Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger wrote memorably in their book “Jews and Words” that “ours is not a bloodline, but a text line.” But how many of us make the effort to claim our enormous inheritance of centuries of Jewish writing? Fortunately, four excellent recent books help us approach this shared text line.
Joseph Skibell’s “Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud” is a series of extended reflections on a handful of short but rich talmudic tales. Skibell is far less interested in the legal and theological material that composes most of the Talmud than in its storytelling — specifically, in the tales chronicling the lives of the sages whose teachings are preserved in the Talmud.
As a novelist bringing little baggage to the endeavor and not feeling bound by how tradition regards these figures, Skibell brings fresh eyes to these stories. The most significant application of his background as a novelist may be his attention to a larger arc of character development. Incorporating episodes from disparate tractates and squeezing the juice out of the very terse style of the Talmud, (which does not go out of its way to express characters’ internal states), Skibell forms rich psychological portraits of the rabbis that give the stories added power.
The opening tale is an extraordinarily tragic one. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan have come from drastically different circumstances to become friends, study partners and brothers-in-law. After Yochanan makes an insult reminding Resh Lakish of his previous life of crime, their relationship becomes undone, and Resh Lakish essentially dies of heartbreak.
Grief and guilt then drive Yochanan mad, and he soon follows his friend in death. The pathos in the relationship of two giants of Jewish thought reflects how the Talmud insisted on preserving the humanity, imperfections and complexities of the rabbis, transforming lives into stories that teach.
Barry W. Holtz, who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary, does a related sort of character study on a much larger scale in “Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud,” one of the newest titles in Yale’s wonderfully diverse Jewish Lives series.
Holtz muses aloud on the peculiarity of writing a “biography” of Akiva, as we know nothing of Akiva outside of what we can glean from rabbinic sources. The book may be more a feat of talmudic interpretation than it is a conventional biography. But even if there is no outside corroboration of his life, Akiva is painted so fully over the course of classical Jewish texts that one understands why he can be considered the “hero” of the Talmud (with sagacity being the superpower of the rabbinic world).
Part of Akiva’s appeal is that he was, in Holtz’s words, “a self-created sage.” The descendant of converts, he grew up poor and uneducated, and did not begin a life of study until he was 40 years old. And his humane vision seems to reflect these humble beginnings.
If Akiva’s life of learning and teaching was a model for future generations, so, tragically, was his death. After being arrested for defying Roman-imposed law by teaching Torah in public, Akiva used even his own execution as a teaching moment. His martyrdom is conserved in the liturgy of Yom Kippur and became the “model” for those who opted for death rather than defiling God’s name.
Holtz is best known for his popular 1984 book “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts,” which can be considered the precursor to the following two books that delve into major Jewish texts written across time.
Adam Kirsch’s “The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature” is an ambitious exploration that spans millennia, effectively offering a chronological survey of the Jewish people through some of its finest books. Kirsch is known as a literary critic, but the only strictly “literary” text being considered here is Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman.” The other books are primarily religious texts but also include memoir, history and philosophy.
Kirsch notes that “reading the Jewish past can help us to escape present-mindedness.” I understand him to mean that although there is a certain privilege we give to our present state of affairs, we need to recall that Jewish communities have been dealing with similar issues — theological, philosophical and social — for centuries. And we can learn much by seeing how our concerns have been addressed over time.
A project of Yeshiva University, “Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought” similarly provides a survey of major Jewish books, although the works are strictly religious in nature.
Written by scholars, the essays, on a dozen books from the 10th to 20th centuries, are more demanding than Kirsch’s but very compelling. I particularly benefitted from Ariel Evan Mayse’s essay on the Tanya, a book compiled in 1797 by Chabad founder Shneur Zalman of Liadi that has come to to be studied and appreciated by an increasing number of people outside the sphere of Lubavitcher Hasidism.
The collection seeks to whet our appetite to “revisit” these titles, but the odds are that most educated Jews will go their lives without reading most of them even once. Although I have mixed feelings about relying on others to encapsulate and interpret books for me, I have been made wiser by the insights I gained from these erudite tour guides through classic Jewish texts.