‘The Talmud: A Biography’
The Talmud: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) By Barry Scott Wimpfheimer (Princeton University Press, 248 pp. $26.95)
As Barry Scott Wimpfheimer points out in the final pages of this engaging, articulate and well-organized volume, all genres of talmudic discourse were produced by men. That women now have access is one example of the new academic and cultural discourses of this foundational religious text.
Wimpfheimer’s biography is a tour de force. To summarize, even briefly, both the structure and history of the Talmud while also illustrating its complex content is a brilliant achievement. The author describes the text as having three primary aspects: the Essential Talmud; the Enhanced Talmud; and the Emblematic Talmud. His descriptions of these perspectives are unified by focusing on a single sugya, or topic, as presented on Bava Kama 22a. After introducing the text and its “anatomy,” this sugya serves as the unifying thread, uncovering, in the author’s three central chapters, the multiple registers of meaning as the text develops over centuries. The final chapter indicates the role of the text in modern Judaism, including Zionism, feminism, the Israeli Knesset and Hebrew literature. Sensitized to the pervasiveness, depth and cultural breadth of the Talmud, the reader journeys over centuries with great pleasure.
Especially interesting to me is that Wimpfheimer explains how the Vilna format of a page of Talmud—created in 1835, with its central text surrounded by layers of commentary—became the standard.
This is a volume worth reading and thinking about, both for those involved with intense Talmud study such as daf yomi, the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of learning a page a day, as well as those originally denied access. Now, each one of us can peruse this book as an introduction and then begin to master the text itself.
Rochelle L. Millen, Ph.D., is professor emerita of religion at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.