borders Iran to the East) has seemed to confirm this narrative – even if Rahimi certainly did not read the Talmud in translation, Arabic or otherwise.
From my view, there is still plenty of room for further reflection on this affair, at least in two related respects. For one, consider for a minute the uses, in certain quarters, of Islamic studies in the West since 9-11. At some think-tanks and research centers, Islamic studies has come to center around a very specific set of questions, especially: ‘why do those turban-heads[sic] blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces and crash themselves into US and Israeli targets?’ The intriguing spiritual and intellectual history of Islam and the central role it has played in the evolution of rationalism (especially in Judaism!), its startling mysticism, etc etc etc are simply of no concern in those settings.
A personal anecdote: Some time ago I published an article in a popular Jewish magazine. My article was juxtaposed to a lengthy and fascinating piece on the massacre of the Jewish tribes in Medina – no doubt a worthy and important topic in Early Islamic history. But appended to that article was a very specific, directed discussion of why the violent aspects of Islamic history (and they are, to be sure, many) essentially precludes the possibility of any form of coexistence with Jews – particularly in regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The pair of articles drew a very straight line between a late antique massacre and the modern conflict. And my protestations won me a funny sort of ‘concession’ – the ability to draft an article about Jews and Sufis in a later issue of the magazine. In any case, this sort of thinking plagues a lot of the current discussion, even beyond the Arab world – such as in regards to Iran. It is all too easy to pontificate on the current tensions between Iran and Israel by elegantly referring to Iran’s pre-Islamic dualistic ‘us-them’ heritage, thereby skipping over thirteen hundred years of effervescent and incessant re-configuring of Iranian and Islamic culture in Iranian lands. I wonder, for just a moment, whether the Arabic translation of the Talmud is engaging in much of the same. As Aryeh Tuchman put it in that Jerusalem Post op-ed
Studying the Talmud to understand the mindset of modern Jews, let alone irreligious modern Jews, let alone the government of Israel, is like trying to understand the mindset of modern Catholics by studying Augustine.
A second point has to do with the way the Talmud is described in the ADL press release (and in the Arabic translation!) – “a sacred collection of Jewish law, ethics, philosophy and history.” It is certainly sacred and holy to the countless Jews who gave their sweat, tears, lives, and souls to plumbing its depths. But still, ‘sacred’ is a funny marker for the Talmud to anyone who knows it (or ‘her’, in the traditional androcentrism) intimately. The Talmud is not a pristine collection of canons containing stale legal pronouncements and theological reflections, but something far more dynamic, irreverent, and, sometimes, problematic. I know I am taking a risk here, but one would have be a pious fool to deny the fact that the Talmud does indeed house some of the problematic statements that anti-Semites ascribe to it – just as Patristics and Early Islamic literature offer up plenty of dubious things themselves. Once again, context is key.
If some Arabic-speaker living in the Middle East has even the beginnings of a desire to venture into the Talmud’s water with a charitable curiosity, he or she will certainly not understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict any better. But what just might come into view is the complexity and beauty of a robust Jewish culture in late antiquity – and today. (Incidentally, some of the better Islamic studies programs in the academy have accomplished just that for non-Muslims studying Islam). Just maybe, the very desire that powered a massive translation project to render the Talmud in Arabic will actually engender the beginnings of an appreciation of the rabbinic mind – at least of the 99.99 percent which has nothing to do with the hermeneutics of שבו פה עם החמור. If something like that could happen with the Abbasids, maybe there is still hope today.