English, General Culture

A Talmud Lecture in the Knesset

At the Talmud blog, we are interested in the Talmud wherever it is to be found – primarily in the academy but also in more traditional settings, midrashot for women, secular Israeli institutions, on Israeli televisions dramas, in South Korea, France, in the Islamic Republic of Iran….

This week, history was made when Dr. Ruth Calderon, a graduate of the Hebrew University Talmud department and head of Alma College, taught a passage of from the Bavli in her inaugural lecture in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament. Facebook and the Twittersphere have been abuzz with the news. Needless to say, the Knesset channel generally gets even less attention than C-Span does in the US. As one friend of the blog wondered, when was the last time a Talmud shiur went viral like this?

I am sure that the Talmud has been mentioned before in the Knesset, but I am equally sure that it has never been the center of a speech by an intellectual, non-Orthodox female Talmud scholar. Calderon is a master teacher, and though the passage was ultimately used to deliver a (humane) political message – it is the Knesset after all – it was done with genuine class and pedagogical skill. Calderon used an old volume from the grandfather of the head of her party – Yair Lapid – the quintessential, upper middle-class secular Israeli. She spoke forcefully of the need for all Israelis to return to the Talmud after a century in which the Bible had displaced its privileged place in the Jewish canon.

The image of a poised, learned woman teaching Talmud out of a weathered tome on the floor of the Israeli parliament was nothing short of inspiring. Many of us in Israel dream that Calderon will succeed in her goal of creating an educated Jewish Israeli public of both genders that is in touch with the one text that has sustained their people for so long. Let us hope.

English, General Culture

Reading the Talmud in (The Islamic Republic of) Iran – Two Documents

One of the central interests of this blog is the relatively recent scholarly trend of ‘Reading the Talmud in Iran’ – that is, the practice of locating the Talmud in its Iranian context by highlighting connections between it and the Late Antique Iranian world from which it emerged. But we are also interested in the way the Talmud is read today – from Northern California to Korea. With all the excitement of recovering the composition of an ‘Iranian’-Babylonian Talmud, we must not ignore the experience of reading the Talmud in the Islamic Republic of Iran today.

The Vice President of Iran, Mohammad Reza Rahimi’s recent remarks that “the prevalence of narcotics and drug-addition throughout the world finds its roots in the wrong teachings of the Zionists’ religious book, Talmud (paraphrased by Farsnews)” was particularly troubling for us. Not only are his comments (and ‘retraction’) offensive in the extreme, they are entirely ignorant of the role that Iran played in producing the Talmud.

It is no secret that Iranian Jews, along with other non-Muslim minorities in Iran, frequently find themselves in precarious positions in the Islamic Republic. For Jews, one of the most disquieting matters concerns the Islamic Republic’s alleged contrast between Jews and Zionists – a distinction made by Khomeini to a delegation of frightened Jews sent to Qom on May 14, 1979, which is frequently transgressed by both the non-Jewish Iranian public and, as we recently saw, government officials.  That said, the experience of Jews in Iran today is by no means black-and-white, and Iranian Jewry’s complicated and fraught relationship with Zionism and the State of Israel must be parsed with the utmost care.

Notwithstanding the media coverage of Rahimi’s comments, there remains an extreme dearth of information regarding the state of Iranian Jewry today. We thought that it would be useful to provide our readers with two documents culled from the recent affair – a pair of letters sent by and to the Jewish community in Tehran concerning the Vice President’s offensive statements about the Talmud. The letters were posted to the Tehran Jewish community’s website and were kindly translated from the Persian by our friend and colleague Dr. Thamar E. Gindin. Needless to say, the appearance of the documents here is by no means an endorsement of their contents. Instead, we post them for posterity and discussion:

Dr Homayun Same-yah

Tir 91 (June 2012)

Mr. Mohammad Reza Rahimi
Honorable First Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

With greetings and honor,

Following the speech delivered by his honor, as quoted by the Persian news agency, on the international day against drug abuse, and his expressing an opinion about the holy book of the Talmud, I hereby state: The valuable treasure of the Talmud of the Jews includes manners of carrying out the verdicts and laws of the holy Torah. Its composition began about 1800 years ago by the Jewish sages, and took about 300 years to complete. This collection, besides discussing matters of religious law, also describes the lives of the sages and prophets, aspects of proper moral and behavior, and matters of health and medicine, within the limits of that time’s science.
The Talmud, compiled in 37 volumes, holds a very detailed, specialized, and massive text and content, which, regrettably, has not been translated to Persian to this day.
What is certain is that at the times of the Talmud, drugs for abuse were practically unknown, and had no use. Moreover, in the centuries that follow, no Jew has been known or arrested as a drug smuggler.
Since exact research and correct and valid description of affairs is every speaker’s duty and every listener’s right, when the matter is discussed by a high official authority, it especially raises the expectations in this arena. Additionally, the confusion and lack of distinction between the two matters – Judaism as a divine, monotheistic religion, and Zionism as a political party, is a big mistake, standing in contrast to the saying of the great leader of the revolution, his holiness Imam Khomeini (BM), who said “Judaism counts separately from Zionism”. Especially in this sensitive time, when the foreigners and the enemies sit in ambush to defame and create a hostile propagandistic atmosphere toward our beloved country. Therefore, the community of Jewish Iranians demands its right – the rectification of words said.
His honor Mr. Rahimi, because the Tehran Jewish Committee is certain that your honor’s sayings have been based on views of people unaware and unknowledgeable of the holy treasure of the Talmud, the Committee expresses its readiness to explain to his honor the very valuable doctrines of this book, especially doctrines dealing with love for others.
Moreover, the Committee announces that it has always kept in mind the administrations of his holiness the late Imam (Khomeini – ThEG), and likewise the valuable words of the leader of the Islamic republic of Iran regarding unity of speech (i.e. complete compliance with the supreme leader’s words – ThEG) and harmony in the great and powerful country of Iran, and expects each and every Iranian to also respect this right.
With honor,

Head of the Tehran Jewish Committee

Dr. Homayun Same-yah


The Vice-President’s office reply July 16, 2012

Dear Mr. Dr. Homayun Same-yah,
Honorable head of the Tehran Jewish Committee,

With honor, with peace and greetings to all the divine prophets, especially the prophet of Islam, of great dignity, and his holiness Moses who spoke with God.

In reply to your honor’s letter nr. 17326 dated 3/4/1391 (23/6/2012; sic), I hereby say:

Following the speech of the honorable first vice-president at the “international day against drug abuse” ceremony (6/4/1391 [26/6/2012; sic]), the foreign media, especially media linked to the world-arrogance (the West – ThEG) and to the Zionist regime, have selected and distorted parts of his speech, launched a propagandistic tumult, and with this excuse, put the high officials of the sacred regime yet again to under attack.

As your honor rightfully mentioned in your letter, according to the doctrinal principles of the Islamic Republic regime and the commands of the Deceased Imam (Khomeini – ThEG) and the supreme leader, “Zionism” and “Judaism” are two completely different matters. The leaders of the regime have from the very beginning of victory of the Islamic Revolution, always differentiated between the true followers of his Holiness Moses (BM) as a divine monotheistic religion, and the current of “World Zionism”. Today, the Muslim nations of the world hold the Jewish religion and its followers in great respect, but know that Zionism is a satanic doctrine, characterized by traits such as occupation and proliferation-ambitions, and strives to achieve its goals and control the world’s sources. In the past 32 years, World Zionism and its agents have never let go of their misconception against the Islamic Republic regime. They have always strived, by means of the media related to them, to distort the facts, divert the world public opinion, and attribute to Iran and to Muslims faults such as support of international terrorism, fundamentalism, deprivation of human rights, proliferation ambitions etc.
The last hustle and bustle about the words of the honorable First Vice-President are also – like dozens of the previous false clamors, from the fatwa issued by the Holy Imam (BM) (Khomeini – ThEG) against Salman Rushdie, to the studious question of the honorable president about the Holocaust – based on distortion and lie. Regretfully, the leaders of the ruling regime, who are themselves of the main architects of racism and genocide in the world, have titled this speech “anti-Jewish and racist”. The first Vice-President, in the aforementioned ceremony, has elaborated on some matters as an opinion holder in an academic and logical discussion, regarding Zionism and their misuse of some of the sanctities of Judaism. He is the author of the book “Land Wound”, which describes the history of the formation of Zionism, the genealogy of the Islamic Resistance Movement etc. The book was published by the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in 1388 (2009-10), and for authoring this book, he has been hailed by Palestinian and Syrian elites and academics. Reviewing the text of the First Vice-President’s speech, it can be seen that he has announced “Zionism” as an agent of proliferating drugs and other corruptions in the world, and explicitly distinguished between “authentic Jews” , who are followers of Holy Moses (BM), and “the Zionists”. But agents of the Arrogance, who are terrified that the hands of World Zionism behind the curtains may be exposed, immediately tried, by distortion and partial quotations of some of the parts, to launch another propagandistic turmoil against the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  We appreciate the consciousness of the Tehran Jewish Committee in recognizing the political atmosphere of the country and the world in the present situation, and thank this committee for its perseverance in observing the administrations of his Holiness the Deceased Imam, and the statements of the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution regarding unity of speech and harmony in our beloved country. It should be noted that in reply to the demand of the community of Jewish Iranians and in order to rectify the misconceptions arising from the speech delivered by Dr. Mohammad Reza Rahimi, First Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a statement has been put at the disposal of internal and foreign media. At the end, we ask the Lord Almighty for the success of our Jewish compatriots.
Mozaffar Torabi

Thamar E. Gindin is an Iranian linguist. She’s a research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies in Haifa university, teaches Persian to private groups and in Tel Aviv University, lectures about present day and ancient Iran in various settings, and is the author of “The Good, the Bad and the Universe – a Journey to Pre-Islamic Iran. She intends to be Israel’s first cultural attaché to a friendly Iran.

English, General Culture, Ruminations

Life in a Day

I don’t generally get to watch movies, and to say the least, my media intake is
wanting, eclectic and uneven: An occasional Israeli drama about Orthodox Jewish singles living in the Jerusalem ‘swamp’, minimalist Iranian art-house flics, and a film about the Hebrew University Talmud department – that pretty much sums it up. But on a recent trip, after grading some papers and reading a bunch of articles, the illuminated edges of a humming, nocturnal transatlantic flight seemed like the right setting to get myself ‘up to date’ – cinematically speaking. Contagion struck a bit too close to home, given the coughing passenger sitting directly behind me. And so it would have to be Life in a Day , the Youtube movie formed from thousands of hours of amateur video sent in from all over the world that filmed life on July 24, 2010. The movie is about 90 minutes long and is a work of art – that is to say, a cultural creation that asks to be assessed primarily for its aesthetic value.  Instead of 90+ minutes of typical Youtube fare (inane banter, insane children, deranged dogs), some of the cinematography is quite skilled, and beautiful too.  Far more important is the texture of the finished work. It is redaction at its best, with allusive juxtapositions and mournful pairings. A most suggestive craft.

Ultimately, Life in a Day asks its readers to consider the relationship between the finished film and the global human society it depicts, as well as the chain of producers and consumers that brought it to life. How does this cultural artifact reflect, represent, and interact with the humans who produced it and who appear within it. And how do other intricately redacted works, like the Bavli, intersect with its numerous communities of reciters, listeners, editors, scribes, and readers? If the Stam sent out video cameras to capture intellectual, ritual, and ethnographic life in Jewish Babylonia, what would the final product look like? I suppose the answer is that it would look like the Bavli as we have it.

English, General Culture

Mr. T

T. Carmi (ט. כרמי) was a prolific Israeli poet and translator. He was also a learned person who was fond of ancient Jewish literature (including rabbinic texts) and his poetry is embellished with numerous allusions to this rich corpus. One of his books, for example, bares the title “Near the Stone of Strayers” (ליד אבן הטועים) following the story in Bavli Bava Metziah 28b.  In another book a cycle of poems is entitled “Which way to Lod?” (?באיזה ללוד) and builds upon the story of Beruriah and Rabbi Yossi in Bavli Eruvin 53b. In academic circles Carmi is often cited, thanks to his English anthology of Hebrew poetry (ancient and modern) that was published by Penguin Press.

This post is not about rabbinic intertextuality in Carmi’s poetry, rather it concerns a curiosity relating to Carmi’s name or more precisely, to the meaning of the letter T.  At first sight it seems that Carmi is a last name and T stands for the first. However there is a tendency among Israeli writers to use a sort of pseudonym in which the first letter of their last name appears at the beginning of their literary name. Hence the novelist Yizhar Smilansky (יזהר סמילנסקי) is known as S. Izhar (ס. יזהר),  and the poet Sh. Shifra (ש. שפרה) is in fact Shifra Schifmann (שפרה שיפמן). This habit confused many scholars who sought (for some reason) to decipher what the T stands for and came up with peculiar suggestions. In a recent article published in Hebrew the reference to Carmi’s anthology gave credit to Tuvia Carmi (טוביה כרמי), while in  another article written in English he becomes no less than Ted Carmi. There are other examples of this trend including what might be the funniest examples of them all –  Todros Carmi (טדרוס כרמי), probably after the medieval Hebrew poet Todros Abulafia.

So what is the correct answer? Well, T. Carmi was born in New York in 1925 as Carmi Tscharney (כרמי טשרני), and the T stands for his last name. It is true, though, that Carmi is a very unusual first name, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the (ongoing) confusion. But apparently, what’s in a(n abbreviated) name is nothing more than Tscharney.

English, General Culture, Recent Publications

The Sony Pictures Introduction to Talmudic Studies

A very interesting contribution to Talmudic Studies has just come out, and from a source that only a few months ago would have seemed rather unlikely- Sony Pictures Classics. SPC is distributing Yossi Cedar’s Footnote in North America and has just released the film’s press kit.

After providing a description of Talmudic Literature, the document discusses at length the field of research known as “Talmudic Studies”, dedicating a few paragraphs to “The Talmud Department at the Hebrew University- The Jerusalem School”:

The Talmud Department was one of the first of eight departments that were set up when the Hebrew University was established in 1928, and still exists to this day… The founder of the department, Prof. Yaacov Nachum Epstein, a legendary Talmud researcher with degrees from German universities and once a student of East European yeshivas, solidified the nature of the department that characterizes it to this day.

In light of Epstein’s studies, the Jerusalem school focuses on the bland textual reconstruction of the Talmudic texts and their wording during the preliminary research stages. The winding and unwinding of these long scrolls of ancient texts over the years resulted in many mistakes and errors, which raise doubt as to the authenticity of the text that were obtained. Therefore, before any researcher can ask himself questions that pertain to the content of the text, the concepts conveyed therein, the literary design or the history reflected therein, he must do his best to reconstruct the original text after it was obtained through dubious channels after hundreds of years.

This nondescript textual study, known as ‘philology’, requires extreme diligence. The researcher must collect photographs of the existing manuscripts of the text, some hidden away in libraries and basements around the world, and conduct a meticulous comparison of each and every word. This is painstaking work, rummaging around lost archives to find one more manuscript that will shed light on a baffling sentence in a forgotten text. Endless searching and documentation of small errors made by the Jewish book copier in the Middle Ages, in frozen Europe or remote Yemen, who lost focus for a split second…

This style is not very popular and the Talmud department attracts very few students as opposed to other departments. And among these students, some are forced to leave due to the high scholastic demands and the taxing nature of the work and studies. Nonetheless, many renowned researchers in diverse fields of Judaic studies included this department on their academic route and its academic standards are highly acclaimed in the field of Judaic studies the world over.

The critics of the Jerusalem school claim the exaggerated adherence to details prevents a view of the overall picture, and its members are an exclusive and arrogant clique that has lost its relevance.

The press kit is fascinating in the way that it seeks to provide a background to such a specialized field for the purposes of general culture (a movie).  It is definitely worth checking out.  Maybe someday it will even be considered required reading for Rabbinics courses.