1)   Joseph Shatzmiller, H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. October, 2011.


2)   Lawrence Grossman, The  Jewish Daily Forward

Published October 26, 2011, issue of November 04, 2011.

Basic to Jewish religious teaching is the distinction between “written” Torah — Scripture, the Jewish Bible — and so-called “oral” Torah, a diffuse tradition of legal and homiletic rabbinic commentary that over the centuries has interpreted and elaborated the written corpus and applied it to shifting social, economic and political realities. This oral component, sensitive to historical change, has worked to prevent religious fossilization.

Paradoxically, the distinction between written and oral Torah remains, even though the latter lost its oral quality centuries ago. Since then it has been studied and conveyed in written form, scholars of each generation producing volumes upon endless volumes. Why and how what was oral became written is a question that has interested Jewish thinkers since at least the year 987 C.E., when Sherira Gaon, head of the Pumbedita yeshiva, in Baghdad, wrote a lengthy letter dealing with the subject in response to a query from North Africa. And the issue, by no means settled today, continues to draw scholarly interest.

Talya Fishman’s new book, “Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures,” addresses an important aspect of the subject. The Babylonian Talmud (there is also a Palestinian version, called the Jerusalem Talmud, that has had far less influence) emerged as the central and most authoritative accretion of generations of oral Torah — legal disputes, biblical exegesis, legends, folklore and more. It developed in Mesopotamia during the sixth and seventh centuries C.E., though changes in its memorized formulation continued long afterward. At some point it became a written document, a multivolume work at first copied by hand, and, since the 16th century, printed. It became the almost exclusive subject of study in yeshivas, especially in Ashkenazic Europe, and remains so today. Hardly confined to rabbinic scholars, Talmud study also attracts the intellectual energies of a considerable portion of the Orthodox laity, most notably in the form of the daf yomi program, in which participants around the world study a page a day, culminating in the completion of the entire talmudic cycle roughly every seven years.

Fishman, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to pinpoint when and how the Babylonian Talmud as a physical book turned into the very essence of Jewish learning, or, put conversely, how the People of the Book — the Jews who brought the Bible to the world — became, as her title puts it, the “People of the Talmud.” She also addresses the social and religious impact of the change.

With admirable candor, the author admits that she is not a scholar of Jewish law — the primary talmudic genre — but rather an intellectual and social historian. She has certainly done her homework, though, providing 162 pages of glossary, endnotes and bibliography for 224 pages of text, a proportion that will force those compulsive about checking documentation to flip pages back and forth at a furious pace. And many nonacademic readers might find Fishman’s prose hard going, as she carries on running battles with scholars dead and living who have weighed in on the heavily contested history of the Talmud.

Fishman’s thesis, though, is exciting and well argued. She demonstrates not only that even when written copies existed, the Talmud in Mesopotamian, North African and Iberian Jewish communities of the early Middle Ages was still primarily transmitted by word of mouth, but also that authoritative pronouncements on Jewish law often diverged from that Talmud. It was only in 11th- and 12th-century France and Germany — the Ashkenazic heartland — that Jews began to experience Talmud “as readers studying a book,” and that book came to be viewed as the paramount guide to practice, a process similar to the shift going on at the same time among non-Jews, as Northern European Christianity moved to a text-based culture from a custom-based one.

The work of the 11th-century French scholar known as Rashi facilitated the treatment of Talmud as one long book by preparing the authoritative running commentary still in use today. The next step, accomplished by several generations of scholars beginning with Rashi’s grandsons — collectively known as the Tosafists — was to identify and seek to reconcile the multiple contradictions in the book, a problem that had rarely surfaced when the Talmud was an oral tradition. By the 13th century, this focus on the intricacies of the written text had spread across the Pyrenees to scholars in Spain and then elsewhere, quickly establishing itself as the normative form of Jewish learning.

As the medium transforms the message, two key substantive changes in Judaism wrought by textualization are discussed in “Becoming the People of the Talmud.” Clearly, the newly constituted “text” is more rigid than oral tradition, reducing the flexibility of the religious authority to reinterpret past wisdom in light of new reality in a way that does not disrupt the consciousness of a seamless tradition. Thus, Fishman notes, the Tosafists were often perplexed when they saw that customary religious practices that had evolved naturally differed from those prescribed in the talmudic texts, and so they exerted remarkable casuistic energy in attempts to reconcile them. But at the same time, the very availability of an authoritative book — especially with Rashi’s commentary appended — could make the presence of a live teacher unnecessary, and hence served to democratize Jewish scholarship.

What Fishman chronicles is, of course, just one example of how shifts in the way that Jewish knowledge is transmitted affect the nature of Judaism itself. Having superseded customary practice and challenged rabbinic authority, the textualized Talmud today faces competition from new modes of communication. Increasingly, Jews get their Jewish knowledge (whether accurate or not) with minimal effort via email, blogs and Twitter, and anyone who insists on a book can download a virtual one. The oral Torah’s transfer to cyberspace is, like its textualization 1,000 years ago, likely to transform Jewish life in unpredictable ways.



3)   Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, Law and History Review 30 (May, 2012), 643-645


When the northern French Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, known as “Rashbam” (1085-1174), commented that the Talmud was the sole authoritative source of Jewish applied law (halakhah le-ma’aseh), his instrumental view of Talmud broke with tradition, yet it remains that of traditional rabbinic Judaism to this day. In her extraordinary book, Talya Fishman argues that

Rashbam’s perspective was derived from a specific type of textualization, a century-long transformative process within Ashkenazi (Northern European) Jewry from the early eleventh century onward. By”textualization,” Fishman means the shift that occurs when a culture moves from trusting oral and witnessed testimony to vesting authority in the written word. She deftly avoids a polarized conception of the oral and the written and addresses the dialogic mediality at work between these two modes of communication. With respect to the Talmud, this mediatic dimension was crucial. Jewish sages of late antiquity (Tannaim, fluent Palestine, first century BCE-200 CE)had distinguished between written matters (Scripture), and oral matters. The Talmud, a record of the Amoraim’s rabbinic legal and non-legal teachings orally conveyed and transmitted over three centuries (third to sixth century CE), belonged to the category of Oral Torah, and as such, fell under the Tannaim’s proscription against “saying oral matters in writing.” This injunction was taken seriously by the heirs to the Amoraic tradition, the scholarly Geonim who headed (mostly Babylonian) post-Talmudic academies between the seventh and the eleventh centuries CE,and whose authority within diasporic Jewry rested firmly on their access to traditions transmitted byearlier generations.

Even when, by the eighth century, the entire Babylonian Talmud had been committed to writing, the Geonim strove to retain the Talmud’s oral character. They understood the Tannaic interdiction as forbidding not the inscription of oral matters, but their authoritative proclamation from a written text; there could be written Talmudic notes and commentaries but these would be, in terms of rabbinic culture, “phantom texts,” mnemonic tools for silent reading devoid of public authority in themselves. As a corollary of this interpretation, the Geonim never considered the legal teachings (halakhah) encountered in the Talmudic text to beintrinsically authoritative; in order to become applied law, these written teachings had be to vetted byliving masters who orally attested to their actual implementation. Therefore, despite its scripted format, the modalities of its manipulations continued to characterize the Talmud as oral matters.

Even outside Geonic academies, in the eleventhcentury Sefardi world of North African and Spanish Jewry where rabbinic scholars increasingly accessed the Talmud solely through the written text, their tendency to regard the Talmudic text as a self-sufficient source for practical adjudication was counterbalanced bybehaviors that preserved the category of oral matters. It was the behavior of readers toward the text, rather than the presence or absence of writing that categorized a corpus of tradition as either oral or written. Memorization of inscribed law codes, verbal elaboration, discussion of post-Talmudic material, oral instruction byteachers, all affirmed a conception of the Talmud as a guide to applied law; all situated the Talmudic corpus within a framework of oral performance.

Fishman’s main contention, that it was the Ashkenazi Jewry of the central Middle Ages who were responsible for establishing the legally binding agency of the Talmud as a book, emerges from her meticulous unraveling of the process of textualization at work within this community. The running commentary of the Talmud written bythe French rabbi Shlomo Yizhaqui, known as Rashi (1040-1105) is shown to have supplied the digressive Talmudic text with a connective narrative that organized its abbreviated formulations into a comprehensible discourse. Rashi’s systematic gloss, Fishman believes, made it possible for his grandsons and successors, the Tosafists, to develop a panoptic perception of the Talmud, one that drew attention to apparently contradictory passages. The Tosafists resolved such contradictions bymeans of intratextual readings to which they applied a logical dialectic, thereby endowing the Talmud with internal consistency. Learned dialectics and the application of exegetical tools led to a text-centered analysis of the Talmud, which abrogated forms of oral teaching and transmission. Whereas, in Geonic times and in Sefardic communities, the written Talmud had continued to function within the tradition of oral matters, any northern French rabbinical student skilled in logical analysis was enabled independently to derive applied law from the definitive reference that the written text of the Talmud had become within his community.

To account for the particular agency of the written Talmud among northern French Jewry, Fishman explicates textualization by contextualization. She points to parallels between the growing literate practices and epistemologies of northern European Christendom and the developing referential status of the written Talmud among French Jews, suggesting a consequential link between Jews’ participation in the surrounding culture and their adoption of a Christian model of textuality. Fishman’s survey of Christian legal and textual culture rests on a partial review and an approximate command of the vast historiography devoted to the implications of literacy in twelfth-century Europe. This stands in sharp contrast to her rich treatment of Jewish textual culture during the twelfth centuries, and indeed back to the beginning of the Common Era. Fishman’s reading of primary texts in Aramaic and Hebrew, her informed and comprehensive grasp of the interpretive and theoretical literature and her lucid presentation of controversial issues, convincingly support her powerful historicization of the place of the Talmud in Jewish life. Hers is an indispensable study, whose exemplary exposition of Jewish attitudes toward oral, written, and legal matters may well spark comparisons with other cultures, for Fishman has brilliantly shown that words can produce meaning through their epistemological categorization as oral or written, a categorization that itself remains undetermined by their actual mediatic support.