English, Talmud in the News

The Book and the Legend

No longer just "the national poet", Bialik has become a fashion statement.

In the year 1903, C.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitsky, neighbors in the same building in Odessa, set out to produce what would be one of the most influential books in the study of aggada since the Ein Yaakov. Sefer ha-AggadahThe Book of Legends– was completed 100 years ago, with the publication of its sixth section in 1911.  To mark this anniversary, Ha’aretz recently featured an article (hat-tipAncient Hebrew Poetry) by one of the foremost Bialik scholars, Shmuel Avneri (not to be confused with Shlomo Avineri). Avneri lists numerous instances where Bialik’s books were burned by some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and he emphasizes how these cases were at odds with the positive and productive relationships which Bialik had with other segments of the charedi community. The author also lists numerous critiques of Sefer ha-Aggadah by secular and academic intellectuals, from Agnon to Shinan, who for the most part took issue with the liberal editing policies of Bialik and Ravnitsky. To his list I would add the important footnote in Carnal Israel in which Boyarin criticizes Bialik for his “misogynistic” selection of texts.

As a translation and anthology, Sefer ha-Aggadah has many problems, some of which Prof. Shinan’s own updated version will seek to correct. Yet no one can deny the massive contribution that it has made to the popularization of aggadah over the past hundred years. As Alan Mintz has pointed out:

Throughout the early twentieth century, cultural and religious Zionists sensed the need to make rabbinic thought available in formats and languages that were accessible to native Hebrew speakers, religious and secular alike. Sefer ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) by C.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitsky was an early example, one that has profoundly influenced Israeli culture.

As attested by the reflections of several modern Israeli writers, Bialik and Ravnitzky had an enormous influence on the early generations of Zionists in Palestine/Israel. Yoram Kaniuk writes in his memoir 1948:

We were the sons of the Bible, yet we were also sons of Bialik and Ravnitsky’s The Book of Legends, and we loved to read how Moses sees Joshua enter the Tent of Meeting and is jealous of him and says to God “one hundred deaths and not one jealousy”.

More examples may be found in Amos Oz’s Story of Love and Darkness. Without such a compilation it is doubtful that Rabbinic literature would have succeeded in taking such a significant role in the formation of the Zionist ethos. One may add that Bialik’s position as “the national poet” also contributed to the work’s success.

Thanks to the translation of William G. Braude, Sefer ha-Aggadah has become a staple of Jewish learning outside of Hebrew speaking communities, as evidenced by such English language online learning attempts as Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. Through such forums, Sefer ha-Aggadah continues to enlarge the community of readers that engages Rabbinic texts, and promises to do so in the future as well.

Around the Web, English

From R. Simeon Qayyara to Meir Ariel

Hebrew U trained Roni Shweka‘s dissertation bears the title Studies in Halakhot Gedolot: Text and Recension. For the past year or so he’s been hanging out at Oxford’s Yarnton Manor analyzing genizah fragments alongside some of the field’s most experienced readers of medieval manuscripts. His new book, Shir Chadash, is a collection of “derashot” on various songs of different musicians in the Israeli rock scene. In an interview, Haaretz’s music reviewer Ben Shalev summarizes Shweka’s contribution to Israeli music criticism:

Nobody else has thought or written about Israeli music like that… Nobody else has dove into the depths of the Talmud and Gemara in order to find possible keys for explaining recent rock songs.

Israeli Renaissance, anyone?

English, Events

Coming Up

To build off of Shai’s list of upcoming Talmud related events in Jerusalem (and also off of his discussion of the place of Talmudic literature in the Israeli-Jewish Renaissance), Rehavia’s Adraba bookstore will host Prof. Avigdor Shinan of Hebrew U’s Hebrew Literature Department this Thursday night, July 14th. According to the announcement on the store’s site, Prof. Shinan will speak about rabbinic stories of the destruction of the Temple:

י”ז בתמוז בפתח ועמו מתחילים, לפי המסורת, שלושת השבועות המובילים בסופם ליום המציין את חורבן ירושלים, בימי בית ראשון ובית שני, הלוא הוא תשעה באב.

פרופ’ שנאן יתמקד בקבוצה של סיפורים מתוך ספרות האגדה העוסקים בחורבן הבית, סיבותיו ותוצאותיו.
במהלך הערב נשאל, בין השאר, האם יש בסיפורים רק הד לאירועי העבר שחלפו, או שמא יש בהם מסר לימינו אנו.

While you’re there, make sure to check out Yonatan and Rachel’s excellent collection of used and new books. Although the store’s specialty is not necessarily Jewish Studies, they regularly pick up quite an array of secondary literature pertaining to the Talmud (they sold me both Boyarin’s Carnal Israel and Epstein’s Introduction to Amoraic Literature). Also- space is limited, so try getting there early if you plan on attending.

English, Events

Talmud Today

Miami Boys Choir's classic album "Torah Today"

In a previous incarnation, I mentioned a symposium entitled “Talmud Now?” held at the National Library. That tireless recorder of the Israeli-Jewish Renaissance,  Menachem Mendel, has just noted that the the symposium was recorded and is now on-line. Watch it now, in all six parts.

Back in November when I posted the event, it generated a bit of discussion, particularly by mv who noted:

Two observations based on the identity of the panelists:

1. Two of the participants are rabbis, and the other two are also associated with institutions committed or associated with a religious form of Judaism (SHI, HUC). Casual Google prosopography (not serious research or personal acquaintance, so take this with a grain of salt) suggests that all come from the orthodox world.

I am not noting this to criticize the organizers or to complain against them: not every panel needs to be “representative” of the society it wishes to study or impact, but it is interesting that it includes no one from secular Israel, or at least from the institutions that identify themselves as secular (oh, one can think of Alma, a secular scholar from one of the universities, or even a poet or a novelist that is not connected with the religious institutions).

Even to the extent that this is somewhat undesirable, the blame must be shared with us secular Talmudists as well: for many years and with much resources, we have tried and failed to convince Israel’s cultural elite that the Talmud is a document worth engaging with. There are exception, of course; but Israeli culture largely ignores the Talmud, and when it does pay attention to it, it is mostly through “religious” mediators (think Kosman’s essays in one of the most prestigious fora of Israeli culture, Haaretz’s Tarbut we-Sifrut). In that sense, the panelists list itself epitomizes a problematic aspect of the issue it addresses.

Notice how Dr. Ruhama Weiss begins her remarks. After being introduced as someone who will describe Talmud study in non-religious institutions that do not feel bound by halakha, she rejects the distinction between “secular” and “religious” for her discussion.

And then, finally, listen to Dr. Yair Eldan who says precisely what was raised in the comments.  We still essentially have no true Hiloni Talmud renaissance. And on the other hand, the religious community is largely incapable of fully appreciating talmudic discourse in its great variety.