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.