The Talmud – A Biography

I bought “The Talmud – A Biography: Banned, censored and burned. The book they couldn’t suppress” by Harry Freedman after hearing him deliver his talk as part of the Gibraltar Literary Festival 2014. This biography is a biography of a book. Not just any book but a book that is arguably the preeminent text for Judaism. To the uninitiated, this tome will help explain how this scripture came about, what it actually is, and how it has come to occupy such an esteemed place in Judaism after a long and often unhappy journey.

From the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70CE – which marked the point at which Judaism transitioned from being a temple-centred religion to being a text-centred one – the reader is taking on a very interesting ride which sees the birth of this opus in a very Islamic world, that of Babylon or modern-day Iraq – an Islamic world which helped significantly in giving this book its shape and style.

Freedman explains what this 2-million word ‘book’ is all about – how it came to light as part of rabbinic discussions and debates that were later codified in a multi-layered way, to include portions of the Mishnah (a codification of Oral Law – a tradition which sees Moses receiving 2 Torahs at Sinai, one textual and one oral) with added commentary from Babylon and subsequent commentaries. The author explains major characters and voices in the Talmud’s history, from the 11th-century rabbi known as Rashi, through the influence of Maimonides, that giant of Jewish philosophers, to the threat posed by Baruch Spinoza and his rationalistic school of thought.

I was greatly impressed by how much this text grew in and drew from its Islamic environment, largely unaffected by, and unconcerned with, other important movements in the world, particularly Christianity.

Another take-home point for me is how central this text is for Judaism. Coming from a Christian tradition that holds to the ‘sola-scriptura’ doctrine, and having always thought of Judaism in similar terms, I was taken aback by the assertion that many within Judaism will consider the Bible to be incomprehensible, apart from the teachings of the Talmud. Indeed, Mr. Freedman himself asserted during his talk in Gibraltar, that an Orthodox Jew will go to the Talmud often and to the Bible hardly ever. To my Protestant, sola-scriptura-affirming ears, this sounds close to the Roman Catholic view that sees the Bible as incomprehensible apart from apostolic tradition, considered by Roman Catholics to be a source of original authority alongside the Bible.

Thirdly, and quite worrying for me as a Christian, I was surprised to read how much more Jews have suffered historically at the hands of Christians than at the hands of Muslims. 21st-century watching of CNN paints for you a deceptively different picture.

All in all I highly recommend this book to all non-Jews as an interesting primer on how these writings came to be, survived, flourished, and were eventually cherished by this Abrahamic faith called Judaism.

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