English, Ruminations

Reading the Talmud in France

File:Armoiries république française.svgMany people ask me why I chose France when I decided to write my PhD dissertation on rabbinic literature. It is a very good question since there are only a handful of Talmud specialists in this country, and they are hardly read by people outside of France (or inside it for that matter…). France, in that respect, cannot be compared to Israel, the US, the UK or even to other European countries such as Germany or Italy where the situation is somewhat better.

I always found this state of affairs very sad. After all, it is a country with a long history of great talmudic scholarship – Rashi and many of the Tosafists, not to mention the scholars from Provence… I’m not saying that no one reads the Talmud in France. On the contrary, there are many yeshivot and community centers where the Talmud is studied in the traditional way. It goes without saying that only or mainly Jews attend these Talmud classes (in some synagogues women can join too). When an academic approach is at stake, however, one seems to go up a blind alley.

There are many explanations to this sad state of affairs. Of course, we can go back to the 13th century “Dispute de Paris” with its horrific outcome – the burning of hundreds of Talmud manuscripts found all over the French Kingdom, or the decision to expel all the Jews from France in the following century. But for the purpose of this post let’s stay within the limits of the last century, which, in the very beginning saw the promulgation of the “law of 1905” that decreed the separation of the church and the state, and promoted the value of the “laïcité” (secularism), so precious to the French. The “laïcité” in France is much more than a concept. It is a social and cultural value, whose roots are to be found already in the period of the French “Lumières” that defined themselves against religion in a very provocative and combative manner (contrary to the German Aufklärung). As a proof for its importance one can cite the fact that this value is promoted and used by ALL of the main candidates in the upcoming presidential election, even by Marine Le Pen. Of course, the latter, and to a certain extent all the candidates from the political center, use this value in order to defend the Catholic values that are so imbedded in French culture that no one sees them as “religious” any more. No one, that is, who is from a Catholic background. In other words, as some French sociologists have already pointed out, French secularism is a modern form of Catholic Christianity, in which Catholic values (and customs to some extent) are being stripped of their theological load in order to be presented as neutral, humanistic and universal.

In the context of French Academia, the 1905 law had some very significant consequences. Since most French universities are public, the law implied that they could not host departments of theology which in many cases (as in Germany, for example, or in some private universities in the United States) constitute a serious academic platform for religious studies and research. A few such enclaves still exist, as for example in some universities in the Alsace and Loraine Regions that were not part of France in 1905, or in the rare private universities such as the Institut Catholique de Paris. Some fields in religious studies, such as New and Old Testament studies and Patristics, were already imbedded in French universities so that the impact of the law of 1905 was not fatal in their regard. Those specialists found their way to departments of history, philology and so forth. To some extent this is also true regarding medieval Jewish Studies (the first scientific translation of ‘The Guide to the Perplexed’ was produced in French by Solomon Munk in the middle of the 19th century). But as for the nascent field of Talmudic studies, it did not gain enough prestige and importance in order to be integrated in one of these “laic” departments. There were (and still are) departments of Hebraic or Jewish studies in some French public universities, yet most of the specialists that crowded them worked on ancient (biblical, second temple), Hellenistic or medieval Judaism, while the Talmud was  for the most part left aside.

And then there was Levinas. Yet here too, his Lectures Talmudiques were delivered mainly within Jewish circles, and were not viewed as an integral part of his academic work or his philosophy (a trend that may now be changing). Sure, it leads to the fact that we can find some references to the Talmud in the writings of Levinas’ interlocutors, like Derrida or Lacan, but these are by no means the work of specialists, and neither did they influence the heavy apparatus that is the French university to give more importance and space to talmudic studies.

The Talmud is still viewed today in French culture as a religious corpus, intended mainly for religious purposes. I am not saying that this state of affaires is unique to France, but I am still always disappointed to find out that in the country of Derrida or Foucault, who wrote the most interesting and rich critiques on western philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, the Talmud, which offers something that can be viewed an anti-philosophical thought, is mostly ignored by the intellectual circles.

There is also a very practical aspect to this problem – for the French reader there is no complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah, or the Midrashim. As for the Palestinian Talmud – this was indeed translated in the 19th century by Moïse Schwab, though in an admittedly beautiful (I think) yet highly problematic rendition.

The few specialists that are working in France are of course aware to this situation and are working on changing it. The best example is a project I am proud to participate in, which consists of a scientific edition of the Mishnah, and its first complete translation into French – a project led by Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

I have to admit, if I chose Paris as the place to work on my PhD on the “ethics of the self” in the Talmud, it was not because I wanted “to bring light to the Gentiles” but mainly because back then I was still under the “spell” of French Theory (which is after all a much more American notion, not to say invention, than a French one). Ever since, I realized how neglected the Talmud is by the rich intellectual discourse that is going on in this country, and I started to refer to my work as a mission, or at least a very important job. Talmudic thought, when studied in its historical context (that is to say not in a Levinasien way), can shed light on many subjects that occupy western societies in general and the French one in particular. Its “realistic” approach (“no law can be imposed on the public unless it can endure it”), its anti-mystical attitude, and its general ethical demand – to live an individual life of virtue without retreating from the social, day-to-day world – all these and other values discussed in the rabbinic corpus can contribute much to the problems French society has to deal with these days. Of course, it will not be possible to integrate talmudic texts into the public discourse here unless we show that they are not more or less “religious” (in the modern sense of the word) from the founding texts of western civilization. This job is still in its infancy, and with some naivety (some may say pretention), I promise to keep you posted on the developments.